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CPM Flash Interview Series: Professor Bill Newman

In our series of vlogs, Professor Newman describes what personalised medicine means to him and his research. Dr Newman is a Clinical Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, and Honorary Consultant in Genetic Medicine since 2004.

Welcome to the CPM blog

Welcome to the very first post from the new Centre for Personalised Medicine (CPM) blog.

In this post we will introduce you to the CPM, and give you a sneak-peak into the posts we have planned for the near future. We hope you are as excited about these as we are!

So what is the CPM?

The CPM is a partnership between the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics (WHG) and St Anne’s College, at the University of Oxford. It is a forum for communication and engagement that brings together students, academics, clinicians, and the public, to explore the benefits and challenges of Personalised Medicine. We are a group of academics and scientists who are passionate about different areas of personalised medicine – you can find out more about individual members of our team here. We also work closely with the student run Oxford Personalised Medicine Society.

But what is this ‘personalised medicine’ you speak of?

Personalised medicine is a broad field that aims to use what we can measure about individuals to inform healthcare. In particular, how can we effectively analyse the vast amounts of data that are being generated in our world today and use it to more effectively diagnose and treat patients, as well as predict disease risk in the population. For example, we know that some people are more susceptible to certain diseases, or to having specific health issues. When we try to treat these conditions, some individuals respond better to certain drugs and therapies. Understanding the reasons for this variability, whether it be underlying biology, socioeconomic factors, or environmental influences, can help identify the best drug to give to the right patient, and/or highlight strategies to prevent disease in vulnerable communities. As another example, a single genetic change that is unique to an individual can cause a severe childhood developmental disorder. Identifying this genetic change, and understanding how it leads to this disease, can help us design individually tailored treatments for that child. In other cases, using individual-level data on millions of molecular and physical measures may help us improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment for groups of individuals.

Whilst we believe that personalised medicine is hugely powerful when done right, it also raises a lot of challenges. It is both these benefits and challenges that the CPM is here to discuss.

The CPM was first formed in 2013, and since then has hosted a series of talks, seminars, and events on a wide range of aspects relating to personalised medicine. Recordings of many of these talks can be viewed here.

So what can I expect from the CPM blog?

Like most people over the last year, the CPM has had to adjust to a more virtual life. Whilst we are sad not to be able to host events in person right now, this has also allowed us to broadcast events to a much wider audience. We have also started this blog, and are working on a new podcast series, to further embrace bringing our mission to the masses. 

So here is an insight into what content you can expect on this blog:

  1. Posts from us, and from guest writers exploring different aspects of personalised medicine.
  2. A ‘what does personalised medicine mean to me?’ series, where we will direct questions to people and groups working in, or impacted by, personalised medicine.
  3. Introductory posts to accompany our brand new podcast that will be launching very soon.
  4. Posts summarising our events and lecture series, or providing alternative opinions on what our speakers discuss.

We hope you enjoy reading our upcoming blog posts. Please get in touch with any feedback, or with any suggestions or other content you would like to see.

Written by Nicky Whiffin, CPM Junior Research Fellow

Debating data: a mini citizens’ jury during a perfect storm

Post written by Professor Nina Hallowell and used with permission.

Professor Nina Hallowell is a member of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities in the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, and a member of the Steering Committee for the Centre for Personalised Medicine at St Anne’s College Oxford. In this guest blog post, she writes about what she learned from holding a citizens’ jury to understand how people feel about the way different kinds of health data are used. 

Given the speed at which research on data-intensive technologies is advancing, it is important to regularly gauge people’sviews on the use of healthcare data. As a group of researchers who either use healthcare data in our research or are interested in publics’ views about this issue* we decided to run a citizens’ jury in early 2020.  

Our aim was to gain some understanding of what members of the public think about the use of different types of healthcare data (MRI images, digital images of pathology slides and genomic data, i.e. DNA sequences) in research. Specifically, we were interested in people’s views on the benefits and challenges of sharing these different data types, and the acceptability of sharing healthcare data with commercial companies. We also wanted to trial the citizens’ jury method of public deliberation. 

