You studied Natural Sciences at university – what led you into that?
I grew up in the UK, not that far from Cambridge, and always wanted to study at Cambridge University – though what exactly I wanted to study varied from year to year. English, art, architecture, maths… everything was interesting! But my interest in science was really sparked by a middle school teacher who indulged me with fun experiments and gave room to some of my far-fetched ideas and questions.
When the time to apply to university finally came around, I’d narrowed my focus to either biology or chemistry, but it was still hard to choose between the two. Looking through all the science courses offered by UK universities, it turned out Cambridge University was the right fit for me: the Natural Sciences course would let me study both biology and chemistry until my final year, so I could try both and see which one I liked more. In the end I specialised in biochemistry, so I never quite made that decision!
How did you get to do your PhD in Molecular Biology?
At the end of my second year at Cambridge, I was lucky that I could afford to work unpaid in a lab at the Wellcome – MRC Stem Cell Institute for a couple of months to get some experience. If I had been more organised, I could have applied to receive a stipend, though. Anyway, that work made me see that a PhD might be for me: I enjoyed the problem-solving involved and being able to add new knowledge to the theory I loved so much.
With help and prompting from my Director of Studies at university, I started researching PhD placements, especially in the field of epigenetics – the chemical processes that turn genes on and off. I applied to the Babraham Institute’s PhD programme and got a place with an MRC studentship, studying how epigenetic changes control antibody formation.
What challenges did you face along the way?
When I applied to Cambridge, I didn’t get into my college of choice, and had to go through extra interviews. It was hard to stomach at the time, but I made friends for life at the college where I was eventually accepted and had tutors I really got on with and who helped me a lot with my PhD application. Sometimes the things you don’t plan can be exactly what you need.
I did find my bachelor’s degree very difficult. I’d been used to coming near the top of the class, and at Cambridge I had to work harder than I’d ever worked to be average. I struggled with my mood as much as with the challenging material, and I was lucky to have support from the university, who offered free counselling, and my family. But when I stopped comparing myself to others so much and relaxed the pressure I was putting on myself, my mood improved and I found it easier to do the work.
The PhD was more of a test of resilience – having to face the failure of an experiment and just keep going. I spent more than a year working on a technique that never ended up yielding results, and in the end I had to change the direction of my research. It was a tough period, but again I had great friends in my labmates, and a wonderful supervisor who helped me through that and advised I get some more counselling. And once I had changed direction and started to finally get results, it was very rewarding.
But after all of that you didn’t continue working in science… why?
There were a lot of things I liked about academia – the variability of the work, the flexibility and freedom, the privilege of studying something fascinating and important – but it felt like I was having to sacrifice other parts of myself. I know people who juggle home life, academic career and hobbies, but I found that a struggle. For me, the rewards weren’t enough for the costs, and I wanted to explore the things I had left by the wayside – the writing and art that I’d always put down as too impractical.
When I was writing up my PhD thesis, I started working part-time managing clients and accounts for a software company to cover my expenses, and I found that I could carry on with that and spend the rest of my time working on doing the things I really love. I’ve since written a science fiction novel for which I’m currently seeking representation, and I’ve started to work on my next book. And I’m finally able to read about science for fun again!
So, looking back, was the PhD worth it?
Absolutely! It was an essential part of my journey to where I am now – it gave me the courage to try things that might not work, like writing a novel.
The PhD also gave me confidence to know that if I decide to go back into full-time work, I have what it takes – I learnt so many transferable skills in presentation, project management, teaching, networking, research… It gave me access to some great opportunities too: a small leadership role in a project to make better use of a shared resource, another role developing science outreach resources, and I also got involved in an initiative, Athena SWAN, to suggest measures that could improve our institute’s gender equality.
I learnt a huge amount about myself and the way I work best during my PhD, and what I would want in a job going forward. It made me more resilient and less obsessively perfectionist, and I think those will help me out in any career. Plus, writing an entire PhD thesis made me realise that I really could write a whole book!
Have you faced any female-specific challenges?
I think I was lucky to deal with very few challenges because of my gender; occasionally I came across people who I could see treated men and women differently, but they were very much in the minority. My lab contained a lot of very supportive people, and I had a woman supervisor who was a great role model. At the same time, I could see how hard my supervisor worked to continue in academia and balance that with her family life, and that she had extra work because she was the one female representative on a lot of committees and panels. My institute offered flexible working time and improved its offering of part-time work as part of our suggestions on the Athena SWAN committee, but work-life balance is always going to be difficult.
Any advice for women starting out their career?
Don’t compare yourself to how others are doing – easier said than done, I know. But you work in your own unique way, and fitting in with how you yourself function will let you work more effectively than trying to fit the mould.
And don’t be afraid to change your path, either within your research or your career. Of course, you need to have faith in yourself and not back down at the first sign of difficulty, but at a certain point, you might need to change track, and it might work out a lot better than you expect. Believe in yourself enough to know that you can try something new, and you can always come back – though it might take a little more work. You probably can’t tell the future as well as you think, so update the goals that you set for yourself as new facts and new opportunities arise. And it’s ok not to know what you’re doing!