Tuesday, 8 March 2016

International Women's Day: "What does it take for women to succeed in science?"


At ISTM we are fully committed to equal opportunities in the workplace. We have a strong track record in challenging the traditional male orientated stereotypes of lab work and in breaking down the barriers that women in science often face. We have a range of procedures and initiatives to help research staff, regardless of gender, advance within their profession by providing them with the skills and opportunities they need to develop.

Having been awarded the Athena SWAN Bronze award in April 2013 in partnership with Keele’s School of Medicine, we are now making headway in pushing forward with initiates previously outline in the Action Plan. With the continuous support from both our male and female members of staff, progress is being made towards our plans to apply for an Athena SWAN Silver award within the next year.

We were also delighted to hear that the School of Medicine has recently been awarded a Daphne Jackson Fellowship, which has allowed Dr Vijayalatha Venugopalan, under the supervision of ISTM’s Professor Paul Horrocks, to restart her career in research after a break of more than two years.

So, to mark International Women’s Day this year and to demonstrate our commitment to gender equality, we asked some of our top female researchers...


What does it take for women to succeed in science?





Professor Alicia El Haj

Institute Director for ISTM

Professor of Cell Engineering
Professor El Haj is a leading figure in Regenerative Medicine and has been involved in bringing together interdisciplinary groups within biomedicine, physical sciences and engineering interested in aspects of cell and tissue engineering. 

"I believe that the most important factor to survive in science for both women and men is a passion for seeking answers to the unknown. Most scientists I know are drawn to the field because of the fascination of being able to answer questions in biology or physics or chemistry which underpin the fundamentals of life and can forge a path to new innovations.

As women, we need this same passion. Especially since the lifestyle can be demanding and challenging in terms of commitments, travel and hard work. I also believe a healthy work/life balance is fundamental to any successful career. There are times when we need to be able to switch off and enjoy life, whether that be through family, friends or in solitary.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is important to maintain a sense of humour and a positive attitude, come what may. There are many times when our paths can be thwarted for a multitude of reasons, not least experiments which fail or findings and theories which are criticised. Being able to define a new path with a smile is a very useful trait for maintaining a long and productive career in science."






Professor of Neurobiology
Professor Fricker leads a research group within ISTM.  The Group's goals are to develop treatments for Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

"I believe that women need courage, self-belief and resilience to succeed in science. As I’ve progressed through my career I’ve seen how tough it is for scientists to really succeed, whatever their gender. We have limited opportunities, and have to be competitive to flourish. Too often women do not promote their qualities or put themselves forward; we tend to be quieter or less assertive, so that achievements often go unnoticed and unrewarded.

I believe that female scientists need to have more courage to showcase their abilities, and more belief in the value that they bring to research. We need to be more assertive, and to have the confidence to get involved and take on new challenges. I think too that women need the resilience and energy to juggle an often complex work-life balance and to retain a focus on their career path, despite the diversions that may appear."





Professor Christine Roffe
Consultant in Stroke Medicine
Reader and Honorary Senior Research Fellow
Professor Roffe has shaped the development of the acute and rehabilitation stroke services in North Staffordshire, with positive impact on regional and national practice.

"As with every scientist the most important prerequisite is scientific curiosity and the will to find answers. the gap between finding the question and succeeding in research can be daunting. It is important not to be terrified by the task, but to take the first step whatever. With a bit of luck and persistence the rest will fall in place.  In more practical terms, think of an idea, discuss it with friends, colleagues and experts in the filed, and find out what the best next step is. It is very likely that the first idea is not the one you will pursue, but it will lead you in the right direction."




Professor of BioMedical Imaging
ERC Consolidator Grant Fellow
Professor Mather's research expertise lies in the discovery, development and translation of novel non-invasive imaging tools.  A major motivator of her work is the development of imaging technologies to address currently unmet clinical needs.

"Fundamentally having a genuine passion for understanding the world in which we live and possessing the creativity to find solutions to problems that haven't been tried before are really important along the path to being a successful scientist. There are also core traits a scientist needs that include rigor in working methods, paying attention to detail and taking a logical approach to work. However I believe it is extremely important to have the tenacity to keep going when everything seems to be going wrong and to learn from the unsuccessful attempts you may have in reaching your goals.

Writing from my own perspective I think we are living in an age where women can stand on an equal footing with their male colleagues and have equal opportunity to succeed. I feel it is a real privilege to work as a scientist as it is a job that puts you in a position to make a positive impact on the world we live in."



It is fair to say that attitudes within the lab are beginning to change and the barriers that women have traditionally faced are diminishing.  This is true at both ISTM and in the profession of science more generally.  There is still much that needs to be done though, not least in addressing the continuing gender imbalance among scientists in the lab as well as the over-saturation of top positions by men.  But, things are looking positive for the future at ISTM.  More women are rising to top positions within the Institute and School of Medicine and our PhD students are currently split 55/45, male and female respectively.  So, it seems more and more women are choosing to pursue a career in science and ISTM is helping to accommodate that.  From the testimonials above, there is a sense of hope for the future, that we are moving towards a level playing field and that the skills and attributes needed to succeed in science are universal regardless of sex. 

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