It was not in Sami Kafala's career plan to become a full-time father to five children. Yet, when his 3-year research contract at Imperial College came to an end in 1998, the qualified nuclear physicist became the primary caregiver for his children.
The most logical decision
Kafala (pictured left) knows first hand about the problems faced by many scientists on short-term research contracts. After gaining a BSc in physics from Tennessee Technological University in the United States, Kafala was awarded a PhD in applied nuclear physics by Imperial College London in 1995. He stayed there for his first postdoc, but when the time came to find another contract he seemed to have reached a dead end. "I endeavoured without success to seek a post in my scientific field," he recalls. Many postdocs have to relocate between contracts, but for Kafala this was hardly an option. Of his five children, three were settled in school.
Because his wife enjoyed secure employment as a schoolteacher, "it really was the most logical decision" that he should be the one to stay at home and look after the children, says Kafala philosophically. So he took a career break, at a time when his youngest children, twins Anas and Assil were just 2 years old and his other children, Akarm, Arwa, and Ibrahim were 8, 12, and 14, respectively. Although Kafala was willing to put his own career on hold for the good of the whole family, it wasn't an easy move, as he had to take an evening job in telesales to survive financially.
Even so, Kafala never lost his identity as a scientist. He made sure he kept in touch with his former colleagues and up-to-date with his field via the Internet. And through hard work, determination and a little help from the Daphne Jackson Trust, Kafala is now back in research.
In 2003, "once the twins were settled in school [at the age of 7] I decided it was time to begin looking in earnest for opportunities to help me return to research," says Kafala. But he found that positions calling upon his expertise, the evaluation of nuclear data, were so specialised that they were hard to come by.
It was while looking for fellowships, trusts, or grants in an Internet search that Kafala came across the Daphne Jackson Trust. "I rapidly realised that this could be the thing that I had been looking for and could possibly change my life," recalls Kafala. The Trust offers part-time paid fellowships to help scientists return to careers following a break for family reasons. The fellowship also provides funds for retraining if that is what it takes for returners to get back into the workplace. "For me this seemed ideal," says Kafala.
Difficult process but worth the effort
Applicants have to come up with their own project though, and Kafala called upon the help of a friend who was a medical physicist. Together they decided on the best area to go back into and set up a research plan. "The application process is no picnic, and I had to do a considerable amount of work myself to find a suitable host institution and potential supervisor," explains Kafala. After contacting and visiting four universities, it was the University of Surrey which came out best for him in terms of the details of the project, the supervisor, the lab and its reputation, and of course proximity to home.
But it was very much worth the effort: Kafala became the first male Daphne Jackson Fellow in September 2003. He also secured enough funding from other sources to cover a full-time salary. When asked how he made a winning application to the Trust, he humbly replies, "I just wrote exactly what the Daphne Jackson Committee needed in the application form."
Kafala is now working on the tracking of biochemical and physiological processes in patients using a nuclear imaging diagnostic tool, positron emission tomography (PET), to detect tracer compounds that have been injected intravenously. His first few months were spent visiting different hospitals and medical institutions, and he is intending to step up his research this year. "It is marvellous to be back in research after  years' break," he enthuses.
The fellowship and associated research post are already restoring Kafala's confidence. "The fellowship will give me the opportunity to complete a research programme that will enhance my future employment in the medical physics field, which, although associated, is different from my previous research profession as an applied nuclear physicist," he says.
Kafala now feels positive about his future career in medical physics. During his visits to universities and hospitals, he got the impression that opportunities in PET research would grow in the next 2 to 5 years, in the light of the Government's efforts to tackle cancer. "Although future employment is not guaranteed, planned funding by the Department of Health in expanding the facilities should offer the opportunity for a permanent position," says Kafala. Should this not be the case, he is hoping that his new research experience will enable him to find employment in one of several specialised research institutions in and around London.
"Many may consider what I did to be a brave step, in seeming to choose my family over my career, but in the end I am a winner on all fronts," reflects Kafala. "Now my children have grown up and I have found that there is an organisation out there geared up to helping people in exactly my situation."