International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Research Policy Office
Wednesday 8 February 2017

The University will mark the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science this week with an inaugural lecture by renowned British geneticist Dame Professor Linda Partridge.

Professor Partridge, who is co-founder of the Max Planck Institute for Biology and a member of the Institute of Healthy Ageing at University College London, will deliver a public lecture entitled “Ageing Healthily” at 1pm on Friday, 10 February 2017, in the Byre Theatre.

To mark the occasion, we asked some of our leading female scientists what inspires them and what advice they would give to females and young girls looking to pursue a career in science. You can join in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #IntlDayofWomenGirlsinScience – please also tag @univofstandrews so we can retweet! 

Dr Sascha Hooker, Reader, School of Biology 

Sascha is a marine ecologist at the Sea Mammal Research Unit. Sascha has been involved in research into the ecology and conservation of marine mammals since 1993. She has three main areas of research: the interaction between marine mammal behaviour and the surrounding environment, the physiological mechanisms underpinning diving behavior, and the application of these to conservation planning in the ocean. She completed her undergraduate research in Zoology with Anthropology at the University of Oxford, then did her PhD research at Dalhousie University, Canada, where she studied the foraging ecology of northern bottlenose whales in eastern Canada, completing this in 1999. She held a post-doctoral fellowship at the British Antarctic Survey working on Antarctic fur seal foraging in South Georgia, and a UK Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship (2003-2010) at St Andrews working more generally on marine mammal foraging strategies. She has reduced her hours to a half-time position since 2004 when she had the first of her three children.

What was your childhood ambition? 
I grew up with the first NASA space shuttle expeditions and Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos dominated my imagination as a child. I loved the idea of being an explorer.

What inspired you to get involved in Marine Biology? 
In fact, my A-level choices were maths, chemistry and physics, and I thought I would be a chemist. It was only when I became involved in scuba diving that I realised just how amazing the ocean was. Involvement in a university conservation expedition cemented my desire to work in marine conservation. My PhD was spent looking at the ecology and conservation of a relatively unknown whale – the northern bottlenose whale.

Who are your scientific heroes? 
Sir Joseph Hooker (an eminent botanist and friend of Charles Darwin’s) was actually my great-great-grandfather, and he is a bit of a hero. He was involved in botanical expeditions all over the world and was the ‘founder of geographical botany’. Many plants and even a sea lion in New Zealand bear the name ‘hookeri’. On my way to South Georgia to work on the fur seals there, I even got to stand on ‘Hooker’s Point’ in the Falkland Islands, presumably named after him when the James Clark Ross expedition that he was part of stopped there for the winter!

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The ability to keep challenging yourself is one of the greatest parts of this job. This job is amazingly diverse: I love research and the finding out of the previously unknown, but teaching, and even our administrative duties can keep us on our toes. So we are constantly challenged in terms of new ideas, new studies, new fieldwork, learning new analysis tools, making our results available to others, teaching students and even inspiring school kids. I have become particularly interested in some of the new technologies we can use to study marine mammals – from my PhD spent trying to attach dataloggers to northern bottlenose whales, to my work looking at prototype oceanographic and digital camera tags on Antarctic fur seals.

What advice would you give to females and young girls who may be interested in pursuing a career in your field?

Go for it. Follow your passion. There are many more opportunities these days than in the past – embrace them.

Dr Tracey Gloster, Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, School of Biology 

Tracey completed her undergraduate BSc (Hons) degree in Biochemistry at the University of Warwick, and subsequently went on to undertake a PhD in biochemistry/structural biology at the University of York under the supervision of Professor Gideon Davies. Following this she spent a short period working as a postdoctoral fellow in York, before being awarded a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship by the Wellcome Trust. Tracey spent the majority of this fellowship at Simon Fraser University, Canada, working under the mentorship of Professor David Vocadlo. Tracey returned to the UK in 2012 with a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship which she holds at the University of St Andrews. Tracey was awarded a Biochemical Society Early Career Research award in 2012, a L’Oreal Fellowship for Women in Science in 2013, and was elected to the Young Academy of Scotland in 2016.

