Surround yourself with a supportive network: Meet Jessica Brown

Jessica Brown is in her second year as a PhD student in the XM2 Metamaterials Centre of Doctoral Training at the University of Exeter, where she is working on a project on acoustic microfluidics and phononic crystals. Here she tells us how her passion for physical science led her to her current position and what inspires her to strive in her field. Hopefully you caught Jessica’s talk at Exeter’s 2018 Soapbox Science event on the 29th of September!


SS: How did you get to your current position?

JB: Funnily enough, it all started when I was offered a place on a Graduate Business Partner internship at Exeter University – I had been working in a shoe shop back home for a few months after I finished my MPhys Physics with Astrophysics degree (also at Exeter), during which I’d been applying unsuccessfully for graduate schemes and PhD positions, mostly in astrophysics. The University Career Zone rang me up to suggest that I apply for the internship to help me into graduate level employment, and I was offered the role. Our team’s project looked at how well taught undergraduate modules aligned with the University’s overall Education Strategy, and as part of that we met module leaders to discuss their module content, assessment and teaching. I actually ended up meeting my now-supervisor who runs the Natural Sciences course here, and after he found out I was a Physics graduate, he asked if I would be interested in a PhD project with him. I had always wanted to do a PhD but never really had a break, so I jumped at the opportunity! I feel like I’ve taken a big risk switching from astrophysics and joining the XM2 Metamaterials Centre of Doctoral Training – people tend to have more practical backgrounds like experimental physics or engineering, or something similar to their PhD project – but I’m learning so many new skills and now my research feels more relevant to the real world. Having said all this, I always find it funny to think about how I wouldn’t be here now if I hadn’t worked in that shoe shop!


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

JB: I had always had a strong interest in science from a young age, but it really boils down to my teachers at school. Towards the end of my time at primary school, I had the most inspiring science teacher who really instilled my love of physical science, so my (slightly meandering!) journey towards a physics PhD is almost certainly thanks to him. My love of astronomy in particular was motivated by my GCSE Physics teacher, who had a very engaging approach to the topic I eventually concentrated on at university. Meeting my supervisor as an intern was also really inspiring, especially seeing his enthusiasm for what is now my research – this convinced me to change directions, and now working with him and the wider research group is fantastic!


A snippet from Jessica’s day: Finite-element modelling of surface acoustic wave streaming using COMSOL Multiphysics.

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

JB: I’m still fairly early on in my project, so I’ve been concentrating on computational simulation and modelling so far with a little experimental work. At the moment, I’m still trying to get up to speed with the field! I suppose what I’m most excited about is the number of directions in which we could possibly go with it – I’ve had a lot of time to read lots of interesting papers about potential applications, which include things like biomedical diagnosis. If my research could be used to help people with illnesses, that would be very fulfilling for me.


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

JB: I was pointed towards the scheme by a previous participant in the CDT who said it was a great experience – it looks like a great way to introduce the public to interesting science, while simultaneously promoting female scientists. I also feel it’s very easy to get bogged down in your research, so taking a step back to think about it from the point of view of someone without a scientific background is a useful exercise.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

JB: Outreach.


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

JB: I feel that the world of science is extremely competitive, which can be a good thing in terms of making fast progress in research, but at the same time it can be quite a daunting world to enter – I’m only at the beginning of my career (possibly even before it!) and I worry sometimes about being able to make my mark on my field of research.


Jessica explaining her research to other XM2 post-graduate researchers.

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

JB: I definitely recommend surrounding yourself with a supportive network of other scientists (both female and male) and sticking to your guns – “imposter syndrome” is real, and you always know more than you think you do!

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Interdisciplinary research gives you a unique set of skills: Meet Monika Bokori-Brown

Dr. Monika Bokori-Brown is a research fellow at the University of Exeter where she studies bacterial toxins. Here she tells us about her work, what inspires her most and why she decided to take part in Soapbox Science. You can come and hear Monika speak at Soapbox Science in Exeter on the 29th of September where you can hear about her most recent discoveries!




SS: How did you get to your current position?

MBB: The route to my current position has been rather unconventional. I studied Biology and English at degree level in Hungary, both of which worked to my advantage when I decided to move into scientific research in the UK. Having completed an MSc in Molecular Biology, I became a research scientist at Porton Down where, as part of the molecular team, I engineered botulinum neurotoxins for the treatment of chronic pain. Whilst I really enjoyed being part of this commercial-oriented, multi-disciplinary project, I quickly realized that if I wanted to progress my career in science I needed to get a PhD. This meant leaving my permanent position to become a student again! I did my PhD at Cambridge University where my research focused on the molecular and cell biology aspects of a mitochondrial disease that affects the nervous system. After this I took a postdoctoral research scientist position at a start-up biotech company in Cambridge before retracing my steps into the field of bacterial toxins 11 years ago when I became a Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. Over the past five years my research has developed at the interface between biology and physics, using novel approaches to understand the biophysical and molecular aspects of the interaction of bacterial toxins with the cell membrane. Moving into interdisciplinary research has given me a unique set of skills and has allowed me develop my own area of research. I hope to build upon my established knowledge and expertise over the next few years to become a leading independent researcher.


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

MBB: Ever since I finished my undergraduate studies in Hungary I have been dreaming of becoming a research scientist. During my MSc studies I had an extremely supportive Professor as a mentor who inspired and motivated me to get a career in science. I strongly believe that encouragement and professional mentorship is critical to succeed in the highly competitive world of academic research. It is also very important to have a plan on what direction you want your research to take in the early stages of your career.


