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International Women’s Day: Reflections from three women in science

by Katie Roberts | Analysis

8 March 2018

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Science is brimming with different ideas, techniques and topics – from studying how molecules interact to understanding human behaviour. But this diversity might not be reflected in the people who work in it. According to the most recent figures from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we spoke to three of our female scientists about their careers, and what they feel needs to change to better support women in science.

Dr Michelle Ma

Dr Ma is two and a half years into her first position as lecturer in imaging chemistry at Kings College London. Her research aims to incorporate radioactive metals into molecules that seek out cancer cells. These can then be used to image cancer or deliver toxic doses of radiation to tumours.

She was awarded a Cancer Research UK Career Establishment fellowship in 2017 and is a member of our Women of Influence initiative.

I really enjoy making new molecules, studying their properties and applying them to health research. I’ve studied and worked as a research chemist ever since I graduated from my first science degree. It’s been a really exciting journey, but also personally challenging at times.

Science is highly competitive, from the very start. I’ve been told I’m quite a competitive person, but I’m not a person who’s always been able to project confidence. I know this is something a lot of young researchers, and especially women, experience. So I’m not unique.

The competitive environment can bring up a lot of questions for young researchers: am I going to be able to do this? Am I going to have ideas that are good enough? Am I going to be able to publish enough? In the face of the (sometimes brazen) confidence of professors and senior researchers, I couldn’t see myself in a long-term research career, even though it’s what I really wanted.

The gender imbalance in areas like science and engineering wasn’t something that upset me until I got further along in my career. As a student and junior scientist, I worked alongside brilliant young women. I knew that the gender imbalance existed, but senior female lecturers and professors were trailblazing the way for women and levelling the playing field: if I didn’t make it, I assumed it was because I wasn’t good enough.

Then, a few months before I was made a lecturer, I was invited to a meeting of scientific supervisors and I was one of three women in the room. I felt like a fish out of water. Even though everyone was really friendly, when you see something like that you can start to feel as though maybe you don’t belong.

That’s not something I want my students or the young scientists I’ve worked with to experience. Because for some of them it will put them off, they will leave research and that’s just a massive loss to science.

One of the things that really pushed me forward was having a mentor. To have someone who was interested in me as a scientist was amazing, and it really fortified my confidence. I’d like to see stronger mentorship programmes that support young scientists, particularly young people from underrepresented groups. Also, pushing for diverse and inclusive representation on recruitment and interview panels is really important.

Lastly, my own personal challenge is to make better use of scientific achievements from underrepresented groups when I’m teaching.

To anyone who’s just starting out in science I would say find somebody who can understand and support your career ambitions, and work for them. It’s worked really well for me and, in my experience, it’s worked well for people who have ended up staying in science.

Read more: our Women of Influence initiative

Dr Jo Waller

Dr Waller is a health psychologist working in the field of cancer awareness, screening and early diagnosis.

In 2015, Jo was awarded a Cancer Research UK career development fellowship to better understand why people don’t take part in cervical screening and HPV vaccination programmes. Through this work, she hopes to increase informed participation in these programmes and reduce cervical cancer incidence and mortality.

In 2016, Jo was the first recipient of the Cancer Research UK Jane Wardle Prevention and Early Diagnosis Prize, in recognition of her work in cervical cancer prevention.

Professor Jane Wardle pioneered behavioural science research in cancer screening and early diagnosis, and I worked with her for almost 20 years. Having her as a female boss and a mentor over that time had a big influence on me.

When you’re doing a research job it’s quite easy to get bogged down in the day to day workings of the project and lose sight of the bigger picture. Real mentorship gives you an opportunity to step back and think about where you want to go with your career, and what you should be doing to make the next promotion step or career move possible.

Beyond mentorship, I think having role models can be extremely motivating. Jane was a role model to me – she was a brilliant scientist who was at the top of her field. But it can also quite daunting to see someone who has really succeeded but who works in a very different way to you. Jane was much more of a workaholic than I am, she didn’t take lots of time off or work part time when she had children. That’s why, for me, it’s important to speak about the fact that I work part time and I’m still managing to have a successful career, to role model a different way of doing things.

Flexible working has enabled me to juggle home and work responsibilities more easily, and has enabled me to continue with my career while also being present at home. I’ve got two children who are now 11 and 13, and I’ve worked part time since they were born.

Encouraging a flexible working environment is something I’m even more conscious of now that I manage people, and I would always try and fit in with however someone wanted to work. In my experience, it’s more often women who chose to work part time when they have children. But I think it should be given as an option to men as well. And the more we can do this, the more likely we are to keep talented researchers and scientists in the field as they get to stage in life where they’re trying to balance competing demands of home and work.

It’s also something that research funders should be thinking about, and I’ve found that Cancer Research UK have been very supportive. I’m on a career development fellowship and they’ve supported me doing that on a part time basis, and given me more time to complete the fellowship.

If you’re just starting out in science I would say persistence is key. There will be knock backs, and the more you can pick yourself up from that and move on, the more chance there is of success. And it’s important to do something you really enjoy, that you’re passionate about.

Professor Karen Vousden

Professor Vousden has spent the last 30 years at the forefront of research studying one of the most important molecules in cancer, called p53. She was director of our Beatson Institute in Glasgow from 2003 until two years ago, when she was appointed Cancer Research UK’s chief scientist.

I knew I wanted to be a scientist from the age of 12, when I started high school. It was chemistry that first got me excited, I remember doing experiments and thinking this is so incredibly fascinating.

But when I was at school it wasn’t the sort of thing girls did, I told my careers advisor that I wanted to be a scientist when I was 14 or 15 and she said I should consider working in a bank. But I don’t remember being discouraged by that and I just pushed on doing what I wanted to do. I think dogged determination can get you a long way.

Being a research scientist is a great job – it’s exciting, you meet amazing people from all over the world and you’re doing something that’s interesting and different every day.

Each morning you go into the lab and you don’t know what you’re going to find, it’s never the same. But there’s also a lot of disappointment and failure, and it can be very difficult to make progress. So to be a successful scientist you have to be passionate about your work and really love what you are doing.

I’ve seen many young scientists that simply refuse to become discouraged when things are not going so well and they always come good in the end, so my advice is that as long as you still have the hunger, don’t give up.

Find out more about how Cancer Research UK supports women in science: