Ann Ager gained a PhD in vascular biology from the University of Cambridge and moved to Professor Judah Folkman’s laboratory, Harvard Medical School, USA, to study microvascular endothelium. She then moved to Professor Bill Ford’s laboratory in Manchester, UK, to study lymphocyte trafficking into lymph glands. She gained a non-clinical MRC Senior Fellowship before moving to the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in London, UK. She now leads a team of scientists at Cardiff University studying how cells of the immune system move around the body in order to protect against infection, fight cancer and repair damaged tissues. Come meet Ann on the 10th of June at our Cardiff event!
SS: Ann, how did you get to your current position?
AA: I started my research career in Cambridge many years ago studying how to keep blood vessels healthy. This involved understanding the different types of cells that blood vessels are made of and how they ‘talk ‘to each other. My first degree was in Biochemistry, which involves taking cells apart to understand them. The discovery during my PhD that you could study whole cells by growing them in tissue culture flasks was a revelation (the discipline of Cell Biology had not yet been established) and I discovered that I had green fingers for this!
During my PhD, a post-doctoral fellow I shared a bench with was studying a brand new area of research; how blood vessels talk to immune cells to tell them to go to infected tissues. This excited me more than my PhD project so, from then on, I decided that this was what I was going to work on. I have been fortunate enough to have achieved my aim.
My research career has taken me to Harvard Medical School, Manchester University, the National Institute for Medical Research (now the Crick Institute) and now Cardiff University. This work and my career would not be possible without external funding and I have been, and continue to be, supported by the UK Research Councils, Medical Charities and Pharmaceutical Industries. I have also had the pleasure of supervising and mentoring many talented PhD and undergraduate science students as well as post-doctoral fellows who have gone on to interesting and varied careers in science inside and outside of academia. I have also benefited from having great colleagues who have enriched my life and made by career in biomedical research exciting and enjoyable.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
AA: Not sure I have a simple answer to this. I was not particularly interested in science in lower school and my focus was on foreign languages. When it came to selecting subjects for GSCE, the school Head advised me to take Chemistry, Physics and Biology (my family was planning to relocate to a different area and it was suggested that I could be a couple of years behind in some languages at a new school). With hindsight, I was at a Girls school and I think they wanted to increase the numbers of girls studying science, but maybe that is me being cynical. Since that decision, I stayed with the 3 sciences at ‘A’ level and chose Biochemistry for my first degree because I was strong in Chemistry. I realised early on that I like laboratory work as well as the intellectual stimulation and the international nature of biomedical research.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
AA: You never know what you are going to discover in your experiments.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science Cardiff 2017 in the first place?
AA: The opportunity to communicate with stakeholders and inform them of the achievements they have enabled. I am still disappointed by the lack of equal representation of women in leading positions in biomedical research, despite their dominance at junior levels. Career progression comes in all shapes and sizes and there is no one size fits all formula so it is important to relate one’s own experiences.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
AA: Fun, hopefully!
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
AA: Ditch the’ publish or perish’ attitude.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?
AA: If you find a topic interesting, then IT IS interesting and worth studying. Follow your instincts and stick to your guns. Don’t disadvantage yourself by not applying because you think you are not good enough. Let the reviewers decide! Find yourself a good mentor or mentor(s) who can advise and support you at all stages of your career, but particularly when you are starting out.