Olivia Champion is a research fellow in molecular pathogenesis at the University of Exeter and recently commercialized some of her research to become co-founder and CEO of a University of Exeter spin out company called BioSystems Technology. Here she tells how her travels in Nepal inspired her career choice; how she enjoys applying basic research to solve real world problems; and how she believes that resistance to the Athena SWAN charter is undermining progress towards an equal society. Catch Olivia on her soapbox on Saturday 11th June 1-4 pm in Exeter where she will be talking about “Microbes: The good, the bad and the ugly?”
SS: Olivia, how did you get to your current position?
OC: I am a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and more recently I have also become a founder and CEO of a University spin out company called BioSystems Technology. My research interests include bacteria that cause infection in humans and animals and how we can better detect, prevent and treat infections. My route to my current position started with a gap year after A-levels during which I traveled to Nepal and India for a year. Before setting off I had a deferred entry position at Cardiff University to study Optometry as I was planning to go into the family business; both my father and grandfather were opticians. However, during my time in Nepal I lived with a family and the mother of the family became really sick with Typhoid fever. Fortunately she recovered but I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that people were still dying from drinking dirty water. It was that experience that changed the course of my career. When I got back to the UK I changed courses and studied Applied Biology rather than Optometry in Cardiff. After graduating I worked as an intern for the World Health Organisation in Geneva for the summer before getting my first proper paid job as a trainee clinical scientist in London at what is now called Public Health England (PHE). It was around this time that I married my boyfriend, moved from my home in Torquay to London and as a trainee I was sent around the country to learn the skills, techniques and meet the scientists in a range of specialist laboratories; I also spent a year working on secondment in the North Middlesex Hospital in the diagnostic Microbiology lab where I discovered that Tuberculosis is alive and well in London, and all the while I was studying part time for an M.Sc. in Clinical Microbiology at Queen Mary and Westfield University. Eventually my line manager at PHE suggested that I ought to do a PhD as without one I would hit a glass ceiling in my career. I carried out a PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) supervised by Professor Brendan Wren and funded by a Medical Research Council (MRC) studentship. Towards the end of my PhD I went to a conference where I met some professors who offered me a position working jointly between their laboratories at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver: Prof Erin Gaynor and Prof Brett Finlay. I was all set to move to Vancouver when I discovered that I was, very unexpectedly, pregnant! We made the decision to move to Vancouver before the baby arrived as I felt uncertain whether I’d still want to make the move after the baby had come along. It put a lot of pressure on me to write up, pack up and do a viva but we flew out of Heathrow the day after I defended my thesis as after that I wouldn’t have been allowed to fly on medical grounds as I was too heavily pregnant. We arrived in Vancouver and after a period of maternity leave I started my first post doc at UBC. Although I could have stayed longer at UBC we made the decision to move back to the UK for personal reasons. We moved back to Devon and I joined Prof Rick Titball as a Research Fellow in his new group at the University of Exeter. I’ve been happily working in Exeter for nearly a decade and have had a further two career breaks for maternity during that time. Over the past year or so I have been working towards commercialising some of my research and this has led to the establishment of the University of Exeter spin out company BioSystems Technology (www.biosystemstechnology.com).
