International Women’s Day with Prof Hilary Lappin-Scott

07-03-2018 vinguyen

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day to celebrate the amazing contribution women are making to scientific research. This year’s theme is Press for Progress. There are many groups and individuals championing women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) and to address the gender imbalance in these fields.

One such champion for promoting women in STEM is our very own Vice-President and FEMS Expert from the European Academy of Microbiology (EAM)Prof Hilary Lappin-Scott. She was recently awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list for her services to microbiology and the advancement of women in science and engineering. Her continuous efforts to promote women in STEM have also been recognized with the 2016 Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) HERO award and the 2017 Womenspire ‘STEM Pioneer’ Award.

What is the current situation for women in STEM?
“For many countries the situation is now starting to improve, but there is still a long way to go!  I know the data for the United Kingdom best, so I will use this. In UK universities, 25% of Professors are now women and more women are being promoted to the most senior levels in universities.  But there is still a gender pay gap, which is substantial in many organisations.

In terms of attracting more women into STEM, the UK published data to show that the numbers working in STEM careers had increased in the last months, yet the overall percentage of women in such jobs did not increase as the numbers of men had also increased! So, some steps forward but the pace of change is still so very slow.”

As an advocate for promoting women in STEM, what can we do to support more women in STEM?
“There are lots of actions that organisations can do that really make a difference, many of these are very low cost too.  Some of the most effective involve changing the culture to raise the visibility of the women and celebrate their contributions and achievements to make women feel more valued. Examples of what has been done towards this includes:

  • joining in lots of international events – such as International Women’s Day (IWD), International Women in Engineering Days and Ada Lovelace Day – and holding some workshops that highlight the achievements of women or inviting in an external speaker to share some best practices to support women in STEM can be very effective
  • By widely publicizing, for example, that your organisation will be celebrating IWD this year and highlighting the contributions of some of the talented women in your organisation really can make a difference.
  • Starting up a Soapbox Science event in your city or supporting this if there is one already. This takes women’s research to the public and challenges ideas of what scientists, medics, engineers and mathematicians look like and shows these are great careers.
  • Have a look around your organisation to see what any imagery (photos etc) implies about your organisation and whether it is valuing the contributions of women as well as men. This has been remedied in many organisations where they have added a greater diversity of people on their walls and in their halls.
  • Learned societies can also play roles to promote women in STEM, for example by having equality and diversity statements, setting ‘expectations’ for the participation and contribution of women in all Society activities (nominating talented women for prizes, to be invited speakers, to chair sessions etc).

As this year’s theme for IWD is ‘Press for Progress’ I encourage everyone to find ways to ‘reach down’ and help us others to achieve too.  This greatly increases our talent pool and really supports greater success in the workplace.”

How did your science journey bring you to where you are today?
“I had a slow start with science, growing up in the 1960s in the north east of England in times when girls were taught cooking and needlework rather than physics, metalwork or chemistry. Instead my love grew through my interests in my 20s in nature conservation and emerging environmental challenges, including a very seminal book for me, ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson.

I soon realized the need to have formal science qualifications so I enrolled at Warwick University after evening classes to gain my A levels.  From there I tried to make the most of every opportunity that presented itself along my science journey.  I found relevant scientific conferences to present my research at, sometimes subsidizing these myself so I could attend (I always made sure that my own research students did not need to do this). Generally I attend these on my own so had to ensure that I met others at the conference. Just as well that I did as from one of these I was offered a post-doc at Calgary University whilst I was delayed waiting for a flight to a conference!

I returned to the UK to take up a lectureship at Exeter University and there followed nearly two decades, building up my research group and being promoted to full Professor via a Personal Chair (one of the first ever in women in STEM subjects at Exeter), Head of Department and then Dean, being elected President of the then Society for General Microbiology and the International Society for Microbial Ecology along the way.

I was looking for some fresh challenges so jumped at the chance of joining the senior team at Swansea University, working more on strategic development and research leadership for an entire university rather than only for my own research group.

Throughout my career I had ensured that everyone in my research team and I had taught, had opportunities to maximize their chances of successful careers and I have mentored a lot of men and women in their careers. I particularly encouraged women to step forward and take on leadership roles.  As I gained more senior positions in academia and learned societies I grew to understand the dearth of women in senior roles. I found that, increasingly people were asking me to raise awareness of this, engaging others and taking actions. This has led to a ‘second career’ as an advocate for encouraging girls into sciences and attracting and retaining women in STEM careers.  I am now seeing more women developing their skills to take on senior roles and leadership positions and am working to generate and share best practices globally to keep pushing this key agenda.”