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

Image of bacterial toxin-induced killing of human red blood cells. Dead cells appear with faint outlines of their membranes. Live cells have a distinctive halo around their edges.

MBB: Bacterial toxins tend to have a bad reputation and I want to show people that they also have a good side, helping us to develop novel therapeutics to combat serious animal and human diseases. I particularly enjoy the interdisciplinary aspect of my research, collaborating with many talented researchers whose skills complement mine. In the longer term, I hope that my interdisciplinary research will lead to new approaches to controlling bacterial infections caused by toxins. Development of novel therapeutics to fight bacterial infections is critical and timely, given the increasing incidence of antimicrobial resistant bacterial infections worldwide.


Bacterial pore forming toxins are typically produced by bacteria as one protein, called a monomer. In this form they are relatively inactive. However, when the monomers reach their target in the cell membrane they quickly become active and self-assemble into mushroom-shaped pores that puncture holes in the cell membrane. Through the mushroom’s stalk, called the pore, small molecules leak out of the cell, causing cells to die.


One way to prevent bacterial infections caused by toxins is to produce toxoid vaccines, a type of vaccine that contains toxins made harmless by inactivation. Amino acid substitution is a good way to inactivate toxins. The image shows a bacterial toxin with amino acids important for its function marked in blue.


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

MBB: Scientists often stay in their own ‘bubble’ of research groups with few opportunities to interact with the public. Becoming a Soapbox Science speaker will give me a rare opportunity to engage with the public in an unconventional way to inspire the next generation of scientists. It will also allow me to increase the visibility of my research.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

MBB: Rewarding


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

MBB: I have now reached a critical stage in my career where if I wanted to advance my career within academia I would have to move organisations to get onto the academic career ladder and give up the practical aspect of research I love so much. This is because the current academic structure offers very limited career progression and job security for postdoctoral researchers and does not encourage postdoctoral researchers to apply for academic positions within the same organisation, which would allow for career progression. The limited career progression and job security for postdoctoral researchers mean that they often decide to leave science, which is extremely wasteful given the cost of training PhD students. I strongly believe that more credit needs to be given to postdoctoral researchers who make significant contribution to the success of their academic supervisors in terms of securing funding. If I could change one thing about the scientific culture right now it would be the career structure for postdoctoral researchers within academia.



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How I got to study the rarest whales in our oceans: Meet Kirsten Thompson, marine scientist and mother of three

Kirsten Thompson is a marine mammal geneticist and Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. Here she describes her fascinating journey into science and the challenges of her next step. You can come and meet Kirsten and hear her speak about her work with deep diving marine mammals at Soapbox Science in Exeter on the 22nd of September.




By Kirsten Thompson 

Beaked whales are an enigmatic group of mammals. They are medium-sized, deep diving oceanic whales that we know nothing about. There are 22 recognized species of beaked whale but only very few species have been studied or even observed alive. Many species have only been described in the past 50 years after becoming stranded on our coasts. My work has used samples from stranded animals, together with DNA-based methods and morphological analyses, to try to better understand the lives of these deep ocean whales. I have investigated genetic population structure and ecology, morphology and social organisation in Gray’s beaked whale – a species that lives in the Southern Hemisphere and is only very rarely seen alive. In researching this curious whale, we also uncovered the external appearance of a mystery species – the spadetoothed beaked whale – that was previously known from only three bone fragments. Amazing that there are still 5 m long mammals that live out in the deep ocean and are still a mystery to science.


How I became a whale biologist

My first inspiration, Shetland where I grew up

I grew up in Shetland and my childhood was spent running around in the wild studying the birds, seals, wild horses and digging around in rock pools. There is one high school in Shetland, overlooking the sea. At the weekends I spent my time working on a farm, riding horses and working with my dad on his boat. Shetland is an inspiring place, full of wilderness and extreme weather, it would be hard to grow up there and not have a relationship with wildlife. I studied zoology at the University of Glasgow and tried to get as much experience in every summer holiday. In 1990 I spent a summer as a deckhand on a Greenpeace ship ­– life at sea is fun, every day is different and driving huge powerful inflatables is a blast.


My first job after graduating was as a research assistant surveying for otters around Shetland. I wrote numerous letters to one of the most prominent mammal biologists, Professor Hans Kruuk, who I knew would be assessing the impacts of the Braer oil spill on the otters of Shetland. Eventually Professor Kruuk must have wondered who this crazy girl was that kept pestering him and telephoned me inviting me to join the survey. I worked as a research assistant on several field projects – radio tracking red squirrels and pine marten, surveying barnacle geese – before moving to the University of Oxford to work on badgers. Working as a biologist is a privilege – you are able to see some of the most beautiful species, up close in a way that only few people can.


Getting hooked on venturing out to sea, one of the research vessels I worked on early in my career

In Oxford I worked for the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit on several projects, ultimately leading me to work on marine mammals. I was offered a job on a research yacht and was hooked. I spent extensive periods at sea, sailing the waters of the Azores, Caribbean and the Mediterranean while researching sperm whales and other cetaceans – acoustic tracking, recording behaviour and using photoidentification to monitor individuals and populations, and analysing the data in Oxford. At that time, I had bought and rebuilt a narrow boat and lived on the Oxford Canal. Field work is fantastic because it is so varied. Sometimes we would track and follow a pod of sperm whales for 10 days and nights, film them underwater and record the intimacies of their lives. Other times we spent days ashore talking to local communities about our research and analysing data. I worked on many field projects at sea, with different focal species and different techniques – aerial surveys, photoidentification, behavioural observation.


