Me, my science and I

rachel-williams.jpgBy Rachel Williams (@rachelwilliams), Newcastle University. Photo below from the Cheltenham Festivals (photographer: Graham Fudger). 

Catch Rachel on her soapbox this saturday, 1-4pm, in Newcastle city centre, where she’ll be talking about ‘Inflammation – what, why and ow! Your body’s response when sticks and stones break your bones’. 



Looking back over my journey to Soapbox Science 2015, I wouldn’t say I’ve taken the most direct route. But is there a traditional route to becoming a scientist? Does the child that dreams of being a scientist become one? I remember I wanted to be a travel agent! So how did I get here?

rachelI was exposed to science from a young age. My Dad would take me and my brother to the lab he worked in during our school holidays. I can’t remember much about the lab except the smell! A chemical, clean but musty scent! But I do vividly remember when he made a banana shatter using liquid nitrogen. I was amazed, but I never questioned the science behind this and it certainly never crossed my mind that science could be my career. In fact, although my dad enjoyed working in science, he often complained about the lack of funding and poor job security. So in my rebellious teens I decided to drop science with thoughts of becoming an actress, which of course my school and parents didn’t allow. Subsequently, I’m pleased to report that through initiatives like FameLab and Soapbox Science you can do both!

In the end I was first in my class to sign up for A level Chemistry, something that I feel was influenced by my love of TV shows like The X Files and CSI. It was clear to me that using science to attempt to solve the unexplained was what I wanted to do. Once I’d established that I couldn’t be an FBI agent because I wasn’t American, I knew a career in science beckoned! Yet I remember my despair at my school careers’ day when unhelpfully, I was told “So you want to be a scientist. That’s great. You probably know more about it than me.”. So what did I know? I knew I was more interested in biology and chemistry than physics, and in human biology rather than that of plants, but beyond that I was clueless. That was until I learnt about the immune system. At first I couldn’t believe that inside our bodies we have this super specific and complex defence mechanism that fights infections. I wanted to know more, and the best way to do this was to pursue a degree that incorporated as much immune science as possible; Bristol University was the best fit for me.

It was on a dreary autumn morning in my first year at Bristol that I was introduced to inflammation, an almost instantaneous response to injury. What blew my mind the most was that I took this response for granted. I had a lot of experience of inflammation through years of scraping my knees on hockey pitches! How could I not have questioned the underlying science? From then on, there was no stopping me as I gained knowledge and work experience in inflammation and the immune system at university and through a spell (as an actual scientist in a real job) in a global pharmaceutical company (or as I used to explain, the company that discovered Viagra!).

As one of the women accepted into Soapbox Science 2015 I got thinking whether being a women has affected any of my choices or made it more difficult to get where I am today? My answer is no, at least not yet. But that said, I am well aware of and dismayed by the inequalities that exist between the sexes in science, particularly at senior (professorial) levels. What I hope to achieve with Soapbox Science is to get as many people excited about my science as possible, particularly those who might not come across scientists every day. Perhaps their interest will only be for the hour they spend at the soapbox, better still it could stimulate discussion at home later that night, or for some it might even have a longer-lasting effect. Equally, some people will probably think it’s unexciting, and that’s ok too. Humans are inherently different, so I believe the key to getting people interested in science is having many different types of people talking about their science in equally diverse ways. As a scientist I find great pleasure in doing this. I will never forget when I told my Gran that a long-lost ancestor of bacteria, namely mitochondria, are found inside every one of our cells, and that without THEM there would be no US. Her response was “Wow, they never even taught us about cells at school, and now this!”. See you at the Soapbox in Newcastle on the 27th June.

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