What was your childhood ambition? 
To be honest I can’t remember if I ever really had an ambition! I always liked science and maths subjects at school, and at one point wanted to be an accountant or statistician. While taking my GCSEs the love of science took hold and I knew I wanted to study the science subjects in more depth. I don’t think I ever had the ambition to specifically be a research scientist at a university, primarily because I wasn’t aware this career existed when I was younger.

What inspired you to get involved in biochemistry? 
I enjoyed both biology and chemistry subjects at GCSE and A-level, but what I found most interesting and exciting was when we learnt about the underlying chemistry in biological processes. I found understanding complex processes such as how we generate energy from the food we eat or how plants harness energy from the sun in order to sustain life fascinating, and so I decided to pursue a degree in biochemistry when I went to university.

Who are your scientific heroes? 
It has to be some of the iconic females that have been very successful in my area of science in an era when the science world was greatly dominated by males. One of these is Rosalind Franklin who played a pivotal role in discovering the structure of DNA, but unfortunately passed away before the real importance of her work was recognised, and didn’t receive a Nobel Prize alongside others for the work. Secondly, Dorothy Hodgkin, who was awarded a Nobel prize for elucidating the structure of vitamin B12. She later went on to solve the structure of insulin, which took decades of effort and was a real tour de force in protein crystallography at the time, and subsequently influenced treatments for diabetic patients. The third hero is Eleanor Dodson, who was a mentor to me during my time at the University of York and an inspirational lady. She in now in her 80s but still active in the field of crystallography. She has incredible determination and could work things out where many people had already given up.

What is the most rewarding part of your job? 
I think it’s the excitement of seeing a good result from a scientific experiment for the first time, and the thought that even for a few moments you’re the only person in the world that knows something. Even if it is a minor breakthrough, it gives the encouragement to do follow up experiments, and gives hope that the findings may have a real impact in the longer term.

What advice would you give to females and young girls who may be interested in pursuing a career in your field? 
Give it a go! Whether male or female you should do what you enjoy and interests you most, your gender shouldn’t matter. Work hard at school, and if possible try to get some work experience in a research laboratory so you can get a taste for what it involves.

Dr Cat Hobaiter, Lecturer, School of Psychology and Neuroscience 

Cat studies the evolution of communication and social behaviour, in particular through long-term field studies of wild chimpanzees. During her PhD she conducted the first systematic study of gestural communication in a wild ape, working in the Budongo Forest Reserve in Uganda with the Sonso chimpanzee community. Like humans, apes do not gesture or vocalise in isolation – their communication combines calls, gestures, facial expressions, and body postures; in order to better understand their communication and cognition Cat and her fellow researchers have integrated the study of all of these separate modalities into a single study of communication. Through this work Cat hopes not only to advance our understanding of great ape communication but also by looking at areas of overlap or species specific traits, they hope to gain an understanding of the evolutionary origins of language.
In addition to this work Cat studies the acquisition and flexibility of social behaviour. She has recently set up the habituation of a new neighbouring community at the Budongo Conservation Field Station, looking at the effect of female immigration on their behavioural repertoires.

What was your childhood ambition? 
I always loved exploration and adventure, I travelled a lot and read everything I could get my hands on from space-travel to adventures under the sea or in the Amazon.

What inspired you to get involved in field primatology? 
I’d learned about evolutionary theory in school, but it was only in my undergrad degree that I discovered we could apply evolutionary theory to how our minds developed. We can trace not just bones and fossils, but behaviour – speech, culture, tool use – back through evolutionary time! Not long after I was lucky enough to go out to the field for the first time to study baboon ecology. I got my first glimpse of how complex, subtle, and fascinating primate society was, combine that with getting to live and work in an incredible rainforest and I was hooked!