I met my husband and within a couple of years we started a family and moved to New Zealand. I started a PhD at the University of Auckland, which I postponed to raise my boys. My return to work was part-time on a large humpback research project run by a colleague and friend at Auckland. I was lucky to be part of an active research group with marine mammal conservation projects running over the South Pacific. I contributed to data management, photo-identification analyses and later curation of one of the largest cetacean tissue collections in the world.


Another adventure, publishing!

My interest in genetics stemmed from working with many talented ecologists and geneticists – some of the scientists working in New Zealand are leaders in the field of conservation genetics so I took the opportunity to upskill. I enrolled in a Masters by Research part-time, got a student loan for fees, commuted, worked four part-time jobs, did homework with my boys, never missed a sports day and shared running our home with my husband. After publishing my first lead-author paper, I managed to get a university scholarship and some external funding. I listened carefully and learned from fantastic supervisors, collaborators and the highly skilled technician in our laboratory – and managed to get a First (top marks)! When we moved back to the UK, I carried on publishing our work and put together my PhD by Publication at the University of Exeter.


Now that I have my PhD, I am faced with the tricky task of trying to find funding for research or an appropriate postdoctoral position near where I live. It’s not easy. As scientists in an academic environment we apply to funding bodies to get money to pay for our research and for someone in my position, our salary. I am applying for Fellowships alongside working part-time as a consultant for Greenpeace Research Laboratories. I have a small grant to carry out more genomics work on Southern Hemisphere beaked whales, with collaborators in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.


Soapbox Science is about women in science and it is about changing the outdated expectation in academia that professors are old men in white-coats that stay in the lab and waffle on about science in a way that no one else can understand. Social media – #kindnessinscience, #womeninscience #oceanoptimism – tells us that the times are changing. Let’s gently and respectfully change the paradigm of science and in doing so break the mould!


Three words for women seeking a career in science: listen, learn and persist.


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Using electrophysiology to study Alzheimer’s Disease: Meet Soraya Meftah


Soraya Meftah is a PhD Student based at the University of Exeter and Bristol, funded by the MRC GW4 Biomed DTP. Her current research focuses on early changes in connections between neurons in Alzheimer’s Disease. She does this using electrophysiology and multi-photon microscopy (measures electricity in the brain and looks at it using a really powerful laser beam!). Come and meet Soraya this Saturday at Exeter’s Soapbox Science event!


SS: How did you get to your current position?

SM: By many applications and a little luck! I was working at a pharmaceutical company in research and development and decided that I enjoyed and wanted to do research as a career. So I made the decision to apply for a PhD. I’d heard of the research happening here and at Bristol and decided that it would be a good fit for me and match up with the research I was doing at the time. So here I am! But it didn’t come easily, it took a lot of searching, a number of applications (and rejections) before I ended up with a few offers of where to go and decided that here would be the best fit.


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

SM: Well I’ve always enjoyed science. The fact that you can constantly be working at new and challenging things was always a draw. When I was younger, I was intrigued with the world around me and science always gave me new challenges and kept me interested. So I think that gave me the idea that I would like science. However, I think there have also been people in my life that have helped me along the way including a number of very encouraging supervisors that have supported and kept me going in science.


A neuron filled with a dye after recording

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

SM: So my current and previous research has been on Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a terrible disease that affects 850,000 people in the UK alone, and to be able to work at helping to understand and combat a disease like this is really rewarding. I guess the most fascinating part of my research is that I am helping to shape my area of research that will help the larger field of research and find out novel things that no one else has seen. Currently, I’m focussing on the way the connections in the brain in a model of Alzheimer’s Disease change and how they change prior to seeing any symptoms. I’ve seen some subtle changes that may hint at early alterations in these connections in Alzheimer’s Disease.


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

Giving a talk about some of my data

SM: Soapbox Science is something that encompasses a lot of aspects that I feel are important in science. Engagement with the public about science is important as we are at the end of the day serving the public. Scientific research would not be happening without the support of the public and we owe it to them to share what we know with them. Also, it’s fun to share what you have learnt about the world and people are interested in learning about what we do.

In addition, increasing the visibility of women in science and the struggles we face having a career in science is the only way we will change how things work. I couldn’t imagine having a career in anything else and so making it easier for women who want to stay in science without extra barriers being in the way is really important to me and for the future of science. Our thoughts and research are just as valuable and yet we are overlooked in multiple ways.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

SM: Sciencitement!


Me with my electrophysiology rig in Exeter (ready to record some cells!)

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

SM: Job stability vs pressure to move. In science, or at least in my field, there isn’t always job availability at the end of your contract (usually short and fixed term of 2-3 years) and when that’s done if you haven’t managed to secure money then you’re looking at moving somewhere far away typically to get another job doing similar work.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

SM: Perseverance! It took me a while to get where I am currently, and I had to work hard but I think if you aim and be realistic with those aims you will get there.


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What it means to be a woman from an under privileged background in science: Meet Sariqa Wagley

Sariqa Wagley is a researcher at the University of Exeter in the Biosciences department where she works on bacterial pathogens affecting human health. Here she narrates her route through education, talks to us about the challenges facing women and those from underprivileged backgrounds in science, discloses her favourite bacteria and tells us what Soapbox Science means to her. You can come and meet Sariqa in Exeter on the 22nd of September when she gets on her soapbox in the centre of town!




