Natalie Garrett (@oojeyboojey) is a Research Fellow of Biophotonics at the University of Exeter. She specialises in advanced laser imaging techniques. Her talk will focus on how she uses laser to pin-point nanoparticles inside the brain, and how this can help us understand they ways in which the nanoparticles can interact with our bodies at the cellular scale. Natalie’s talk will feature in Exeter’s Soapbox Science event on 13th June.
SS: Natalie, how did you get to your current position?
NG: To properly answer this question, I have to go all the way back to when I did my A-Levels! I had a devil of a time trying to decide which subjects to study, because I was interested in basically everything. In the end I narrowed it down to scientific subjects versus artistic subjects. After a lot of consideration, I decided to pursue art in my spare time and do Mathematics, Physics, Biology and Chemistry at A-Level. Once it was time to choose a degree programme, again I struggled with choosing which subject to pursue. I had to take a gap year to really make up my mind properly – this also helped me in other ways, as I was able to earn some extra cash to help pay for my accommodation at university and get some real-world work experience. I say “real-world” because academia is sadly not representative of society as a whole. In the end, I opted for the subject that I enjoyed the most, which was Physics, and I just hoped that the question of what I would do as a job after my degree would somehow sort itself out along the way! I was very lucky to be in a position to make this decision based on what I wanted to do rather than what I had to do to make ends meet.
My undergraduate degree was in Physics with Medical Physics – this was because I didn’t want to entirely leave Biology behind. I loved the challenge of research: choosing a problem to investigate, planning the experiment to probe this problem, using innovative approaches to analyse the outcomes of the experiments and then making conclusions about what’s been discovered. My tutor suggested that I might like to work in the laboratory one summer, being paid to do a mini research project, and I jumped at this chance. This experience of independent research pretty much got me hooked! It made sense to then take up a PhD after my degree, so that’s what I did. In many ways I was in the right place at the right time – my boss had only just set up the laser laboratory when he recruited me for my PhD and if I’d gone for a different topic, who knows where I’d be working now! Since my PhD, I’ve developed my experience in biophotonics (that is, the science of using light to image, manipulate and characterise biological samples) in the context of nano-particle imaging. I’ve always felt motivated by research that will help society in some way, which is why I’ve chosen to look into how we can improve drug transport to the brain using nano-particles.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
NG: I would say that it was in my nature to be drawn to science. My mum always tells me that I was a bit of an unusual child. Even at the age of three I had a lot of patience and would sit and observe insects in the garden for hours at a time, because I was fascinated by the tiny secret worlds that were all around us, unnoticed by most people. Many’s the time I would demand that anyone in my vicinity should pay attention to some tiny miracle of nature, such as a woodlouse giving birth. These days, not a huge amount has changed, except that now I observe tiny miracles of nature using a microscope.
At school, when I found out what science was, I knew I had found the thing I had been looking for. It resonated with my own philosophy and the principles of the scientific method have shaped my life ever since. I believe that it would benefit everyone if we could approach life as unbiased as possible, if we based our decisions on evidence rather than prejudice, if we sought to question and find answers for ourselves, all the while bearing in mind the limitations of our own subjective experience and taking other people’s experiences into account as being equally as important as our own. Also, listening to contrary opinions, being open to the possibility that we’re wrong and seeking to change ourselves for the better – this is something that is at the core of science and is something that I believe should be at the core of life in general.
So, once I had made the decision to continue studying science at university, I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up pursuing a career in science. I could have changed career path and got into finance or consulting, or even started my own business, but in the end I loved research too much to do anything else.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
NG: It’s very exciting to go into the laboratory and know that you are going to do something that nobody else has ever done before. Finding out something new that nobody’s ever proven before is a real thrill. For example, my microscopy images and analysis have helped to prove that when they’re dosed orally, the nano-particles that I study can recirculate from your gut, to your liver, to your gall bladder and then back into your gut with the bile. This recirculation pathway improves the drug uptake efficiency, and therefore you don’t have to give as high a dose if you use these nano-particles to deliver the drug.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
NG: I’m a keen science communicator and I enjoy discovering new ways to bring my research to the general public’s attention. When I heard about Soapbox Science I thought it sounded great, so I had to get involved!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
NG: We need to consider intersectionality in science. It’s not just about the fact that there aren’t enough women in STEM subjects. The sad fact is that unless you’re a non-disabled, heterosexual, caucasian, cisgender, middle-class man, you’re pretty much not represented adequately in most of science. For instance, according to a report by the Runnymede Trust, in the whole of the UK we only have 17 black female professors out of 20,000 professors in total – if the demographic of professors was truly representative of the population as a whole, then this number would be closer to 300. That statistic shows that we’re doing something seriously wrong. We’re losing out on so much talent because of the legacy of the systems of prejudice that date back to when the first universities were built. We need to recognise what factors are causing so many brilliant potential scientists to be excluded, and then we have to start again with a properly unbiased system.
I have found that many of my peers don’t seem to accept that there is a problem, they like to think that as scientists, we’re all inherently unbiased anyway. But that’s just not true – we are all guilty of having some unconscious bias and we need to admit this, find out what it is, and then improve ourselves, otherwise nothing will ever change. So perhaps I would say that we are all responsible for making this change happen and the one thing I would change about the scientific community is this: we must be the change we want to see. If you see prejudice, in any form, you must challenge it. If you don’t think you’re prejudiced yourself, you should test this theory with bias awareness training. Listen to the people who are campaigning for change, ask them what they need from you as an ally. Together, we can all make science, and society, fairer for everyone.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
NG: If you’re a PhD student, chances are you are a high achiever and you are not used to failure in life. However, you will probably unsuccessfully apply for a lot of jobs and grants and fellowships before you get the break you need. So, don’t let failure stop you from pursuing your goals. You have to keep trying!