Category: Pro-Opinion, women in stem, STEM, equality, Health
People often ask me whether I always knew I wanted to be a scientist when I was a little girl and the honest answer is no! There weren't many female scientists in the public eye for me to aspire to when I was at school. But I do remember how much I loved chemistry - I would spend hours in my bedroom poring over the periodic table admiring its patterns and logic. I left school at 16 and took a job at a local company - Pfizer, as a lab technician. When I started, it was fairly common that men earned more than women, which always seemed very unfair and is certainly not the case now. When I began working on the mass spectrometer I quickly became enthralled. It's a very painstaking process - most of the time it didn't work and you were searching for an intermittent fault. I think those early experiments gave me the perseverance I would need later down the line. When my spectra started working I began to keep notes and to make deductions. A colleague of mine saw this, thought it unusual behaviour for a technician and encouraged me to get some more qualifications. I started studying part-time, alongside my job, for the next seven years.
Learning that I had been accepted to do a PhD at Cambridge was beyond my wildest dreams! Having the opportunity to study at one of the best institutions in the world helped me start to believe I really could carve a career in science. I really enjoyed my research but my path then took another unconventional turn. I decided to leave the field for the next eight years to raise my three children. This was a wonderful time and I wanted to be at home with my family. It is a decision that I am proud of but realise this is not for everyone. I believe women should not feel guilty about making the choice to take time out of their career- there are times in your life when other things need to come first. Coming back was daunting, which is exactly why funding opportunities like the L'Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science Awards are so important to nurture women in the middle of their careers or returning to work. Female scientists need support to return to their careers - mentoring and confidence-building are critical. I'm going to use my award to create back-to-work support and networks for female scientists.
When I became the first Professor of Chemistry at Cambridge, I remember feeling very proud but also sad to think of all the amazing women before me who were never given this title. I hope now as this year's European Laureate, I can use my public voice to inspire other women to follow their dreams. Passion has driven my career for the last 30 years. I had an instinctive feeling that studying proteins in the gas phase would lead to new insight but no one believed me. I followed my instinct for almost 10 years before I saw my first protein assemblies fly in the gas phase, defying many theoretical calculations. Instead of turning inside out, the proteins stayed together in their correct shape. I still get the same feeling of satisfaction when I see a beautiful spectrum that I used to get all those years ago!
Many people think of a career science as being all about long hours in the lab, but there's a brilliant flexibility. The opportunities to present your research, to interact at conferences and to carry out collaborations across the world are tremendously exciting. I particularly enjoy working with bright young students, mentoring them as they develop their own careers. I often advise my students not to plan their careers too much - innovative research will reap rewards. My research group is very supportive - we celebrate our individual achievements as a team.
As I get older, and maybe wiser, I have become less worried about what people think of me and more confident to say what I really think. If I could give advice to my younger self, I would tell myself to be more confident, to be myself and not to feel pressurised to conform to stereotypes of scientists. Science is still very much perceived as a man's world and it shouldn't be - woman can contribute so much to science - different thinking and different ways of tacking a problem. I'm looking forward to seeing how the next generation of women galvanise the world of science!
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