What it means to be a woman from an under privileged background in science

By Sariqa Wagley


How did I get into science? Pull up a pew…

I am a Muslim Asian woman who grew up in Luton (Bedfordshire).  At high school I was one of the brightest students in the year and I enjoyed school thoroughly and finished with great GCSE results. I carried out voluntary work at the local hospital and it was then I knew I wanted to study health and disease in some form. Both my parents had limited access to education in India but understood that a good education would lead to good job prospects and more opportunities. They placed a heavy emphasis on education and schooling and pushed me and my siblings to go to university. However, being from a low income family this was not an easy task. The year I was to start university the government scrapped maintenance grants for those studying in higher education. My parents were against taking out student loans with a fear that I may not be able to pay it back and would be faced with a debt early in life. I realised that if I was going to go to university I was going to have to start earning money. I found a part time job in the final year of high school and started saving my money to help pay for university.  I went to the local sixth form college and I found myself struggling straight away to keep on top of my studies. I managed to scrape through my A-levels and got a place at Surrey University to study Medical Microbiology. I had to carry on working in the first year to help pay my way and again during the course I found myself struggling to stay on top of things.

When I finished my first year with a mere 50% overall I was totally disheartened and dismayed at my progress or lack of! I went to see my personal tutor and slumped in a chair in his office I remember listening to him go through some of my exam papers and tell me how I had failed to grasp the questions in my exam and answer them properly.  After a while, I think he must have felt sorry for me as he changed his tone and started asking me what I wanted to do and why was I at university. I told him about my interest in science, what motivated me about my course, I told him about my parents who pushed me to have the best education and that having a university degree was key to that. I told him I didn’t have much money and that I had a part time job working Wednesdays (the day students have free for extracurricular activities) and weekends. It was then he made some critical changes that pretty much changed how my career went.  He sent me on an extra tuition course aimed for foreign students and made me attend an essay writing course. He encouraged me to reduce my hours on my job and gave me some extra reading to do around my modules. I felt a little insulted and an incredible amount of shame thinking how could I possibly need all this extra help when I had been the top of my school only three years previous.  The feeling of being somewhere I didn’t belong was hitting me hard and being surrounded by top students, who seemed to know and have everything, I felt like the outsider.

A report by the Sutton Trust published in 2008 on ‘Increasing higher education participation amongst disadvantaged young people and schools in poor communities’ stated that 60,000 pupils (10% of the cohort) who at some point were among the top fifth performers in their school, still failed to enter higher education by the age of 19. Furthermore, 70% of 11-16 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds said they would go into higher education, but the reality of students choosing to go to university was lower.  The main reasons for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds not continuing their further education was their need to start earning, avoid debt and they felt disillusioned with formal learning.  Furthermore, those in poorer families lacked the support from their peer groups and families and the aspirations were lower in how far they could go with their education.

Now many years later, it is easy for me to say I came through that second year at university with an overall 60%, which was a huge improvement. But in reality, I had to face some hard facts about whether I was suited for higher education and I had to take on board a lot of practical advice to change my circumstances which was not easy. I recognise those findings from the Sutton Report in my own experience and realise that had I not had the support of my tutor (Late Dr Tony Chamberlain) at Surrey University I would most probably have dropped out sometime in my second year.

In 2003, I carried out my industrial placement year at a government science lab called Cefas in Weymouth working on human pathogens which sealed my future as a microbiology scientist. The good news was I saved enough money from my industrial placement to ditch my part time job in my final year and so I could concentrate fully on my studies. I finished with a 2:1 degree in Medical Microbiology and was offered a PhD at Cefas for 4 years to carry out research in microbiology. Due to the struggles I had faced prior to and during my degree; graduating was a very proud moment for me.


Is it all plain sailing from here? Well….

I finished my PhD and came to work at the University of Exeter as a post doc. Here, I found the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students make up 20% of the undergraduate student cohort (data for 2016) which is a smaller proportion of the UK cohort than other Russell Group universities. The number of staff from BAME groups in Biosciences where I am based is a low 8% in 2016/2017.  Recently, the University of Exeter came into the headlines, when a number of students were expelled following allegations of racism, sexism, and homophobia towards other students. Earlier this year, at Nottingham Trent University, a black student captured the moment on video when she was forced to hide in her dorm room while being subjected to a tirade of racist abuse from other students. Given the environment that students and sometimes staff encounter on higher education campuses the low uptake numbers of BAME students and staff at University of Exeter does not surprise me. I have accepted that getting into and surviving in academia for people of BAME and/or from disadvantaged backgrounds is still not an easy task and more needs to be done to change the environment that students and staff are being recruited into.

2016/2017 data for academic career progression pipelines in Biosciences (Exeter University)

Discrimination on higher education campuses is not limited to amongst the student body. There is a significant amount of inequality in career progression through academia which I had not been prepared for. At undergraduate level there are more females (63%) than males (37%) in Biosciences at the University of Exeter. As the academic progresses through their career trajectory the number of males and females are even until they reach a tenure position i.e. a permanent position with a university.  At this point the balance shifts and the number of female staff drops dramatically and becomes male biased. The key question for me when I heard these facts were ‘what is happening to all these women and why are they dropping out?’


So why are women dropping out?