What advice would you give to today’s early career researchers?
“I have quite a lot of suggestions so here are a few from my list, in no particular order:

  • Do join learned societies as it is great to be a part of a research community from an early stage and contribute to your discipline
  • Learn the skills of how to present your research to others and try this out at conferences and to others whenever possible
  • Public outreach is important especially in communicating your research to others outside of your subject area
  • Network at conferences beyond your own group and invite yourself to other labs to learn new techniques
  • Publishing your research is essential to progress in an academic career, so discuss with your advisors when is the right time to consider this
  • Work hard but do get some balance with a social life too (I have always played a lot of sport and it helps give perspective to my research!)
  • Having a supportive life partner is key to progress as a researcher, so I encourage early career researchers to consider ‘don’t let the hand you hold, hold you back’ (quote from a washroom in Swansea University).”

You can discover more about Hilary and other inspirational stories of the women leading the way in microbiology in our Women in STEM special journal collection, as well as in our collaborative International Women’s Day Twitter collection with some of our Member Societies.

 

March 8th, 2018

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Post-Doc in North America

As someone in their ‘more senior years’ as an academic, I get asked to tell ‘my story’ about how I got from being a girl growing up in Middlesbrough to a Professor of Microbiology and Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor.  This post covers how and why I moved to North America for a Post Doc and how this opened up opportunities for me and enabled me to get a faculty position at Exeter University three years later.

After my PhD at Warwick University I had a first post-Doctoral position at the Institute for Biotechnological Studies in London.  The funding was running out for that three year post and I needed to secure a job fast.  I had attended my first international conference near Copenhagen a few months earlier and had given my first talk at an international conference – but more about that experience in a later blog posting! I started to understand the benefits of networking at conferences in developing research and career opportunities so I submitted an abstract for the forthcoming ISME4 meeting in Ljubljana in August 1986.  As for my first international meeting I went alone and had to raise the funding to go myself.

The flight to the ISME 4 meeting was delayed for many hours so all passengers were ushered into a room to wait (yes this was a different era in flying!)  It was crowded so I had to share a table and sat next to a seemingly nice couple from North America.  I quickly learned they were Bill and Vivian Costerton, and were Canadians.  Bill was a leading figure in microbial ecology (whom I had never hear of before) how his research covered many, many diverse areas including petroleum microbiology and within 30 minutes he had offered me a post-doc working on microbes in petroleum reservoirs!

He took out a small card and drew out a schematic of the subsurface environment (I later learned that this is how he always worked in research discussions). He sketched out how this seemingly hostile environment was merely a combination of challenges for bacteria but some survived this high temperature, lack of oxygen, salty, high pressure, low nutrient combination, could grow within rocks (I found that concept utterly fascinating) and that some of their growth byproducts were a nuisance and spoiled the quality of the oil.  This meant that many international oil and gas companies were interested in bacteria and sometimes funding such work – and so I started working in petroleum microbiology, bacterial growth on surfaces (biofilms) and the much broader field of microbial ecology.

I really didn’t follow a lot of what Bill was saying but I needed my next research job so I listened and agreed to meet him once the conference was underway. Eventually the flight landed in Ljubljana in the early hours of the morning, then the bus taking us to our hotels broke down in the country lanes but as we were all going to the same conference I had chance to meet and get to know some of them.

The next day I set off to the conference centre but inadvertently stood on the wrong side of the road and, as I couldn’t understand the language, caught the wrong bus and ended up in the outskirts of the city with just me and the bus driver looking at each other.  He stopped there for a few minutes, then luckily for me, drove back into the city and I found the conference centre.

I attended the opening ceremony and watched the ISME President cross the stage and open the conference, little knowing that I would become the President of the Society and play that same role in Cairns 22 years later. I met Bill Costerton and he commenced the paperwork to formally offer me a post Doctoral research fellowship in his huge laboratory group at Calgary University.

I moved there a few months later and took on running part of his research group, broadening my skills and learning how to work with businesses too. Some aspects were very challenging, such as when you have to walk into a room full of engineers, geologists, chemists, mathematical modellers etc and put across our latest research ideas and progress to such an interdisciplinary audience. I learned that it’s about keeping calm when, for example, Darcys, turbulent flow, catholic protection, metal corrosion or oil souring were being discussed and read up on it fast later. We took some new concepts of how bacteria might aid oil recovery and scaled this up from small rock cores into large 3-D reservoir models, pulling in bacteria survival mechanisms and biofilm studies too. All of this helped me to prepare my first faculty applications and led to a job interview at Exeter University.  I was the only female shortlisted but was thrilled to be offered and then accept this in 1989, joining Exeter in 1990, ready for my next adventure!

 

 

December 11th, 2017

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I have been thinking a lot lately about ecosystems.  As a microbiology undergraduate at Warwick University I learned  that microorganisms largely do not exist as individual pure cultures in natural environments but rather as dynamic, complex, interacting communities, frequently benefiting from the presence of the others in the ecosystem.  These microbial ecosystems carry out many of the key processes of life on Earth, for example nutrient cycling, water purification, or within our bodies for example, our gut microbial ecosystems aiding food digestion and overall health.

