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Institute of Genetics and Cancer

Institute of Genetics and Cancer

A blog for our community to write about their interests and to share their stories.

… and it all started with a Big Bang!

cast of The Big Bang Theory

Let’s get this out of the way early doors; I’m older than your average bear when compared to the rest of my cohort. Heck, I think I’m older than most of the postdocs and the occasional PI too! However, I honestly believe that the only person who has a problem with this is me; I know that I’m here because I worked hard and I proved myself in the application process, not because I’m on some OAP outreach programme. So why even mention it?

Well, since I started working at the MRC Human Genetics Unit, I’ve noticed two thoughts pop up on a regular basis. One: I wish I’d been doing this fifteen years ago, and two: why wasn’t I doing this fifteen years ago? What stopped me from thinking this was a viable option?

This second thought has been mulled over, picked apart and rehashed in my mind more times than I would care to count. If I put as much time and energy into inventing a time machine, I’m fairly confident I would have cracked it by now and be heading back to 2006 in my DeLorean to rectify the situation (and I would definitely build my time machine in a DeLorean, who wouldn’t?).

But I’m no Doctor Emmett Brown, so I’ve had to make do with puzzling over the finer details of why I’m starting out now at 37, rather than in  my twenties. Again, two key issues have bubbled to the surface repeatedly. Firstly, I wish I’d had the confidence to speak up when I was ‘encouraged’ by my form tutor to pursue English and Humanities subjects at A-level, rather than my preferred options of Biology, Chemistry and (with admittedly less enthusiasm) Physics. Secondly, I just wasn’t aware of many women scientists at that age! It didn’t seem like it was an option for me, so when my tutor suggested that English and Humanities were probably a better bet, I just agreed.

It wasn’t – and this is the saddest thing you’ll ever hear in your life, by the way – but it wasn’t until I watched The Big Bang Theory and saw Amy Farrah-Fowler and Bernadette Rostenkowski working as successful female scientists, that I thought, “oh yeah, actually, I could do that”.

Seeing actual women doing the job (albeit fictionally) helped me pluck up the courage to change careers at the age of 31 and take the first step along a road that brought me here, to the MRC Human Genetics Unit.

So, when asked to conduct this interview, I was keen to take the opportunity to speak with a fellow female scientist; to see how their experience compared to mine, to understand their experience of being a female in science, and of being a scientist in general, and finally to get their views on how science can become a more viable option for future generations of young females.


Dr Ailith Ewing

Dr Ailith Ewing

Dr Ailith Ewing, a Chancellor’s Fellow and Group Leader in the Biomedical Genomics section of the Human Genetics Unit, researching the mutational landscape of high-grade serous ovarian cancers (HGSOC), spoke with me to share her thoughts on the above.

You lead a statistical cancer genomics group at the MRC Human Genetics Unit, what prompted you to pursue a career in statistics, and later, science, and did you have any role models when you were growing up that made you think, “I want to do that, I want to pursue this as a career”?

Some people say that they had a dream of working in science and it was all that they wanted to do. That’s not really me at all. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left school, but I knew that I liked doing maths – as much as you can like maths at school(!) – so I thought maths made sense.

And then at uni, well, I hated statistics – stats at school was calculating standard deviations by hand, drawing graphs on graph paper, all that stuff that’s just miserable. But I was convinced by my tutor that I should do a statistics course in my first year, and realised that actually, you can use statistics to do lots of things; like ask questions and form hypotheses, and I began to see the use of it. I really enjoyed the research side of stats and that you could apply it to a question.

Then, by the end of my degree, I decided I didn’t want to do a PhD because I didn’t want to stay in academia, so I looked for jobs in medical research and discovered that most of the jobs that are actually interesting I needed a PhD for!

So I applied for a job in a research lab, in Cambridge; I didn’t get it because I didn’t have the experience, quite rightly. But the people who were interviewing had funding for a PhD and asked if I would be interested in doing that instead, and that’s kind of how I got into research.

After my PhD I knew I wanted to stay in research, but I didn’t want to be a PI. You can see where this is going! I think that was because I didn’t believe that I would necessarily have the vision to drive longer, big picture stuff. It was just so far from what I thought was possible. So I thought I wanted to be a statistician in somebody’s group instead, and I did that for 10 months. And it was miserable, because I had no ownership of what I was doing, so I left and that’s when I moved to Edinburgh.

From that point onwards, I kind of knew that I wanted to be driving my own research in genomics and, well, you kind of know the rest! So for me it wasn’t like one inspirational person and always knowing I wanted to do it, it was just that the next step kind of became obvious as I did it.

You mentioned there that you couldn’t really see yourself as a PI. Have there ever been any other times, where you’ve doubted your abilities as a scientist or you’ve faced obstacles in your career? And how have you overcome these issues? Do you feel in any way that being a woman has created any additional challenges on top of what you might be expected to face?