Some researchers are focusing on women’s choices to explain the number of women dropping out of the work force in STEM subjects. Unfortunate terms such as the ‘Opt-Out’ idea coined by the New York Times in 2003 suggests that some women in successful jobs once they reach around 30 – 40 years old decide to opt-out of their careers usually to spend more time with their families. These women who ‘Opt-Out’ state that it was not due to discrimination or other barriers in the workplace, but because it was their choice to do so and that they choose different things to men.  I do not agree with this ill-termed ‘Opt-Out’ idea as it has not been very easy for me to get to where I am in my career and as an early career researcher hearing that independent educated women chose to drop out or leave academia is hard to grasp.  The problem with the ‘Opt-Out’ idea is that the onus or blame for the low levels of women in higher positions in the workplace is put solely on women and the root of these patterns remains ignored.

Breaking down gender stereotypes in academia and changing structural barriers that face women such as policies around maternity and paternity leave, recruitment, promotion, leave taking and decision making within departments are all important factors that are or have been hindering women’s career progression. I also believe, that continued unconscious biases in academic culture are predisposing men for career success and leaving women in the side lines. These biases include ideas such as ‘working mums’ are not committed to their careers, or that women are too emotional, that women speak too softly, women who show high levels of emotional intelligence cannot be effective in leading, and ideas like ‘men are the born leaders’ and women are just seen as bossy when take charge.  These biases are exasperated by the high emphasis on winning and securing funding which can be a significant hindrance to both men and women in academia.  As a consequence women are missing out on good jobs with good salaries and long term the academic environment is losing a wide talent pool of female scientists that bring diversity in different thought process’ and research talent.


Who am I now and what am I doing in science?

It is has been over 10 years since I finished my university degree and I have been a research scientist at the University of Exeter since 2008. I work on understanding how bacteria cause disease in humans and what weapons they have to make us sick. By doing this research I can help make informed decisions about strategies for detection, prevention and cure of bacterial infections in humans. I have worked on a number of different bacteria that make people sick and my favourite is called Vibrio parahaemolyticus.  It causes gastroenteritis when people eat raw or under cooked shellfish that are contaminated with this bacterium.  In 2016, I won a significant BBSRC research grant to study this pathogen and I am now studying how V. parahaemolyticus enters a dormant or sleep-like state when faced with stressful conditions and how it reawakens from this sleep when those conditions around them become more favourable. This is a clever defence strategy that bacteria have to help them survive adverse conditions and environments.  I love my job as a researcher and enjoy making new discoveries and having an impact in the real world.  I get to work with top scientists from institutes such as Cefas, FDA, DSTL, Natural History Museum, and defence agencies in the USA.  I have been fortunate enough to travel (one of the perks of the job) and present my research to people all over the world including Europe, Thailand, USA, New Zealand and Australia. I am currently applying for fellowships which would secure me a permanent position in academia. I know I still have a long way to go before I will be truly satisfied I have made it in science. But if it had not been for my own personal determination, and encouragement from my parents and support from my tutor at university, I would not have been able to contribute to science and society in the way that I have.


What attracted me to Soapbox Science in the first place?

I believe that all young people should have a chance to enter higher education regardless of their background and gender or where they live.  At the University of Exeter, the Centre for Social Mobility is there to help support students from disadvantaged groups and realise their potential through higher education.  There is widening participation and access programmes that are geared to increasing uptake of BAME students and those from disadvantaged groups and I hope the University of Exeter can increase their targets in this area by using these programmes to maximise the best effects.  But to really encourage students from these backgrounds into STEM subjects requires people from those groups that have had some success to create a presence in society and break down existing stereotypes. Which is why I wanted to take part in Soapbox Science.  I wish I had had access to programmes like Soapbox Science when I was growing up or some scientist role models to aspire to. Soapbox Science is a fantastic initiative that supports female scientists all around the country and helps provide these much needed role models for young people who may be considering a career in the STEM subjects.  It is important to me that young people in the same situation that I was in, realise that a career in science is possible for them too.



Report to the National Council for Educational Excellence, The Sutton Trust, 2008.

Equality data at Exeter University

Exeter University expels students over racism row, The Guardian, 2011

Police arrest two 18-year-old men over racist chanting outside Nottingham Trent University student’s bedroom, The Telegraph,

Academic career progression pipelines in Biosciences

The Opt-Out Revolution, New York Times by Lisa Belkin, 2003.




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For the love of science- Finding my passion: Meet Rachel van Heugten

Rachel is a healthcare scientist working for the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. She works as part of a group using their scientific detective skills to uncover possible genetic causes for a patient’s disease. Before working on humans, Rachel lived in New Zealand where she employed those same skills to help endangered species ranging from mudfish to parakeets. Whatever she is working on, Rachel loves sharing her enthusiasm for science. On the 22nd of September she’ll be at Princesshay Eastgate, Exeter, to share a story filled with giant insects, mystery, adventure, romance and a tiny hero! She hopes you’ll join her.


By Rachel van Heugten

I remember sitting in this stuffy lecture hall during my first year of university. Striding back and forth across the front of the room was one of my chemistry lecturers. He gestured widely as he preached about atomic orbitals or… something. What struck me wasn’t what he said, obviously, but how he said it. He overflowed with passion for something he couldn’t even see. I hoped that one day I would find work that filled me with an ounce of that passion. Little did I know, that passion was inside me all along. Horribly cheesy I know but it’s true. I’m Rachel van Heugten and I’m in love with deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA.

