"It's really important that we explain what we do effectively."
I am a dementia researcher. I spend a lot of my time using imaging techniques to visualise the cells, in particular immune cells, in brains affected by Alzheimer’s. I extract the immune cells from healthy and diseased brain tissue and compare the DNA, mRNA and proteins made by those cells in order to understand what they’re doing. When I’m not doing my own research I’m often found teaching students in the lab – this is the most rewarding part of my job as it is really gratifying to help people develop new skills. The rest of my time is spent communicating science to help us build collaborations and progress as a field.
Why did you choose this field?
I remember when I was studying for my A-levels being fascinated by the fact that DNA encodes mRNA which encodes amino acids and they make up proteins. I remember when my chemistry lessons and my biology lessons started to slot together, and everything started to make sense. I did Biochemistry as my undergraduate degree because I loved understanding the details.
When I was coming towards the end of my degree I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do next. I had really enjoyed the neuroscience modules and immunology module (largely because of my fantastic lecturer, Jane Saffell). It was around about this time that my gran started to develop Alzheimer’s disease. As happens with many older people, she would get infections, and every time this happened she would become delirious, start hallucinating and was extremely distressed. I was living with my parents at the time and applying for PhD projects and research assistant/technician posts and I found the perfect project that tied in with our personal experience: investigating the role of peripheral inflammation (by which I mean an infection of the body, outside of the central nervous system) in dementia.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
"I wish that younger me could have known that I'm happy now."
Younger me was not confident. The state school I went to was not great and when I arrived at Imperial College for my undergraduate degree I went from being top of my class to feeling that I was just about keeping my head above water. I had a constant feeling that I wasn’t as good as everyone else. Frequently throughout my PhD I felt exactly the same.
I wish that younger me could have known it was possible to be where I am now. Not so much the PhD but more important to me is that I’m happy now. I work with a fantastic supportive team. I have a great boss. I feel valued. And I’m working on something I love, that I hope will make a difference to the world.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM for so many reasons - no two days are the same, I’m constantly learning, and often nobody knows the answers to the questions that we’re asking which is really exciting and the whole point of our work. I work alongside people who have completely different experiences from me so they know lots of things that I don’t know and vice versa, and by working together we can help each other to understand something that no one has understood before. I also enjoy the freedom of getting to choose what I do each day, and when one of the students in our group is struggling with something I can take time to sit down with them and work through it.
Best advice for the next generation
I was too nervous to ask questions until relatively recently. What if the speaker already explained this thing and I just didn’t get it? What if everyone else knows the answer and I look stupid? Or maybe I just couldn’t make my voice work in front of that many people.
I’ve now learned that if you’re asking yourself that question then it is extremely likely that other people in the room don’t know the answer either. You’ll be doing everyone a favour if you ask. At conferences the people who have been doing science for decades ask the most basic questions and that’s because they’re confident in what they know and what they don’t know. If you didn’t learn that yet – you didn’t learn that yet. Ask questions and you will learn!
The Guilty Feminist. Deborah Frances White invites guests to discuss topics relating to feminism in an open and honest way. The Guilty Feminist podcast aims to bring about positive change. She's a fantastic mix of hilarious and passionate. Highly recommend!