Who are your scientific heroes? 
That’s a tough one! I’m constantly in awe of the level of detail and insight shown in the early studies of wild apes by people like Jane Goodall, Toshisada Nishida, or George Schaller. I can’t count how many times I think I’ve seen something new, only to find a careful note on it in one of their books from 50 years ago! Then there are the pioneers of ape behavioural research who are still out there showing us how it’s done properly, and still excited and passionate about what they do, people like Wrangham, Mitani, and Matsuzawa. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to be supervised and mentored by Dick Byrne at St Andrews, whose work on deception, imitation, and communication has changed how we see ape cognition, and who taught me to look for the patterns in behaviour that clue us in to primate minds.

What is the most rewarding part of your job? 
Field work with wild apes sounds exciting and exotic, but a lot of it is waking up at 5am to walk 20km crawling through rainforest thicket, with ants in your socks and not a chimp in sight. The plus side of that is that you get to spend the day crawling through a rainforest – so there’s always something to see! And I get to watch and study wild chimpanzees living their lives – whether that’s the big exciting stuff like hunting for monkeys or fighting with the neighbours, or the subtle changes in who sits next to whom, that seem completely innocuous but that represent the first steps toward a coup-d’etatat that will topple the whole male hierarchy. I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to work with the chimps in Budongo for 12 years. I’ve be able to see the little kids I met when I first came grow up to have kids of their own, it’s been the most incredible privilege to study their lives unfolding. Every day is a little different, and every day I learn something new about them. I also really enjoy the data analysis – getting to tease out the patterns in the data and see the picture of the behaviour start to unfold after years of work is immensely satisfying.

What advice would you give to females and young girls who may be interested in pursuing a career in your field? 
The most important thing is to do whatever makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning (even if it’s 5am..!). If you think that might be field primatology then at some point it’s a great idea to get some experience and make sure it’s for you before you find yourself in a remote forest with a return ticket in 12months. Field-time of any kind is a big help, even if it’s not specifically primates yet, get outside somewhere and get stuck in – somewhere where you have to watch and wait, and where when nothing goes to plan you need to think up a new one. If you’re looking at universities, look for schools that have links to active field sites (St Andrews is one!), and try to do an undergrad or masters that will give you field experience. If you’re not sure you want to go down the academic route but love the idea of primate fieldwork then there are jobs as field-site managers and in conservation organisations – but they will probably still want you to have some field experience, so you might need to think about working as a volunteer or intern for a stint first.

Dr Maggie Ellis, Dementia Fellow, School of Psychology and Neuroscience

Maggie’s research interests lie in the psychology of dementia where cognitive and social perspectives meet, with a focus on the communication difficulties experienced by people with dementia and those who care for them. Maggie is particularly interested in the interplay between the cognitive and social impact of dementia on personhood and the self of individuals with dementia.

What was your childhood ambition?
I wanted to be a journalist. One of my primary school teachers encouraged me as she thought I had a gift for story composition.

What inspired you to get involved in Psychology, and particularly dementia? 
I was aiming to get into clinical psychology and realised very quickly that I needed some volunteering work on my CV. I began volunteering for Alzheimer Scotland at their local day and evening care services and loved it so much that my whole career trajectory shifted.

Who are your scientific heroes? 
I have two main scientific heroes. Professor Tom Kitwood and Professor Steven Sabat. They both transformed the way we view dementia and those living with the condition.

What is the most rewarding part of your job? 
Engaging with individuals with advanced dementia who have lost the ability to speak and helping their family members and caregivers to connect with them.

What advice would you give to females and young girls who may be interested in pursuing a career in your field? 
My main piece of advice would be to volunteer for a dementia charity or day care service. This helped me immensely in terms of attaining hands-on experience and knowledge of dementia from a non-scientific perspective.

These days twitter is a great online resource for finding out more about specialist areas in science, and a fantastic way to broaden out who you can talk science with. A lot of the primate community is active on twitter, and you can find out what everyone thinks about the latest paper or hear about job and research opportunities as they come up.

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