Myself and an adorable DNA plushie

For those who haven’t been formally introduced, every living thing is made up of teeny tiny building blocks called cells and each of those cells contains a structure called DNA. DNA is the instructions which tells our cells how to function and how to assemble together into a working body. It is a molecular blueprint. The DNA of each type of plant or animal is different but just like all buildings need walls and a roof, the blueprints of all living things share similarities. The science surrounding DNA is called genetics and scientists, like myself, who work with DNA are called geneticists.

Now, it wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t lock eyes with an evolution text book and know it was the one. My love grew slowly. Each year of my undergrad I pruned away the subjects I enjoyed least and tended to those I enjoyed most. By my final year I wasn’t sure where I was headed but I knew I wanted to get there with DNA. Luckily, there was no shortage of destinations.

I set off on a tour of my university’s genetics department. Along the way I questioned each of my lecturers on their research, searching for something to fuel my passion. Their answers took me on a journey from “the evolution of early forms of life”, passing by “how bacteria become resistant to drugs” and through onto “the use of genetics in the conservation of endangered animals.”. All of the potential projects tugged at my interest but one in particular took my fancy. The opportunity to combine my passions for genetics and conservation was one not to be missed.

My postgraduate research focused on the conservation of a large native New Zealand insect, the rare Banks Peninsula tree wētā.  My mission was to investigate if this rare insect was interbreeding with the widespread Canterbury tree wētā. Mating with the more common Canterbury wētā would reduce the number of pure Peninsula wētā left and could eventually lead to their extinction.

Holding my first tree wētā

However, questioning an insect about its love life is tricky. Tree wētā in particular are protective of their privacy. They spend their days snug inside tree cavities. Emerging at night, they ascend to the tree tops far from view. Yet somehow, I was meant to survey an area of over 400km2 for evidence of interspecies relations. This looks like a job for genetics!

The DNA of the Banks Peninsula and Canterbury wētā is similar but distinct. By setting up artificial tree cavities, like an insect “bird house”, I could collect a tiny tissue sample from hundreds of wētā across Banks Peninsula. In the lab I crushed up each tissue sample, washing it with a series of different liquids until only the DNA remained. Machines in the laboratory allowed me to detect any differences in the DNA of each insect. By comparing the results to wētā who had a clear identity, I could uncover if an individual was a Banks Peninsula wētā, a Canterbury wētā or a mixture of the two. The results were great news for the future of the rare Banks Peninsula wētā. But what of my future?

Searching for insects on Banks Peninsula, New Zealand

My research’s focus on a rare insect restricted to a small region of a remote island fostered some concern within my extended family. Surely the job market related to my research must be smaller than the insects themselves. I lightly batted away their concerns. My camera might’ve been full of pictures of insects but my science utility belt was loaded with tools for studying DNA. Every single living thing on the planet has DNA. Since my time with insects, I’ve extracted the DNA of pīngao plants, minute mudfish and perishing parakeets. I now find myself working on one of the most widespread species on the planet, humans.

Where I work now, helping to diagnose diseases

Last year I joined a team helping to diagnose diseases using genetics. Your DNA instructs your body on how to grow and function. The instructions are pretty robust and the odd change usually goes unnoticed. However, sometimes a change in the instructions occurs which disrupts how your body usually works, leading to disease. Pin-pointing the exact mistake can help us to determine the risk to other family members, how a person’s symptoms are expected to progress and the best line of treatment or support. While I spend less time out in the sun these days, I’m grateful to genetics for allowing me to continue to do work I find meaningful.

Later this year I’m taking part in the Exeter Soapbox Science. You’ll find me in front of a crowd, arms gesturing widely, speaking passionately about something I cannot see. DNA and I might be past our honeymoon phase but the love’s still there. I love that you can determine if chimpanzees in neighbouring forest patches are related from the DNA they leave on the surface of their droppings. I love that my friends can extract DNA from bones 1000s of years old, to learn about the past and relate it to the present. I love that someone can spit into a tube in Australia, send it around the world and we can tell them why they have diabetes. I love where genetics has taken me so far and I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.

If you’re keen to learn more about conservation, genetics and large New Zealand insects then come check out my Soapbox Science talk at Princesshay Eastgate (between Topshop and New Look), Central Exeter on the 22nd of September. I look forward to seeing you there.

If you want to see more science writing by me you can find some here:

Learn about how geneticists helped solve the mystery of a fossilized bird….

Learn more about genetics and evolution with a story from the Valley of Fire


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Scientists are helping the world to be a better place: Meet Roslin Adamson

Dr Roslin Adamson (@AdamsonRos), will be taking part in Soapbox Science Oxford on 28th July 2018 with the talk: “One mutant protein, two devastating diseases. Can we cure them both?






Diamond Light Source, the synchrotron (particle accelerator) in Didcot, where we shoot x-ray beams at our protein crystals

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

RA:My story is a bit unusual. I first did a degree in fine art, but then ended up teaching English in Japan for 8 years. While I was in Japan I became involved in bodybuilding and began reading as much as I could about nutrition, protein synthesis, vitamins, supplements and their effects on the body. However, much of the research was very difficult for me to understand, so I decided I would go back to university to study science. Doing a master’s degree and a PhD just followed naturally. I am now in an area that I really enjoy – protein structure/function, although I no longer lift weights unfortunately, due to an injury.