Citizens’ juries

Citizens’ juries involve members of the public who come together to hear expert evidence about a topic of interest, deliberate the issue, (hopefully) reach a consensus and deliver their verdict.  

So over the last couple of months of 2019 we advertised in local media for jurors to participate in the ‘Debating Data Citizens’ Jury’ in early 2020.  

Data access on trial

On February 15th 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic reaching the UK and storm Desmond making landfall overnight, twenty people braved the elements to attend our citizens’ jury in Oxford Town Hall. The jury members heard evidence about data collection, data analysis and data access from a series of expert witnesses in the fields of digital pathologyMRI imaginggenomics research and bioethics. The jury was given the opportunity to cross examine the witnesses, and then broke off into smaller groups to discuss a number of questions, including:  

Finally, each group was asked to reach a verdict on data use in research by answering the following question: How should the different data types be used, who should they be used by and why?  

The verdicts 

The jurors returned a series of statements about data use and commercial involvement in research:  

In addition to finding out what the jurors thought about researchers using healthcare data we asked them to reflect on participating in this event. Most were very positive, and said they had learnt a lot about the use of different types of data in research and appreciated the fact that we were interested in hearing their views. One participant said they: “learned much more about underlying science” and “felt better able to take an informed view.”  

Not all were so happy though. Another participant said that they felt the information they received was biased in favour of the use of data for research (although we did instruct witnesses to be as neutral as possible). This juror also felt there was not enough focus upon wider discussions about the use of personal data by the state and the politics of the NHS.   

Going forward 

This was the first citizens’ jury the team had organised, so Debating Data was a learning exercise for us too. At the end of the day we were relieved it appeared to go so smoothly. We were grateful that so many people had attended, given the weather. We were also pleased to hear a number of participants say they felt the day had given them a good opportunity to air their views.  

We noted a number of improvements for implementation in future events, including: more targeted recruitment to get a more representative sample of jurors, allowing more time for the witnesses to give evidence, and for jurors to cross-examine, deliberate and reach their verdicts.  

What will we do next? As you may have spotted, one of the jury’s conclusions was that people should give consent for the use of data in research. There are many ways to give permission for the use of data, including: opt-in, opt-out, broad or narrow consent and dynamic consent, to name but a few.  As it stands, the National Data Opt-Out allows people to opt-out of having their confidential patient data being used in healthcare research and for planning services. But if people do not opt-out does this really mean they consent to their data being used?  This sounds like an important question for a citizens’ jury, and we have plans to explore this in the future.  

Members of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities and the Centre for Personalized Medicine developed the event and members of two of the AI Centres of Excelllence – NPIC and NCIMI – helped us to run the event on the day.

In conversation with Dr Magdalena Skipper – CPM Podcast: Meet the Advisory Board Episode 1

The centre of personalised medicine podcast is hosted by Jiyoon Lee, president of the Oxford personalized medicine society and Dr Anika Knuppel, JRF at CPM.

In the first podcast episode as part of our meet the advisory board series, we had the honour to talk to Dr Magdalena Skipper, geneticist and editor and chief of the journal Nature.

She has over 18 years of experience in science publishing and has made history as nature’s first female editing chief and first editor-in-chief from a life sciences background.

In our conversation with Magdalena we spoke about women in Science, the work as an editor and new possibilities for scientific publishing, reproducibility as well as personalised medicine research, a topic described by Magdalena as “close to my heart”. Importantly, she highlighted the role of diversity in this personalised medicine “as wonderful as it has been and as much progress as we have made – the field has by and large focused on a subset of the global population. There has been great predominance of research on individuals of European descent […] but this is a tremendous opportunity to collect the data but also engage those communities in the research that’s being done […]”.

You can listen here.

