When I grow up I want to be an explorer

By Dr Neha Pathak (@nxpathak), who is currently based at Queen Mary University. Come and meet Neha tomorrow, 2-5pm, on the South Bank, where Neha will talk about “Peeing to prevent cancer: the secrets of your urine ”


Neha-Pathak.jpg“When I grow up, I want to be an explorer so that I can discover mountains and find out how snow is made.” So reads one of my entries into my decaying primary school exercise book. I didn’t quite “discover” mountains, but I did discover that science is the work of the modern day explorer.

I work as a clinical academic in obstetrics and gynaecology at Queen Mary University of London. This means I split my time as an NHS trainee obstetrician and gynaecologist (think high risk pregnancies and any disease affecting the reproductive system) and as a scientist in epidemiology of women’s health.

My research interests are varied, but ultimately aim to prevent disease, support vulnerable women and reduce health inequalities. I study the effectiveness of urine tests for cervical cancer screening, the health consequences of sexual violence, and the way we deliver sexual health services.

Combining work as a frontline doctor with research addressing the bigger picture is a huge honour and very satisfying. No day is ever the same. One minute you are dealing with a life or death situation, and another you are learning to code so that you can process data more quickly.  For me variety is the spice of life, and I definitely get that.

More importantly, however, my clinical work continually highlights new questions that need to be explored. Whilst working in Madagascar, I saw women presenting with late stage cervical cancer – enormous tumours that needed complicated operations that would not necessarily cure it. I felt so utterly depressed by it – cervical cancer is a preventable disease. The smear test has worked wonders for reducing rates of cervical cancer in the UK ( #smearforsmear #nofeargosmear #wedidn’thavehashtagswheniwasatmedschool). Why were we not managing that here?? But the eureka moment came. Women simply can’t access doctors or nurses to take the samples, so we need do-it-yourself tests. Well, if we can have DIY furniture then we should definitely be able to have DIY testing.  Suddenly, I was studying urine tests for the virus that causes cervical cancer and working with inspiring scientists to show that the tests are better than we has realised. They still need refining but self-testing seems to be the future and it’s very exciting to be a part of it!


Do I need to convince you more to become a scientist??


Medicine is increasingly female dominated with at least 60% of all medical students being women today. However, the number of females leading their field as doctors or professors in medical specialties is still out of proportion to the number of women in the field. My advice to any woman embarking on such a career is to find what you’re passionate about, find a great mentor who you can be open and honest with, and just give it your all. I’m pleased to be a part of the new wave of female academics but we will always need more and that’s why I wanted to shout about how great it is at Soapbox Science.

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