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
OC: As a child I was always interested in Science and I selected science GCSE’s and A levels to study at school. I was fortunate enough to have a fabulous Biology teacher during secondary school called Miss Mason who really inspired my love of Biology. My dad has always had a great interest in science and would talk to me about scientific concepts; for example, he read Steven Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” and he would attempt to talk with me about the ideas in that book. It was all a bit over my head but I enjoyed thinking about how things work and I loved the fact that people could try to solve the mysteries of the universe by using their brains and applying logic to a problem. It was living in Nepal and seeing the devastating effect of poor hygiene and disease that really inspired me to study, and later work, in the field of pubic health and infectious disease.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
OC: The job of a researcher is to create new knowledge and I have always got a kick out of discovering something new. I love the idea that before I found it out, this piece of information was not known to the world. It’s that buzz that keeps researchers going on research projects that can last for many years. When you make a discovery or a breakthrough it is genuinely really exciting. However, for me the most fascinating part of my work is trying to apply basic research to real world problems to make a positive difference to society. Much of my research over the past 8 years has been involved with finding alternatives to experimental mice and rabbits. We have tested the use of insect larvae and have found that they can be used instead of mice for a range of different experiments such as for understanding mechanisms of pathogenesis in bacteria and also for antibiotic discovery programmes. Results obtained from the insect larvae correlate well with results from mice and we (and other researchers) have found that the number of mice can be reduced by up to 80-90% in some studies. It is this research that has been commercialized to form BioSystems Technology. We believe that the use of our insect larvae can not only save many thousands of mice and rabbits, but can also increase the success of drug discovery programmes by allowing huge panels of compounds to be screened at a rate that just wouldn’t have been feasible in mammals due to the cost as well as ethical issues.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
OC: Soapbox is a fantastic initiative that promotes the breakdown of gender sterotypes, supports female scientists and provides positive role models for children. These aims are really important for both science and society as a whole, not just in the UK but around the world. I fully support the aims of Soapbox Science and I’ve been involved in outreach projects previously in my role as a STEMNET ambassador.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
OC: In a word I would say I am “delighted” to have been selected as a Soapbox speaker and I can’t wait for the big day.
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
OC: When I was a girl I didn’t perceive that sexism was really a problem any more. I felt that there was nothing to stop a woman from succeeding in her ambitions so long as she worked hard and had a “can do” attitude. However, the evidence shows us that regardless of hard work, female scientists are far less likely to secure a permanent academic position compared with their male counterparts. Data collected from Universities across the UK on the gender split during academic progression in STEM disciplines highlights the problem and Figure 1 exemplifies the situation. Grade F is the last point in a researcher’s career progression before tenure. In this example, there are equal numbers of men and women at every point until grade F after which the number of women drops dramatically from around 50% to around 15%. To women entering a career in academia with ambitions to become a professor this makes sobering reading.
The reasons behind the stark gender imbalance in academia are now being investigated and appear to be multifactorial. Obviously there is the fact that the female reproductive window of opportunity coincides with the point at which she’d finish her education and would ideally put her foot down with her career. But, career breaks for maternity leave and the ongoing disruption of juggling family life with a career, the need for flexible working hours and good child care are not the only factors at play. Many talented women without children do not secure tenure and conscious and unconscious discrimination may be a factor in this. Worrying evidence by Moss-Racusin and colleagues published in PNAS in 2012 reveals outright sexism by academics who favour male students.
The current spotlight on gender imbalance in science is thanks to the Athena SWAN charter that promotes gender equality and which was championed by Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor in 2011. Dame Sally Davies placed a financial incentive on academic institutions to address their gender inequality issues by restricting the award of research funding to only those institutions that had achieved a Silver award of the Athena SWAN charter for women in science.
However, despite the obvious gender inequality in science and the positive role of Athena SWAN in addressing this important issue I have encountered resistance to Athena SWAN from senior academics who see Athena SWAN as a politically correct annoyance and from younger women who may still be blissfully unaware of the glass ceiling that their heads are about to crash into. Many of the women who I have seen objecting to Athena SWAN are either too young or too junior to have been aware of being affected by any of the issues that Athena SWAN aims to address. Yet, ironically, in time these women will see that they are the very people that the charter is trying to protect. Their opposition to Athena SWAN, combined with the opposition by a small group creates a culture in which it becomes difficult to tackle the issues and consequently slows progress. It also disheartens the women who are at the glass ceiling and are trying to have their voices heard.
If I could change one thing about science culture right now it would be to garner an overwhelming support for Athena SWAN, not just as a tick box exercise but to entrench the equality charter’s aims into the fabric of institutions to create a more equal society.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
OC: My top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia would be to do your first post doc in the best overseas laboratory that you can. A strong first post doc position is critical if you have ambitions to become a professor as it is often during this period in your career that you will establish yourself as a potential leader in your field and you will be eligible to apply for early career research fellowships that can support an important first step into independence. To identify the best laboratory in which to do your first post doc, principal investigators can be assessed by their international reputation which you will pick up from word of mouth and from conferences. In addition, the quality of a lab can be measured by the number and impact factor of its publications, and the number and value of grants that have been won. It becomes far harder to travel and be flexible if and when you decide to have children.