Dr Stanley Ho Memorial Lecture – Professor Jennifer Doudna

On the 2nd March 2021, the Centre for Personalised medicine was honoured to host Professor Jennifer Doudna to deliver the annual Dr Stanley Ho memorial lecture. Professor Doudna is an outstanding biochemical scientist who was the recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry in conjunction with Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier, for their discovery and development of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology.

CRISPR has revolutionised our ability to edit the sequence of DNA, which has important applications for understanding genetics and huge promise for treating human genetic disease. In this fascinating and engaging talk, Professor Doudna introduced how CRISPR-Cas9 was discovered and harnessed, from its origin within a bacterial immune system to its translation to human medical research (along with many, many other fields).

CRISPR stands for ‘clusters of regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’. In simpler terms, this means a CRISPR sequence is made of repeating sequences of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA). These repeats are separated by ‘spacers’. Unlike the repeated blocks, these spacers are variable. In bacteria, the original home of CRISPR, these variable regions are made up of DNA sequences taken from a virus the bacteria has encountered before.

If the bacterium is attacked again by this virus, this CRISPR DNA is transcribed, and RNA is transcribed from the CRISPR region. The produced crRNA (CRISPR RNA) then guides a ‘cutting enzyme’, Cas9, to the foreign virus’ DNA, damaging it, and preventing the virus from causing harm. It’s a basic immune system, and one which is very effective.

One of the overwhelming advantages of CRISPR-Cas9 editing compared to other technologies is how easily specificity of the system (i.e. which specific DNA base it is targeted to) can be changed; simply by changing the provided guide RNA in the CRISPR system, the Cas9 enzyme’s target site can be easily switched. This high level of site specificity combined with the efficacy of CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing gives CRISPR technology a clear advantage compared to previous gene editing technologies.

However, being a novel technology, CRISPR is not without current limitation. Currently, while cleavage can occur with high specificity, there is no known biological agent capable of carrying out specific DNA single nucleotide substitutions which would be desirable to treat human diseases driven by single DNA base changes. Professor Doudna discussed exciting on-going work to investigate adaptation of mechanisms known to exist to edit RNA in bacteria.

Despite limitations, some very promising clinical translation has already taken place. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine [1] reported the findings from two patients with ß-thalassemia and sickle cell anaemia who both have been successfully treated through a CRISPR-Cas9 edited bone marrow transplant. However, further clinical use is hampered by significant limitations on cell-specific targeting. Currently, all CRISPR-Cas9 editing for human use must take place outside of the body, which can be invasive and result in significant side-effects when the cells are returned to the patient. Professor Doudna discussed some of the innovative approaches being taken in pre-clinical research to potentially target specific tissue systems within the body, including the extra challenge of targeting the central nervous system for potential treatment of neurodegenerative disease.

There is also the issue of cost of treatment. CRISPR-Cas9 therapy is not cheap, and treatment in the NEJM published trials costs around a million dollars a patient. There is naturally then, a financial as well as a scientific barrier to more widespread clinical implementation, and Professor Doudna discussed how part of her current work at the Innovative Genomics Institute (ICG) at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco, is to increase both accessibility and affordability of CRISPR-Cas9 therapy.

Jennifer Doudna delivering lecture

It is fitting in the ongoing pandemic that Professor Doudna also discussed how the high sequence specificity of CRISPR is being developed for use in COVID-19 diagnostic testing, allowing for a much more rapid testing than PCR alternatives. The fluorescence emitted by a ‘positive’ test could potentially even be detected using a smartphone camera, according to research published in Cell using a CRISPR-Cas13a system (one of many alternative Cas enzymes being studied) [2]. As the pandemic continues, this has huge potential for the future of commonplace and convenient SARS-CoV2 testing.

Professor Doudna rounded off the talk with a Q&A session, with audience questions including those on risk of immunogenicity of human harnessing of a bacterial system, Professor Doudna’s own opinions on the biggest barriers to therapeutic implementation, and discussion of some of the ethical concerns of human gene editing, to name a few.