I tend to think that the best things that I’ve done are the things that, when I was doing them, felt really out of my comfort zone. And that’s kind of always been the case. Like when I moved to start my PhD in Cambridge, a lot of it was new: the genetics was new, the place was new, the application was new. So I went into that treating it like a job, thinking, if I do this for six months and I can’t hack it, then that’s fine. It still will have been useful to me. I was fully prepared for that. Just, I’ll do this for now and see how it goes. Rather than this is definitely for me.

The best things that I’ve done are the things that […] felt really out of my comfort zone.

Since then, I’ve benefited from a lot of good mentors and good advice along the way, and people that have helped me believe I can do what I want to do, but each step has been quite out of my comfort zone. But I think that’s a good thing.

I don’t know that being a woman necessarily has affected that at all, for me personally. It definitely does affect some people. I think women tend to be less confident and tend to present themselves in less confident ways. Definitely when I’m applying for funding or applying for positions and really having to sell myself, I find talking strongly enough to be able to do that is a challenge, and I’ve been grateful for a few people who have strengthened my language in applications that weren’t selling what I’m doing. They’d say, “this is too tentative” or “this needs to be stronger”. You need to just say what you’re doing and use the language that you should be using that other people, often male, would be using. So it’s good to have allies like that, who can read your stuff and tell you that you need to be more assertive and more confident, when you’re not being. I don’t know whether that’s a female thing or not, but I think there’s definitely a lot of us that do that and are more hesitant to present themselves in that strong confident way.

Going back to your career now – you said, you always seem to move into the next thing that you didn’t think you wanted to do, but then you’d realise that you did. Are you now at a point where your job is giving you what you were aiming for?

Yes, so I would say, from the point that I got a postdoctoral fellowship, before my current post, I was on a UKRI innovation fellowship, which is a semi-independent post, you have your own funding but you’re in someone else’s group, and that fellowship kind of defined my own research. So from that point I’ve been pretty happy with where I am. I have ownership over what I’m doing, I’m doing what I’m most interested in.

Even when I was in Colin (Semple)’s group, I had quite a lot of freedom to determine what I was working on, so from that point onwards I’ve been pretty happy that what I’m doing is what I want to be doing. Obviously later in that post, I decided that I wanted more independence, to do more of it in my own right. To have a team of people that were also working on similar things, and really advance that particular niche of research, which is what drove me to do this job.

I spend a lot of time supervising students and postdocs, which I really enjoy doing. I like working with other people and it’s nice when somebody else manages to do something that they’ve been struggling to do for a while, and you feel like maybe you helped with that. And I also benefit from still having time to do analysis for myself, I’m still doing plenty of actual research, rather than just supervising other people, I do get to do both. But the downside of that is that I have to be able to do both.

It feels a very diverse job – there’s lots of sets of skills. Being a new PI, you have to be able to grow a team from nothing. My post didn’t come with a student or a postdoc, so it was just me to start with, so very much a standing start, which is quite hard. So, it feels almost like starting a small business, because if you think of all the things a small business has to deal with: they also have to deal with the science, obviously, so the product or whatever they’re doing, but also getting funding and recruiting people to their group. All the communications of that too, like presenting research and improving the reach of your science. It’s all of those things, as well as actually doing the science and thinking about the long-term strategy, and the things that we need to do immediately, all at once! But yeah, I like the challenge. It’s not unexpected.

What advice would you give to young people, especially young females, who want to become scientists? This is something I feel like I missed out on when I was younger, so it would be good to have some wisdom to share.

Two bits of advice that have been most useful to me:

One – allies, people are everything. Working with other people is essential in what we do and in science. It’s important to have mentors and supervisors and people who’ve been there before, that care about your development and your interests, but also have enough influence that they can open up opportunities for you and also push you to do the things that maybe you didn’t think you could. So I’ve benefited from several people, including my PhD supervisor, then Colin (Semple), Chris (Ponting), Wendy (Bickmore) and multiple other people who have been able to, for example, refer invited talks to me if it’s about my work, when I wasn’t necessarily contacted about it, things like that. Allies. Absolutely crucial.

Allies, people are everything.

Secondly – you can’t be comfortable if you want a career in science. You can’t be comfortable. And that doesn’t mean that you have to bow to the pressures and make your life miserable and work all the hours in the day, it just means, I think it’s healthy to push yourself that little bit. If you’re not someone who can believes they can do whatever, then you need to do the things that you don’t believe you can do, because we probably can do them quite comfortably.

If your default is to believe you can’t do it, the stuff you can do is probably more than what you believe you can do. So you need to get yourself out of your comfort zone to actually see that, yes, you are perfectly capable of doing it. But not so much that it makes us miserable

Get the balance, right.

Yeah. They’re the two big things for me.

Finally, is there is anything else you’d like to add or just anything generally that you think is important to say?

I think the only other thing I would say is it’s important to take a chance, often you don’t have anything to lose. One of the best things I ever did was apply for the post as a bioinformatician in Colin’s group – that job when it was advertised didn’t really fit my background. But I thought that I might be a good fit with what the (Bioinformatics) Core did, and with the MRC Human Genetics Unit generally, and it looked a really appealing position because it was working with lots of different groups and it was more bioinformatics focused than the germline statistics that I had a background in.

