Karen Forbes

Lecturer (Assistant Professor), University of Leeds

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Take every opportunity that comes your way and just go for it!

What do you do?

Diabetes in pregnancy is the most common complication to affect otherwise healthy mothers and their babies. It affects as many as 25% of all pregnancies and can cause babies to be born too big or too small. Babies that are too big or too small are more likely to be admitted to intensive care when they are born and they are more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes and obesity when they are adults. The placenta is an important organ that is needed for babies to grow properly. This is because it is the placenta that transfers nutrients from mum's blood to the baby.

I am researching what happens to the placenta when mum's have diabetes, that causes babies to grow too big or too small. We have found that small cellular packages, known as extracellular vesicles, have different content when mums have diabetes. Changes to the content of these extracellular vesicles can cause changes to the way that the placenta grows and functions, causing too much or too little nutrients to get to the baby. We are investigating how we can use extracellular vesicles to prevent the complications of diabetes in pregnancy.

Why did you choose this field?

I grew up in a rural area in Scotland and whilst I loved science subjects at school, I had very little information on careers in science and little exposure to STEM professionals. I looked up science careers and decided I wanted to be a pharmacist. I then had an amazing opportunity organised by my high school chemistry teacher, to go into a lab (in a distillery!) when I got to work with amazing chemists that were trying to find out how different chemicals made whisky taste different. I then decided that I wanted to work in a lab and to find out how drugs work so I decided that instead of studying Pharmacy, I would study Pharmacology.

I went to university and got my BSc in Pharmacology and Immunology. In my final year at university I did a research project which used molecular biology and biochemistry to study how sever infection can cause blood cells to function abnormally and that this can contribute to heart heart failure in patients with sepsis. I was then hooked on using molecular biology to study disease process so I did a PhD in the same lab that I did my undergraduate project. After I was awarded my PhD I decided that I wanted to use my skills in a more translational environment so I moved from a biology faculty to a medicine faculty and began studying how the interaction between molecules in mothers blood and the placenta are important for healthy pregnancy.

Whilst doing my postdoc, I realised what a huge role the placenta played in healthy pregnancy and that huge burden that pregnancy complications have on mothers, babies and their families. At this time I also realised that there is a rise in rates of pregnancy complications because of the global increase in obesity and diabetes in the population.

With the help of some key mentors and role models I was able to do some great research in this area and I secured a faculty position which allows me to continue this research and to have the opportunity to pass on my experience to the next generation of scientists.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

One thing that I wish a younger me knew was possible, is that it is possible to have a family and an an academic career. I thought that it would be impossible to balance academic work with being a mum so I kept waiting for the 'right time'. After several years, I realised that there is no 'right time' and I now have a three year old and son. With the support of friends, family, excellent mentors, and great childcare, it is possible to balance family life with academic life, and there is no better feeling than coming home to a happy energetic child when there has been a tough (or great!) day in the lab.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I have always been curious how things work and the fact that I can use this curiosity to improve the lives of pregnant women and their babies is an added bonus!

Best advice for next generation?

Coming from a family in which I was the first to go to university, I have always been determined to succeed in a STEM career. Like many, I have received several obstacles along the way but key to overcoming these was surrounding myself with good mentors and supportive family and friends. So if you want to pursue a career in STEM, surround yourself with good mentors, take every opportunity that comes your way and just go for it!

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

“Certain people – men, of course – discouraged me, saying science was not a good career for women. That pushed me even more to persevere." - Francoise Barre, virologist who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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