During my undergraduate and my master's degrees, I always wondered why so many of my lecturers were men and why there were hardly any women in our faculty. Especially when my classes were made up of mostly female students; it just didn't add up.
Now that I am embarking on my own career as an academic, gender equality in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) is something that comes up more often than you'd think. Inequality is something I see and hear about often; it's something I feel has marked my career since I stepped into my first lecture. And the stats are there to prove it. According to the Women in Science and Engineering (Wise) campaign, women make up only 21% of those working in the sector. And this percentage is decreasing. On top of this, women still only represent 11% of top academic science positions - it's very seldom you find labs run by female scientists. It's obvious that there's still much to be done about gender equality in our field.
Initially, I chose to become a research scientist because I liked the idea of discovering new knowledge and using that knowledge to help others by developing new therapies and treatments. Then when I was 19, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) after experiencing vision loss and numbness in my back. MS is a really unpredictable condition that's often painful and can cause problems with how you walk, move, see, think and feel. When I was diagnosed, it brought a lot of uncertainty into my life. But it also made me realise that I wanted to pursue a career in neuroscience, specifically MS research. And in attempts to take the first step and turn my diagnosis into something positive, I started volunteering with the MS Society's Research Network where for two years I helped shape the charity's research programme.
I'm now a PhD student at Queen's University Belfast working in a lab run by Dr Denise Fitzgerald - an accomplished immunologist whose research is revolutionising how we treat MS. Under her mentorship, I investigate the molecular basis of how certain immune cells (regulatory T cells) can be used to repair damage to the brain and spinal cord caused by MS. Before I started my PhD, I also had the privilege of working under another female lab head - Dr Veronique Miron - who leads on a promising project looking into myelin repair at the University of Edinburgh. It's been great to be given the opportunity to work at two universities that have been recognised by the Athena SWAN Charter for their commitment to advancing the careers of women in science.
Both Denise and Veronique's labs are also currently made up of mostly women researchers. And while this isn't always the case (they hire whoever is most qualified), they're committed to creating an environment that champions young female scientists. Their work is proof that there are brilliant women carrying out and publishing high-impact research all across the UK. And seeing the success of other female researchers makes me incredibly confident about my future as a neuroscientist. It makes me feel that I, and other women, fit into the world of research.
But, I still worry about whether being a woman may affect my career progression, especially if I ever decide to have children. I've heard stories of principal investigators - who hold a project's grant money - telling researchers they can't have children until they are running their own lab. They won't allow them to take extended time off while they are hired on their funds. And recently, I read an article about a woman losing her research job at a top UK university after giving birth to her child. What's even more disturbing is that the comments section was filled with women sharing similar stories.
I'm lucky that in my research field I've only met scientists that are supportive of gender equality and my success. But there's still an obvious gender disparity, especially the further up the career path you go. Even in my centre, we have 11 male professors, but only two female professors. This is why it's so important for me, and other young women, to follow our ambitions to become leaders in research. Our work just proves how backward the discrimination in our industry is. I can only hope that I continue to be surrounded by scientists that support me based on my ability as a researcher, and not my gender.
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