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

RA:I think the most interesting part about my work is the fact that we can “see” molecules on almost an atomic scale! This is mind-boggling to me, aside from how incredibly intricate and perfectly organised the cell and the organism are. The way that the protein machinery in the cell dances this delicate balance between function and dysfunction, and how each protein or protein complex knows what it has to do, and the kind of cellular effects that can occur according to diet and other environmental factors, as well as genetics, is thrilling and almost mystical in its complexity. I also love the clever ways that working with proteins has been approached by past scientists – the methods and techniques that we take for granted today were unheard of and unthought of not so long ago. The advances in biological and medical sciences are incredible, and yet there is still so much to learn …



Some pictures of protein crystals

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

RA: I am both a scientist and an artist, so I was keen last year to participate in the Art/Science Soapbox Science, where I was teamed up with an artist who interpreted my science work. I enjoyed it so much I decided to participate again this year. SS is an excellent platform for me to share my enthusiasm for science and what we can learn from it with the wider public, and also to show that actually, there are many extremely competent women in science doing amazing things, for which they are frequently not given credit. I fear there is often a sense in people who don’t know about science that scientists are cold and calculating, without ethics, and that what we do is dangerous somehow. Perhaps there have been a tiny minority of cases that could give this impression, but the vast majority of biological scientists I know care very deeply that their work will help people who have the dreaded diseases they are working on, or that they can help the world to be a better place in some way. I think it’s also really important that events like this give children the opportunity to learn about science and to see that scientists come in all shapes and forms. At the SGC, where I work, we do regular school visits to do science with young kids, and they are absolutely fascinated, and super engaged. This is incredibly rewarding.


Skeleton of someone with fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), one disease I work on.

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

RA: Gosh. Tough one. There’s the funding culture, where it seems the big-name labs with fashionable topics get all the money. Applying for grant funding is soul-destroying, as there really just isn’t enough money to go round, and publication records often trump originality. This obviously has a knock-on effect on people’s livelihoods and jobs. The culture of short fixed-term post-doc contracts with specific and time-limited funding means you never really have any job security, and often, a project just ends when you leave, which seems a waste of resources.




Brain scan of diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) the other disease I work on.

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

RA: I would say build up your mental and emotional resilience (which certainly a PhD will do for you!). It is not an easy ride, but then, things worth doing aren’t always easy. Choose a lab/project where you will gain both new skills and also be able to publish reasonably regularly. Start applying for fellowships or other grants as soon as you have enough publications, as later on your ability to get money from funding agencies will be a factor in hiring. Academia has an enormous number of advantages in terms of the relative freedom we have in our studies, but funding really is a crunch line.






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Working on real world problems: Meet Nicola Bailey

Dr Nicola Bailey (@nicolaybailey) is taking part in Soapbox Science Oxford on 28th July 2018 with the talk: “Dr Robot; the future of surgery?”







SS: How did you get to your current position?

NB: I studied mathematics for my undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, starting in 2007. During this time, I developed an interest using maths to model complex engineering problems; working on ‘real world problems’ was what really interested me. An undergraduate scholarship led to a research project working on optimising the performance jet engine components. I found this project really rewarding and I was lucky enough to continue with the group for my PhD; this was in partnership with Roll Royce who make the jet engines for many of the commercial airlines.

Although the PhD was hard work, I knew by this point that I wanted to continue doing research so I applied for an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Doctoral Prize which allowed me to make my models more realistic. This prize gave me more independence from my supervisors, which is important for an academic career. By this time, I had been at Nottingham for 8 years and decided it was time to move to a different university to experience a different perspective. So, in 2015 I moved to the University of Bath as a research associate studying precision control of robotic arms. This was a great experience and allowed me to expand into experimental work which was a new and enjoyable addition to my previous research using only simulations. With great support from my manger and mentor I applied for my first lecturer position at Bath and got it! I started the position in 2017 and the past 18 months have been challenging but also very rewarding!



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

NB: From a young age, I have always been interested in understanding how and why things work as well as designing and building things, from playing with mechano to building a bike to DIY projects at home. Following a career in science has allowed me to look at more complex systems that we encounter in everyday life and push the boundaries of these new technologies, through both theoretical and experimental work.



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

For myself, the most fascinating aspect of my work is being able to bring to life an idea that I have or research an area of science that I find interesting and feel I can contribute to. My research focuses on improving the performance of new and existing technology. I love seeing my ideas taken from a theoretical concept through to implementation of a fully working mechanism. Last year I had a picture of an automated robotic arm in my head, and now it is fully constructed and moving automatically!



SS: What attracted you to soapbox science in the first place?

NB: There are a few reasons I wanted to take part in soapbox science but mainly I saw it as a chance to inspire people to follow the career path they want to. Many people’s idea of a mechanical engineer, an engineer or a scientist in a broader sense, is often far from the reality. I really enjoy what I do and if it wasn’t for people showing me from an early age the opportunities that are available in science I may have missed out! When I explain my research, I get asked a lot ‘how do you research Maths? Isn’t everything in Maths known? I hope this opportunity will help answer this question and give people an understanding of the research that can be undertaken! I also hope that I will be able encourage the younger generations to go for the courses, jobs and careers that they want to do and your age, gender or social background doesn’t matter!


SS: Sum up in one work your expectations for the day.

NB: Inspirational!





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

NB: As an academic, I think science is fantastic work. Universities are great in that they have intelligent and driven individuals at all stages of life. One thing I would love to see would be an equal representation of gender in all fields, and that goes both ways. I believe there are stigmas for women attached to subjects like maths and engineering, just as there are for men in areas wrongly considered the domain of women. To bring balance we need to start at the most fundamental levels, at home and in school. However, vital work is also needed to stop the high rates of attrition we see professionally. I would love for people to follow their interests and do what they want to regardless of their gender, background, or social situation. We are definitely moving in the right direction but there is much more to be done.