But on paper, on the application form, I didn’t meet all of the criteria, as well as you probably would feel like you needed to, and so I decided not to apply. Then my husband pushed me to apply anyway because… What have I got to lose? And I got the job! So you kind of need to take a punt sometimes and rely on it working, because you don’t have anything to lose.

It was the same with my UKRI fellowship. I mean I got that, but it was really competitive and, depending on who else applied, that definitely wasn’t a guaranteed thing by any means. But all these opportunities are like that and you kind of go for it anyway.

Yeah, you’ve just got to put yourself out there. Your husband sounds like my husband. He’s always on at me saying. “Jo, just apply for it, you’ve got nothing to lose”. That’s what he’s like every time I’m not sure whether to do something, he’s there, saying, “just do it”!

It comes back to you need people in your life, whether it’s professionally or personally, if you’re not someone who automatically believes that you can do the thing, that’s not going to change, that’s just part of you. So you need people around you, that will give you just enough of a push that you think, “well, why not?”.

Thank you so much Ailith, that’s been really interesting! And it’s encouraging that you feel like you’ve not really faced any obstacles, as a woman. I know you said that you know some women do, but it’s good to get a sense that the culture is shifting. I think we’re really lucky, where we are (at the Institute of Genetics and Cancer), in that there’s a real emphasis on a collaborative culture and on things like protecting your mental health etc. I feel like this is very different culture to perhaps some other places I’ve heard about, so that feels really encouraging and hopefully that’s something that spreads further.

I mean, I would say, I haven’t faced any particularly strong barriers, as many people do but I wouldn’t say that we’re there yet. There are definitely barriers to women, even if here at the Institute is excellent, relatively. A strong female director very much helps because she tries to bring people up with her, which is great. But there are definitely barriers. You have things like, being smaller or quieter, not necessarily being the loudest voice in the room. It does make it harder to be heard. And that’s still the case. But you just have to keep going anyway.

You have things like, being smaller or quieter, not necessarily being the loudest voice in the room. It does make it harder to be heard.

Definitely, I think, for women in science, particularly over the last couple of years, anyone, and not just women, men as well, anyone with kids has massively struggled. So childcare, or lack of childcare, and having to home school and do research at the same time, was a massive problem, which is still happening. So my lack of obvious barriers doesn’t mean they are not there.

Of course, absolutely, and with that in mind, another question just popped into my head – what changes do you think might be needed to make science a more accessible career for women (and men) facing those kinds of barriers?

I think provision of childcare would help an awful lot. And also things that some people are doing already, like not having meetings on Friday afternoons. Things that mean people are able to pick up their kids at sensible times and that sort of thing, I think, would help an awful lot. Yeah, I think childcare, definitely it’s a big one.

Yeah, just making things more physically accessible and have provision in place, so you can physically do your work, without having to compromise.

And the other one, I would say, is fewer precarious contracts. So, most researchers, both men and women, are on fixed term contracts, which means planning for your life in the long-term is difficult. So stepping away from that, or any improvements that can be made to that system, I think would also be really beneficial.

Excellent, that’s a really good point. This has been a really interesting conversation and I really appreciate your time and your candour. Thank you!

After speaking with Dr Ewing, I took time to reflect on our conversation and on my own experiences in light of what we discussed. Overall, it would seem the situation for women in science is improving and the barriers to success are gradually being removed. In the workplace, there are still some physical improvements to be made, such as childcare provision and better job security, which could be beneficial to the scientific workforce across the board, not just women.

Of most interest to me though, were the intangible qualities that Dr Ewing spoke of. A need for confidence and persistence, for good mentorship, for allies and champions that keep you moving forward when your self-belief fails you. 

Side image of a DeLorean DMC-12 as featured in the Back to the Future films.

Maybe one day …! Image credit: Kevin Abato CC BY-SA 3.0

This is where I relate most strongly to her words. As a teenager and throughout my twenties, I lacked pretty much all of these things and, in doing so, allowed myself to be guided away from my career of choice. However, once I took the leap (with thanks, of course, to the fictional Drs Farrah-Fowler and Rostenkowski), I was doggedly persistent in my work, which in turn developed my self-confidence, attracted great mentors and opened up opportunities that led to me gaining my post at the MRC Human Genetics Unit. This leads me to think that, along with a need for more female role models to inspire future generations, work needs to be done not only within the industry itself, but far earlier in the process, such as programmes to develop young people’s confidence from an early age or setting up productive mentorship schemes through schools and universities.

Overall, however, I found our conversation to be encouraging and (cautiously) optimistic for future generations of female scientists. I am hopeful that more young women feel that science is a career that is not only desirable to them, but also that it is available to them – a genuine option; it may have taken me fifteen years to get here (pending functional DeLorean) but I now know this much to be true.


Many thanks again to Dr Ailith Ewing for her time and for speaking so openly with me. And many thanks to you for reading.



(Header image credit: belle-deesse)

(Header image credit: belle-deesse)


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