We would like to extend a huge thank you to Professor Doudna for a fantastic and engaging talk and discussion. We hope everyone who was able to attend the webinar at this heavily subscribed event is excited (if you weren’t already!) about the potential CRISPR technology holds for the future. The talk is available on the CPM YouTube channel and is a fascinating watch which we highly recommend checking out!

Written by Holly Eggington, Secretary of the Oxford University Personalised Medicine Society (OUPM) and DPhil student at St Anne’s College

1.        Frangoul, H. et al. CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing for Sickle Cell Disease and β-Thalassemia. N. Engl. J. Med. (2021). doi:10.1056/nejmoa2031054

2.        Fozouni, P. et al. Amplification-free detection of SARS-CoV-2 with CRISPR-Cas13a and mobile phone microscopy. Cell (2021). doi:10.1016/j.cell.2020.12.001

In conversation with Dame Mary Archer – CPM Podcast: Meet the Advisory Board Episode 2

The centre of personalised medicine podcast is hosted by Jiyoon Lee, president of the Oxford personalized medicine society and Dr Anika Knuppel, JRF at CPM.

In the second podcast episode as part of our meet the advisory board series, we had the honour to talk to Dame Mary Archer, who started her career as a chemist with a focus on sustainable energy production and solar energy conversion, and taught and researched at Oxford and Cambridge. When Dame Mary Archer left academia, she held a number of appointments, among them chairing Cambridge University Hospitals National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust and is currently chairing the Science Museum group. In 2012 she was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire for her services to the NHS.

In our conversation with Dame Mary Archer we talked about her most notable career move and her views on the NHS and the future of the NHS. How having a grounding in science can be a perk in other industries, although “less usefully, it makes you obsess about details” making decision making hard at times. We discussed the role of science museums and why she now has considerable knowledge about railways. Furthermore, as a St Anne’s alumni, Dame Mary Archer could tell us about the changes in the university experience since leaving St Anne’s in 1966.

Finally, we spoke about personalised medicine and how the discovery of DNA has shaped our expectations of medical science and health. Dame Mary Archer’s career and personal health experience has given her a unique insight into the role of personalised medicine in patient decision making. She notes “Personalised medicine is here to stay, it is a force for good, increasingly powerful and should be a part of the clinicians and patients armoury in all appropriate cases to weigh that information and evidence and the balance what is the best way forward for that individual patient.”

Listen here for the full interview.

Christmas wishes from the CPM

All of us at the CPM would like to wish you a very Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

To get you into the spirit, with a bit of a CPM twist, here is a poem written by Junior Research Fellow Rachel Horton.

The Christmas Genome

Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the lab
The equipment was quiet, the décor was drab
I was packing some samples into the fridge
Though actually it was a bit of a squidge

When from the machines there arose such a clatter
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter
The sequencer churned and it rumbled and whirred
It made so much data my eyes felt all blurred

It tried to print out near five million changes
Looking through the whole lot would have taken me ages
I grabbed for a filter and shoved it on quick
But not fast enough for the data to stick

I nervously checked on the sample ID
It was for Father Christmas – what sad news for me
I stared at the variants worried and stressed
What should I do? And what would be best?

He’d asked for a test for his tinsellitis
But the genome had answered a lot more besides this
Should I tell him a cancer gene looked a bit risky?
He might want some screening; cut down on the whisky?

And poor Mrs Claus: would she get neurosis
If she knew her husband carried cystic fibrosis?
It was a disaster – it all looked so bad
How was he alive with the variants he had?

I rang up a colleague: they said ‘that sounds rough!
Lets ask more opinions – this decision is tough’
So all of us met on a cold winter’s night
And talked it all through as to what would be right

Could we just ask him? Would he freak out?
Would we ruin his Christmas with this sorry handout?
And what would it mean for his job and his wife?
What might these findings do to his life?

It’s the night after Christmas and we still can’t decide
But we’re anxious and stressed and we really have tried
We’ve thought long and hard and we’ve tried to consult
But we still just don’t know – what is his result?