I also feel a big problem for scientists is the frequently large gaps they experience between finishing their PhD and obtaining a permanent contract. For example, highly qualified scientists, working at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world are having to repeatedly apply for contracts that can last less than a year. This coupled with the highly stressful politics of grant and paper authorship (lead authorships are essential for survival) can outweigh the benefits of an academic career. This instability, both in a personal and career sense causes us to lose some of the otherwise promising early career researchers.



SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

NB: Go for it!

An academic career can be hard work, both while pursing your first lectureship and after having achieved it. You will have to dedicate a lot of time, effort and be willing to put in long hours when you need to, but I would rather have a job I love and that stimulates me than one that is easy! Academia can be very rewarding, for example when your students succeed, you obtain an important/interesting result or get a breakthrough. The advantage of academia is that you have more freedom in research compared to industry jobs, and can manage multiple research projects in different areas which are within your interest.

What worked for me was working consistently, minimising procrastination and too many coffee breaks/late starts. Finding good supervision and mentorship (which was more luck than judgement) was also key to my success.



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Kids need to see different role models: Meet Anna Veprik

Anna Veprik is a researcher in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics in the University of Oxford. She is trying to understand how various endocrine cells are sensing nutrient availability and translate it to hormone secretion. Meet her at Soapbox Science in Oxford and find out about the role of sugar in our body! Anna Veprik is funded by the Oxford – Novo Nordisk postdoctoral fellowship.




SS: how did you get to your current position?

AV: I am interested for quite a while in the diabetes research. I done my PhD in Israel working on beta cells (the ones that secrete insulin) and was very interested to look at additional cells and tissues involved in diabetes. I won this great fellowship that allows me to do exactly this and to do it in the University of Oxford.


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

AV: My Biology teacher. When I started secondary school I was selected to participate in science enrichment program. I got fascinated by the human body and the fact each cell can do so many different thing. My teacher enthusiasm was infectious.


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

AV: I have an opportunity to find new things that nobody in the world knows about them yet. If I will be lucky, these findings might translate in the future to treatments that will improve patient lives. And I get to do all this surrounded by amazing people, from all around the world.


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

AV: I love talking about science and not just to my fellows in the lab, but also to everybody. I want to share what we learn in the lab with as many people as possible. Moreover, I think there is an urgent need for people, especially kids, to see different role models and to know that they can do whatever they can dream off.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

AV: I am so thrilled. Can’t wait to be there.


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

AV: Funding. This is the biggest obstacle. I wish more funding was available, allowing us to focus more on producing a good science and not just chasing for the next grant.


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

AV: If you love it, go for it. I can promise it will not be easy, or relaxed but when you see this amazing result, it will worth everything. And just remember, it is a marathon, so you need a lot of patience and a lot of support.

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Scientists shouldn’t be hidden away in their labs all the time: Meet Jacqueline Gill

Jacqueline Gill (@jacquigill001), is taking part in Soapbox Science Oxford 2018 with the talk: “The antibiotic apocalypse: How bacteria become antibiotic resistant and why we aren’t finding new antibiotics”






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

JG: I research antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the past, before we discovered antibiotics, bacterial infections were extremely deadly. Once we had discovered antibiotics in the early 1900s, we were able to use them to treat bacterial infections. However, bacteria have the ability to evolve extremely quickly, which means that over the past 60 years they have evolved the ability to evade antibiotics, and our antibiotic treatments are becoming much less effective. Therefore, research is extremely important!

The most fascinating part for me is how all of this research is being done by so many scientists around the globe, and it is all coming together to try to solve this one problem and prevent it from getting out of our control.


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

JG: During my GCSE history, I completed a project on the history of medicine. I was fascinated to hear stories about how scientists throughout history had made ground-breaking discoveries, which had tremendously improved the lives of people around the world. In particular, Lister’s discovery of germs and Jenner’s invention of the vaccine completely transformed public health. I thought that one of the best careers would involve building on these discoveries, and so I decided to pursue a career in science.



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

JG: I heard about Soapbox Science during the first year of my PhD through OxFEST (Oxford Females in Engineering, Science and Technology), where I organised a conference for female scientists. We heard from some really inspirational speakers who discussed the major challenges facing females in STEM, which opened my eyes to how important it is to make sure females scientists are heard and supported throughout their careers. I’ve always had a keen interest in science outreach and communication, and so during my 3 years at Oxford I’ve been involved in running Oxford Hands-On Science, a student-led science outreach society. We visit schools across the UK, showing kids loads of interactive and hands-on science experiments! It’s always great to see how many of them are interested in the science we have to show them, and that they realise not all scientists are the stereotypical lab-coat-wearing, bushy white-haired male! These experiences have really built up my confidence in talking about science, and hopefully they will help me on my soapbox!!


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

JG: Keen!


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

JG: Scientists shouldn’t be hidden away in their labs all the time. They should be able to prioritise getting out there and talking to people about science, answering their questions, and showing them what real science actually involves! I’m so lucky that my PI is supportive of my outreach, and I wish that all supervisors and funding bodies would actively encourage scientists to get involved in communicating their research.


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

JG: As a female PhD student I can only say go for it! If a career in academia appeals to you, then don’t let anything stop you!


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