I had a head mistress who wanted “her girls” to do science and engineering: Meet Liz Tanner

Liz TannerLiz Tanner (@LizTanner99) is a Professor of Biomedical Materials at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are focused on the development and use of bioactive materials for bone augmentation and replacement. Here, she tells us about the importance of understanding that there are multiple roads from A to B, about her fascinating research and how grandparents can be key role models. Liz will be speaking at our Soapbox Science Glasgow event this June.


SS: Liz, tell us how you did get to your current position

LT: I was at a girls school that has a very good reputation for the science teaching, in my year they had to run 2 A level Physics classes as so many of us wanted to do Physics. The head mistress also wanted “her girls” to do science and engineering and we were encouraged to go for it. The engineer in each year seemed to alternate between going to Oxford or Cambridge.

After my undergraduate degree I was offered a PhD studentship and stayed on. The project was to understand how the movements in a broken leg changed during the healing progressed. I was working with a group of patients being treated by my clinical supervisor. As part of my PhD I spent a month as a medical student doing orthopaedics which gave me a really good insight into the pressures and constraints that clinicians work under.

As I finished my PhD I got offered a one year research contact at Queen Mary part of the University of London. That contract got extended and extended and eventually I got a permanent job as a lecturer. In 1998 I became a Professor along with the various other jobs involved including being Dean of Engineering. That certainly confused some of the other Deans of Engineering in London the first time I turned up to a meeting, not only was I younger than the rest I was also female.

The research group I worked with had applied for and been awarded the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Biomedical Materials for the whole of the UK, but based in 4 parts of London University. This was 10 years funding with major equipment budget and 10 PhD students per year etc. This was wonderful as we could get on with projects that ran for more than the usual 2-3 years, so take ideas as Professor Bonfield, the Director, said “from concept to patient”. The IRC had people from engineers and chemists to clinicians so the right people were there throughout the process.

In 2007 I moved to the University of Glasgow. Since I’ve been here I’ve continued and developed my research, but also got asked to develop a degree in Biomedical Engineering and the first major batch of students graduate this summer. It has been challenging and fun to develop the degree, but also the feedback from the students have very much helped improve the degree. I also enjoy seeing students progress from just having left school through to being graduates.


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

LT: I always wanted to know “how things work” so that it was drove me to engineering rather than one of the pure sciences. My grandfather was a neurologist (brain specialist) and although he was 80 when I was born, something of him appears to have rubbed off on me. I will like to know “why” things happen and then “how” can we control them. I chose my Oxford college to follow my grandmother who had done medicine there in the 1900s.

Last week-end I was at Stokesay Court in Shropshire which was a First World War auxiliary hospital so I was discussing what both these grandparents did as army doctors and the patients they treated at the Front before going onto places like Stokesay.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

LT: Understanding the interaction between the materials we put into the human body and the body. If we understand this we can then try to convince the body to react in the most useful way to get the right response. Of course the ‘right response” depends on what we are developing. For an orthopaedic implant we usually want bone to grow onto the implant and hold it strongly into the bone for the rest of the person’s life. A new project we are developing a degradable implant for babies’s windpipes, here we want as little response to the implant as possible and then it to “go away” as the child grows. We need to change the surfaces of these devices to change the way the body responds to them


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

LT: I enjoy telling people what I do and why it is important. Also living in London I saw the speakers on Sunday mornings at Speaker’s Corner (Marble Arch) and wondered if I’d ever just get up and talk about what I think is important.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?

LT: I think it’s going to be Fun!!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be

LT: Be less blinkered. There are people that think there is only one correct way to do things. No, getting from A to B can be done by a variety of routes and not doing the way you’d do it is not the wrong way.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

LT: Find an interesting subject and follow it, but also think laterally about what is novel from the work you are doing and where can you take it. Of course – don’t believe people who think you can’t do things – of course you can, you may need to think of a different way to achieve it – brains will beat brawn. And I think the other essential is a sense of humour when you find someone who thinks “women can’t do…”.

My grandmother tried to become a navy doctor in 1914 and the answer was “we don’t have the facilities” (translation – female toilets). So she tried the Red Cross, that failed so she joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital Corps and they worked with the French Croix Rouge and provided a hospital run entirely by women, until the British Army decided that they were actually competent and useful. At this point she ended up in the Royal Army Medical Corps. She worked her way around to what she wanted to do.

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