Rachel first shared this poem on her personal website here.

Introducing the CPM ‘vlog’ series

Last week, we launched a new flash interview “vlog” series. In this blog post, our Junior Research Fellow Dr Katherine Wood discusses the aims of these interviews and some of the key insights she took away from making the videos.

In this series, I have interviewed a range of different people involved in personalised medicine in one way or another, discussing their careers and their views on precision medicine now and in the future. These interviews will be released on a weekly basis so keep an eye on the CPM website and our Twitter feed (@CPMOxford) to ensure you don’t miss them! 

I have interviewed people from Professor Andrew Wilkie, a consultant in clinical genetics; to Dr Patrick Short, the CEO of Sano Genetics; and Professor Nina Hallowell, a professor of social and ethical aspects of genomics, to name but a few of our excellent speakers. The interviews covered many aspects of personalised medicine, from routine genetic testing in the clinic, the differences between academia and industry, the ethical implications of precision medicine, the role of bioinformaticians within the framework of large-scale genomics, and personalised therapies and pharmacogenetics.

One of the key themes which stood out to me was the difference in view between clinicians and academic researchers on the utility of genomic testing. Both Professor Andrew Wilkie and Dr Ed Blair raised the point that, from the perspective of a doctor, medicine has always been personalised and one would expect that whenever one sees a clinician, the care and treatment should be tailored towards the individual. While both highlighted the utility of targeted genetic testing for specific cases, there was scepticism about the role of widespread genomic screening in the clinic. On the other hand, both Dr Alex Geary and Dr Jamie Ellingford (bioinformaticians) hailed the exciting implications for research of being able to access and analyse vast quantities of DNA sequencing data. One key area many interviewees highlighted as a potential challenge going forward was the ability to process all the data we are collecting; is there really any point having so much information if we can’t analyse it all? Another interesting point raised by both Professor Andrew Wilkie and Professor Nina Hallowell was whether we should be investing so much into the genomics revolution at the expense of other factors which contribute to ill health (such as poor living conditions) or which we can test for simply and cheaply in the clinic (e.g. blood pressure). Overall, perhaps the take home message is that personalised medicine has many things to offer but it will not be the solution to everything!

On a different track, both Professor William Newman and Dr Andrew Douglas discussed the amazing potential of utilising “omic” data to tailor treatments to an individual. Professor Newman told us about the PALOH (Pharmacogenetics to Avoid Loss of Hearing) trial, a rapid point-of-care genetic test for newborn infants to prevent antibiotic-related hearing loss, while Dr Douglas’ discussion on antisense oligonucleotide therapies and the incredible successes there have been in the field so far left no doubt over the potential impact that tailored treatments can have on the patients’ lives. Finally, a particularly interesting chat with Dr Patrick Short from Sano Genetics highlighted the role that industry can and will play as we go forward with the personalised medicine revolution, and the fluidity between academia and industry these days. His careers advice for PhD students and postdocs is certainly worth a listen!

I really hope that you enjoy watching the videos and these snippets of insight into personalised medicine from many different perspectives! I certainly learned a lot making them.

Watch the Flash Interview Series here.

CPM – St Anne’s Doodle Competition

Blog post written (and doodles drawn) by Centre for Personalised Medicine Junior Research Fellow Rachel Horton

The Centre for Personalised Medicine is currently running a doodle competition for people at St Anne’s. (If you work or study at St Anne’s and you’re reading this before 28th February 2022, you’ve still got time to enter!)

The theme for the competition is ‘healthcare data’, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what people create, both because I’m sure it will help my own ideas around what healthcare data are and the interesting issues around them, but also because it’s a forerunner for a schools competition that I’m very excited about.

That said, ‘healthcare data’ in some ways feels like an inaccessible topic so I’m a bit nervous that people won’t see this as relevant to them. But the collection and use of healthcare data impact on everyone. We need data to understand and explore ways to improve healthcare, and we also need to consider what it means to be contributing data to such projects. What are the benefits and what are the risks?

