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Women in Science – advice from researchers

10 Mar, 2014
Dr Serena Nik-Zainal

Dr Serena Nik-Zainal

International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on the 8th March, and this year many have decided to extend this into a full week of activities. Last week we wrote about the disparity in the numbers of women studying science and those that go on to careers in science. Joe Simmonds-Issler has been speaking to some of the female scientists that the Wellcome Trust funds, to find out about their experiences…

Every year the Wellcome Trust publishes its Career Tracker, which looks at the career paths and choices of researchers we fund. The last set of findings suggested that there are some issues which especially affect women in science: a lack of mentoring and career support, a low number of female role models, and women leaving academia at a higher rate than men, either immediately or shortly after completing their PhDs.

We asked three Trust-funded scientists at different stages in their careers if they had experienced any of these issues, and what advice they would have for those wishing to go into science.

Professor Eleftheria Zeggini leads the Analytical Genomics of Complex Traits group at the Sanger Institute, which seeks to elucidate the abnormal underpinnings of complex human disease.

Dr Clare Howarth

Dr Clare Howarth

Dr Clare Howarth is a Vice Chancellor’s Advanced Fellow at the University of Sheffield, whose research investigates how the brain regulates its blood supply in order to meet the changing demands of neuronal activity.

Dr Serena Nik-Zainal is a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Research Fellow, also based at the Sanger Institute, who researches what causes the accumulation of genetic changes (or mutations) in the DNA of our cells.

Overall, the answers we received were encouraging. Professor Zeggini said that she had experienced challenges like any researcher, but that most of them had not been women-specific, although “occasionally, some of my less enlightened male peers may find it difficult to concede to a woman”. She has taken two maternity breaks (relatively recently) and says their effect on her career are not yet obvious.

Dr Howarth said that whilst there are “many pressures on women in terms of trying to balance family life and a career in academia/science”, she had not experienced anything overtly negative.

Dr Nik-Zainal said that she had experienced some negativity related to being a woman, but she has found a way of seeing the bright side. “C’est la vie” she says, “I think if someone feels they have to put me down, I should be flattered!’”

Since our career tracker identified a need for more mentoring and career support, we asked each of them to share the best advice they had been given that had helped them with their careers.

“Take advantage of every opportunity that comes along” says Dr Howarth, “you never know where it will lead or who you will meet through it.

If you want to visit a lab or research group always offer to give a talk.”

For Dr Nik-Zainal it was the message “Be adaptable and be able to move on.”

“For most of us, we go through school and university under quite controlled circumstances and life is relatively simple: there’s a clear path with defined hurdles. Life however is rather dynamic…” she says.

“The reality is that there’s always another goal, another hurdle, another target in whatever it is we choose as our careers and however we live our lives. So I’ve learnt to be flexible and be comfortable with the adjustments…This way, I figure I’ll enjoy the journey as much as the goal!”

“Learning to say no” was key for Professor Zeggini, although she notes that she perhaps doesn’t follow this advice as much as she should.

Professor Eleftheria Zeggini

Professor Eleftheria Zeggini

Our next question was what advice would they give someone who wants to reach the point in their career that they are in now.

Simple, ‘If you believe in it, go for it!’ says Dr Nik-Zainal, “It is the conviction and belief in the thread of science that I am pursuing that keeps me going, keeps me keen to wake up and get to work to try to solve it, to get a result.”

Dr Howarth advises that it is really important to choose a good PhD supervisor, someone respected in the field, but also someone who cares about you and your career progression.

Professor Zeggini stressed the importance of being patient with recruitment in order to build a strong team of talented individuals.

In terms of advice, all three said the advice they would give is broadly the same for women or men in science – or in fact any career. Work hard, be passionate, and be ambitious.

They stressed that the paucity of women in scientific leadership positions should not discourage women from pursuing a career in science, although it is an issue that should be explored further.

So from three different perspectives, in terms of both career stage and research focus, the overall picture we got was a largely positive one – that whilst there are issues, there are huge opportunities, and that science is a very rewarding and fulfilling career choice.

The Wellcome Trust would love to hear your experiences of working in science. Do you think men and women face the same issues in trying to build up a scientific career? Is there a need for more female role models? What can be done to stop women leaving science in the early stages of their careers? Do leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter or Facebook. We’re listening.

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