Providing mentorship for young scientists: “a privilege and part of the job”

Hilary.jpgHilary Lappin-Scott is Professor of Microbiology and Pro-Vice Chancellor at Swansea University. Her research focuses on how bacteria shape and alter our everyday lives. She was the President of the Society for General Microbiology (SGM) from 2009-2012: this makes her the first female President of the SGM to be elected in 65 years and only the second ever female President of the Society. Prof Lappin-Scott was also President of the International Society for Microbial Ecology from 2006-2010, a founder of the European Academy of Microbiology and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the European Academy of Microbiology and the Society of Biology. Hilary is a role model for women in science, having juggled a family whilst getting to the top of the career ladder. She has been introduced as “the only female speaker at the conference” and is now committed to providing the support to young female scientists that she wished she’d had. Here, she explains to Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-organiser, how she managed to get there and highlights the changes she’d like to see happening in the science community.


SS: Hi Hilary, Your enthusiasm and commitment to your career and your resulting success is a real inspiration to the next generation of female scientists. Can you share some of your secrets? What do you think were the main contributors to you being where you are now?

I was looking for a career that would be really challenging AND would present me with the chance to travel the world too. I decided to take science A-levels at school purely for these reasons, but my determination to be a scientist grew as I learned more about the world of Microbiology. During my PhD there were lots of other female students but I noticed that almost none seemed to be accepted/invited to speak at conferences or organize conference sessions and there were no female role models around. I’m always curious to find out what I can do so I offered to give talks as a post-doctoral scientist and do remember at one meeting being introduced as ‘the only female speaking at the conference’. I was cross about this remark but had to compose myself ready to give my talk!

Without doubt one of the biggest aids to my career has been the support of my family. When I returned from my post-doc in Calgary University I had only 5 weeks maternity leave before starting full time in my first academic appointment at Exeter University. I did ensure that I still attended UK and international conferences to present my research as I built up my group and often my son travelled with me.  Even up to a few years ago we had our holiday wherever my main conference was that summer.  My son grew up thinking all mums were university science professors and is now a scientist himself.

Of course there were some very challenging times as I was one of the very few women scientists at that time who had a family so there were no allowances to leave early, work flexible hours etc. We managed as a family but did constantly have to juggle a huge amount with childcare, childhood illness cover, school commitments, meetings all over the world, and running and managing my research group.


SS: Juggling family and work commitments is one of the main things that women in challenging careers worry about. You evidently had a very supportive partner, but what kept you going through those difficult years of juggling so much?

HLS: For me some of THE best moments of the job were when my students were presenting their research at conferences or graduating with their PhDs – priceless. Now, I get to travel the world every year and have presented my research many times on every continent except the Arctic and Antarctic!


SS: You’ve made it to the top! Looking back, can you tell us what would you like to change about the scientific culture of today, to help generate a better environment for the next generation of scientists, both male and female?

HLS: Our scientific culture measures success on ‘publications, publications, publications’.  These are of course important but we overlook other ‘outputs’ from our research, that is the crucial role of mentoring and training the next generation of scientists. To me this is at least as important as publishing our research findings. We must lead in scientific discovery but within this nurture and support those that come behind us. I’m very proud of the young scientists that I have trained and am pleased that they will continue to take forward the subject of Microbiology after me.


SS: Mentoring and nurturing the next generation of scientists is so important, and should be an opportunity for all scientists, irrespective of the time in their career. You take an active role in gender and equality issues in science, including advising government and research councils on this matter. Tell us your thoughts about the current state of play with respect to this. Would you like to see change? What is most likely to change in the near future?

HLP: When I started as a scientist I decided that the best way to encourage more women into science was to be as strong a role model as I could be and show that there are plenty of opportunities for women to succeed too. However the loss of females from the ‘talent pipeline’ is such an increasing concern to me that I feel I need to do more and am committed to do so.

My mentors were always men simply because there were no women to look at and think ‘I want to be like her”. I consider it is a big part of my job, and a huge privilege, to mentor younger female scientists. Recently I took on the lead role for Swansea University as the Equality and Diversity Champion, whilst initiating the exact same role for the Society for General Microbiology. I have to ensure that I make a difference in both of these roles and I would be very happy if, in the future, that there were other females in the senior management team at my University and that the Society for General Microbiology did not wait 65 years before there is another female President!

What I do find so heartening is how widespread the concerns and discussions are on gender balances in science and that so many males colleagues feel as strongly about this as I do.


SS: As well as an advocate for women in science, you are somewhat of a celebrity scientist, with various TV appearances and outreach activities! What made you decide to apply to be a Soapbox Scientist?

HLS: I like the idea of joining a group of female scientists, speaking in a public place and of sharing more about my subject of the invisible but crucial world of microorganisms. The whole day has an impromptu feel about it that I like. I normally speak in lecture halls and conference centres so this has a very different feel, being outdoors and speaking to an audience interested in science. I always love speaking about the many exciting things that microorganisms do so think this is a wonderful opportunity to share my passion with many, many others!

I read the tweets and blogs from the event last year and thought it was such a cool idea!  I found myself wishing that I could be there and I decided that day that I would apply to be part of it in 2013. I feel really lucky to have been chosen and am really keen that Microbiology is part of this great event.


Come and learn how microorganisms dominant our world from Prof Hillary Lappin-Scott on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London. Hilary will be talking about: From gums to bums, bacteria through the body”. Hilary’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship of L’Oreal For Women in Science, the Zoological Society of London and the Society of General Microbiology. Follow Hilary on Twitter @lappinscott

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