For starters, what actually are healthcare data? We’d probably all agree on some aspects, like if you have your blood pressure measured by your GP, the measurement counts as ‘healthcare data’. But how about the information your phone might record about how many steps you’ve done today? Or the time you googled ‘what does croup cough sound like’? Or the information your local supermarket might have about how often they restocked the paracetamol this year?

When thinking about the healthcare data doodle competition, I had a go at a few doodles to try to draw out some thoughts around ‘healthcare data’ some a bit facetious and some more serious:

Doodle "What are healthcare data?"
Doodle of "whose data am I sharing?"
Doodle of "do data help you see people?"
Doodle of "is that healthcare data?"

It’s interesting how many questions come up as soon as you start thinking about healthcare data, but somehow as a topic it perhaps looks a bit dry and distant from day-to-day life. How can we involve everyone in the decisions that we need to make as a society about how we collect and use healthcare data? The team at Understanding Patient Data is doing a lot of work on this, and it’s also an issue we’re really interested in at the Centre for Personalised Medicine (see animation here exploring using hospital data to improve healthcare).

If you work or study at St Anne’s, please join in and draw some doodles for our competition! But whether you’re based at St Anne’s or not, we’d love to hear more about what you think around these issues – how can we show everyone that they have experiences with and opinions about healthcare data, and that as a society we have choices to make as to how healthcare data is thought of, collected and used?

International Women’s Day 2022

Today, the 8th March 2022, is International Women’s Day. This day is used across the world to celebrate the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women. To mark the occasion, JRF Nicky Whiffin spoke to some of the incredibly inspiring women that work with the CPM, from members of the core CPM team to our fantastic external advisory board.

I feel very fortunate to be surrounded by fantastic female role models in the CPM. I asked six of these women three questions probing who inspires them, what they see as the key issues facing women in science today, and what advice they would give to their teenage selves. Whilst these women come from a range of backgrounds there are some strong parallels in their experiences and their advice.

Meet the incredible women 

Left to right, top to bottom in image above

 

Question 1: Do you have any awesome women role models? If so, who and why?

Role models have been hugely important in my own journey in science. “You can’t be what you can’t see” is the phrase often used to describe how we are much more likely to see ourselves in positions when we can relate to the people who are already there. Our six CPM women take their inspiration from women in all walks of life.

Frances “Having grown up in the 60s and early 70s seeing women of my mother’s generation either having a career or a family but not both, my role models were my female friends (in whatever profession) and colleagues who were managing to successfully balance building their careers at the same time as having young children.“

Helen “When I was a fairly junior police officer, women senior officers tended to come from the ‘formidable and intimidating leader’ mould. A fantastic woman Chief Inspector called Anne Pyke wasn’t like that. She was friendly, compassionate and fun, as well as being highly respected and professional. It was such a relief to see that I didn’t have to change who I was in order to be successful in my career.“

Cecilia “Growing into being a scientist Leena Peltonen, Unnur Thorsteeinsdottir and Nancy Cox were women I admired and looked up to a lot and still do admire massively (except Leena who has sadly passed).“

Anneke “My mother. She studied chemistry in the 1950s and published seminal papers in her field of surface chemistry over nearly 50 years. Many had her home address as affiliation since she declined posts in the UK when the salary offered was half that of my father’s who had the same experience. My mother’s indignance at this sex discrimination was embarrassing as a teenager, but inspired me as an adult.“

Katherine “Professor Anne Goriely – Anne is an absolutely awesome supervisor who champions women in science and does everything she can to support the women in her life. Anne is extraordinarily caring, compassionate and kind, and while never celebrating her own outstanding achievements, she celebrates every success of those that she mentors. Anne’s own journey, from a degree in engineering (agronomy) to a PhD studying the development of the nervous system in Drosophila, to now a professor in human genetics, has been anything but linear; she is an outstanding researcher and mentor alike.“

Catherine “I found Jenny Douglas of the Open University inspiring when we worked on the CPM healthcare disparities conference. She wears her scholarship lightly and is so thoughtful in her interdisciplinary approach to race, ethnicity, gender and health.“

Question 2: What do you think is the greatest challenge for women in science today? How do we combat it?

