At School, I never thought about becoming a scientist: Meet Catherine Back

Catherine BackDr Catherine Back is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in the School of Oral and Dental Sciences at the University of Bristol. She is a molecular microbiologist with particular interest in microbial surface adhesins – molecules that help bacteria stick to other cells and surfaces. Here Catherine explains her journey to becoming a scientist and how important promoting women in science is to her. She will be bringing her talk “Sticky bacteria: The science behind how bacteria attach to us and to each other, and why this is important in disease” to Bristol on the 16th July 2016.



SS: Catherine, how did you get to your current position?

CB: I finished my PhD in 2014 and was offered a Post-doc position working in the same lab to complete the work I had begun during my studies. I accepted and have been here ever since.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

CB: When I was at school I never thought about becoming a scientist. I enjoyed a wide variety of subjects and consequently had numerous ideas for potential careers: I wanted to be a vet, then an astronaut, then a classicist, then a doctor, then an art historian…the list was endless! It wasn’t until I was looking at options to go to university that I considered science as a possibility. I had studied the sciences at A-level, and after a long, hard think during a gap year I decided on a degree in Cellular and Molecular Medicine. My inspiration for a career in science came during my final year undergraduate research project – I enjoyed the lab work so much I decided that I would like to continue studying for a PhD, so I could get a job as a scientist.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

CB: Discovering how proteins, only nanometres in length, work and what they physically look like is absolutely amazing.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

CB: Most people who know me know I am passionate about promoting women in science and publicising that scientists aren’t all old men with crazy hair and beards! When I heard about Soapbox Science I thought it sounded terrifying, but decided to practise what I preach and go for it.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

CB: Mostly fear, mixed with thrill.
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

CB: That is a difficult one – there are quite a few things I’d like to change! If I could only change one thing however, it would be how success in academia is judged on the number of publications you have. This leads to a preference to study quick and easy, high impact research, resulting in a large number of publications. While more challenging research, which takes longer to come to fruition, and thus accrues fewer publications, is less attractive.

Additionally, the atmosphere of academia is inherently competitive. This is good for the advancement of knowledge, but not for a healthy, balanced work-social-family life. Researchers who can and want to work all hours of the day and night get more papers published, and thus get ahead. But this can mean those who do not wish to, or can’t because of family commitments, get left behind.

This leads to researchers (many of them female) either dropping out of academia for a more stable career, or not even attempting to begin a career in academia due to fear of failing or of insurmountable competition.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

CB: Go for it! It is a wonderful career, which will take you around the world and allow you to meet so many interesting people. It is undoubtedly hard work, but please don’t be put off – it is worth it in the end.

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