I applied this to my own research, starting with my PhD.  At Warwick University an interdisciplinary research approach was emphasised right from the start – for my part using plant sciences, soil microbiology, biochemistry, physiology and biotechnology approaches to my research and I’ve broadened this further since then. A further benefit of ‘growing up’ as a researcher at Warwick was there was very much the attitude of ‘if you need something for your research then go and find a way to source it or raise the funds yourself’ and I have found these skills very useful.

I have been participating in the FEMS (Federation of European Microbiology Societies) meeting in Valencia in July and this meeting has brought together more than 2,500 from the international microbiology research community, forming an ecosystem, albeit of researchers. Research conferences play a key role in fostering the sharing of data, ideas and collaborations, so it was heartening to note that more than one third of attendees were early career scientists and from such a broad range of countries the researchers are working in. This diversity within the researcher ecosystem, from Australia, through South Korea and the Middle East; countries all over Europe to North America – is a highly unusual mix and this was reflected in the discussions, exchanges of ideas and exciting new collaborations that result.  I encourage early career researchers to break away from those researchers that they already know at the conference and strike up fresh discussions and make new acquaintances, as this can greatly benefit our research agendas and widen collaboration worldwide.

Such meetings remind us all of our own earlier career and what it felt like to be at your first few scientific meetings, happily FEMS seeks to support early career scientists to truly be part of the conference.  Undoubtedly too, attending conferences reminds us too of our love of our subject and for me the fascination of microbiology –  playing a key role in addressing many of the global challenges, for example the need for clean water, a safe food supply to feed a growing human population, microbes undertaking environmental biotechnology processes etc. The fascination certainly returned for me when some of the researchers reminded us of the shear scale of the microorganisms within our bodies, not solely in terms of numbers but that the combined microbial genome within our bodies is greatly in excess of our own human genome!

The FEMS biennial meeting in Valencia is my first since I was elected as the Vice President.  For me this means looking at the event through a different lens, one of considering how we can build on the good work of others, ensuring a ontinual healthy ecosystem of researchers, fostering a diversity of views and fresh ideas, to help us better use microbes towards resolving many of the global challenges and ensuring that we encourage the research ecosystem to keep working on the microbial ecosystems seems a great place to start.

More information about Professor Lappin-Scott and her work can be found at the following links:

Linkedin,  Swansea TedXTalk,  STEM ‘Pioneer’ Award 2017,  WISE Award 2016,  Womenspire Award 2017, Soapbox Science

July 12th, 2017

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Diversity in the workplace

One of my roles at Swansea University is to champion change and support increasing diversity in all we do to ‘utilise all our talent’ and support achieving a culture where everyone feels  they can be themselves and in turn produce their best work. Toward this there is some related photos of  recent activities with the LGBT+ community (LGBTQ month at Swansea University).

As part of this I recently gave a presentation at an Inside Government event in London on supporting and promoting women in STEM subjects and careers. My topic was to present Swansea University as a case study and describe what we had  done to achieve this aim in practical terms.  Interestingly, I noticed the audience was comprised of many people who had roles that had  been created relatively recently, or were very new  to these roles themselves. These included advisors or support for Athena SWAN initiatives and Equality and Diversity officers. All were keen to hear and share further ideas that would aid in bringing about more inclusivity in the workplace.  Because of this largely new group of people, there was a great deal of learning and forging of new ideas to apply across a large number of institutions, so hopefully the conversations will continue to support increased diversity. There were wonderful sessions for example, by Professor Uta Frith and  Helen Wollaston of the WISE campaign;  these made for very lively discussion and networking sessions. There were practical ways presented to take positive actions to encourage more talented women to apply for senior roles and to increase the diversity within leadership positions. The tweets can be found under #IGSTEM17.

Regarding the issue of few women in senior positions, a few years ago I wrote an article entitled ‘Marjorie Stephenson and Me’ for the Society for General Microbiology (now the Microbiology Society), emphasising the need and benefits for greater inclusion and participation of women in learned societies too, as well as in the workplace. There are still few women in such leadership roles and actively participating at senior levels in learned societies. The Microbiology Society recently reposted my article, causing me to consider what has changed since 2012. Since the article I have been pleased to be the Society’s Diversity Champion and worked with an excellent group of volunteers and Society staff to draw up and set expectations for an Equality and Diversity plan for the Society. Through this Group and embedding diversity in many areas of the learned society significant changes have been achieved. In May I will be presenting this work at a Royal Society of Biology event and so am reviewing much of the work and progress since then. I am hopeful that when the data are ready that the year on year improvements in diversity will be apparent!

More information about Professor Lappin-Scott and her work can be found at the following links:

Linkedin,  Swansea TedXTalk,  STEM ‘Pioneer’ Award 2017,  WISE Award 2016,  Womenspire Award 2017, Soapbox Science,   Swansea Uni PVC profile, Research Gate

 

April 11th, 2017

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