Whilst in some ways we have made a lot of progress in equality between men and women in science, there are still some really key hurdles that we need to come together to tackle. Culture, juggling childcare, and unconscious bias were common themes across the answers to this question.

Anneke “That women still often have to acquire male attributes to succeed. We combat it by recognising that success in science can have many different forms. Appreciate teamwork: endorse we, not me, culture. Make science careers look attractive to early career researcher women and open to diverse personalities/attributes.“

Catherine “The greatest challenge I think (looking in) would still be the old chestnut of  juggling work with caring responsibilities, whether children or aged parents, or both, and life admin, etc.“

Frances “I think the greatest challenge for women, and indeed all early/mid career scientists, is to change the culture; to challenge discriminatory practices, to reduce the emphasis on the star players and increase the recognition of all those contributing to team science, to strive for and reward more effectively robust, reproducible science, to publish and value negative results. All this takes courage to risk the potential impact on your career of not playing by the established rules.“

Cecilia “I think (subconscious) bias against women manifesting itself in various ways is the biggest problem and we can combat this by raising awareness and discussing the issues often, offering external coaching mechanisms, and mentorship support (both peer mentorship and senior mentorship).“

Helen “I still think the greatest challenge for women is juggling, particularly if they have children or other caring responsibilities. Co-ordinating the instability, demands and opportunities of a research career, with the needs of others, perhaps including a partner’s career, whilst looking after your own mental and physical health, remains challenging and needs flexibility, creativity and compromise from all involved, including employers and group leaders.“

Katherine “I think one of the major issues we have is the problem of work-life balance and the difficulties of raising a family and being an academic. Taking a career break in the form of maternity leave to raise children inevitably leads to a “gap” in a woman’s CV without publications, where to the outside observer it appears that she was less productive. Once a woman has returned to work, managing the often long hours of research time, grant writing, paper writing, teaching etc can be extremely challenging and is often incompatible with raising small children. Coupled with the extremely high costs of childcare (even university-subsidised nursery places) compared to the average salary of a postdoc in the UK, it can make it very difficult for a woman to return to full-time research. We need to do more to support women who want an academic career and a family. The result of the leaky system also means there are simply fewer female role models in STEM subjects for the next generation to look up. If we want to encourage young girls to consider scientific careers, we need to ensure they have lots of awesome female scientists to be inspired by.“

Question 3: What advice would you give to your younger self?

Finally, I asked our six women what advice they would give to themselves as they were just finishing up school or starting university. The overwhelming theme running through these is to have more confidence in yourself and your abilities. So many women struggle with self-doubt. We can and should do more to build each other up and to tackle these insecurities in young women. 

Katherine “This one is simple! You CAN do it! There were so many times I doubted myself, or nearly didn’t apply for things because I thought my chances of success were very low. But unless you try, you will never know what your potential is! Better try and not succeed than don’t try at all!“

Helen “Probably to enjoy each current stage of your life a bit more, and worry about the future a little less!“

Cecilia “You are the best version of You there is and ever will be  – work on being authentically You and comfortable with that. I have struggled with imposter syndrome a lot (and still do at times), and coaching has helped me in finding my own voice and being calmly and kindly assertive, which feels amazing.“

Catherine “My advice to myself would be to trust my innate abilities, the ones I take for granted. Oh, and not to be too narrow in work focus.“

Anneke “Stop with the self doubt! Enjoy the career ride, see- rather than worry- where it takes you, meanderings and detours don’t matter, they enrich the end product.

Frances “Have more confidence in your abilities. Find some good mentors.“

Thank you very much to all of the women across the CPM. You are all inspirational. And for anyone reading this, remember to believe in yourself. You have totally got this!