“Being a scientist is fantastic”

01 July 2015
By Saher Ahmed

The Sanger Institute Fellowship, designed to support scientists who have taken a career break, has been renamed the Janet Thornton Fellowship in honour of Professor Dame Janet Thornton. Credit: EMBL-EBI

The Sanger Institute Fellowship, designed to support scientists who have taken a career break, has been renamed the Janet Thornton Fellowship in honour of Professor Dame Janet Thornton. Credit: EMBL-EBI

“Protein structures are like the atomistic view of life and they are beautiful. They have all the beauty of trees and flowers,” says Professor Dame Janet Thornton, Director of the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), pointing out of her office window at the impressive greenery of the Wellcome Genome Campus. “Understanding the molecular basis of life, there can’t be anything better,” she continues. “You look at the trees and you think, they’ve got the same proteins as we’ve got. The fact that we’ve all got DNA is just amazing, isn’t it?”

The desire to unravel protein structure, function and evolution has been the driving force behind Janet’s visionary scientific career. However, science isn’t Janet’s only passion. For nearly 15 years, she worked part time while raising her two children; a choice that’s certainly not the norm in scientific circles and can be perceived as a barrier to career progress.

Janet insists that she never considered that her decision might be detrimental to her career. “I just didn’t think about it. I was worried about managing a pretty busy, complicated but very enjoyable life. I thought about the science and I thought about my family, my children and my friends at home and I really loved having those two sides of my life,” she explains.

Janet has been a leading supporter of the Wellcome Genome Campus’ Sex in Science initiative, which aims to redress the gender imbalance in scientific careers and drive policy and practice change. While women graduates outnumber men in the Biological Sciences, with women making up 58 per cent of the cohort, only 25 per cent of professors are women. Janet’s story is an inspiration and as such, she is lending her name to the Janet Thornton Fellowship, a fund set up by the Sanger Institute to support scientists, whether female or male, who have taken a year out of their career for any reason.

Why is it so hard for women to progress their scientific career and climb the ladder? Janet believes it is down to the perception that science is cut-throat and that taking time out to have a child will put you behind the competition. “Although I honestly don’t think the science is any more competitive now than it used to be, I think it’s perceived to be more competitive,” explains Janet. “There’s a lot more discussion about it being competitive. There’s a lot more hype about what your CV is like, how many publications you’ve got – all of these things that actually, in some ways, detract from the science that you’re doing.”

Janet’s advice is to stop worrying about other researchers and to focus on the science. Above all, Janet is certain that it’s possible to take time out for family and to work part time and still succeed in your chosen field. She says, “You need to be focussed, you need to work hard always, and you need to be flexible. There’s give and take; sometimes you need to be at work and sometimes you need to be at home. Don’t worry too much about what everybody else is doing.”

Everyone has a life outside of work, Janet explains – not just mothers and not just women – and sometimes that life has to take priority. But she adds that the most important thing is to make the most of what is on offer. “It’s about taking opportunities when they are there, being open, sharing and doing your bit for the scientific community.”

Opportunities like the Janet Thornton Fellowship are being created to change preconceptions about how scientists should work and what it takes to reach the top. Janet is a strong believer that a good scientist should be able to progress, whatever barriers stand in their way. “You never know what’s going to be thrown at you from all sorts of different directions but you can focus on living for the moment, both in science and in your personal life. It’s easy to say but it’s quite difficult to do.”

At EMBL-EBI, Janet is working to enable more researchers to follow her carpe diem approach to life in research and, crucially, to encourage more women and men who have commitments outside of work to continue pursuing their passion for discovery.

This year, Janet is stepping down from her role as Director and will begin working part time once more. “You come to work and you have the pleasure of going to lectures and seeing the most fantastic things and you think, ‘wow, I never realised it worked like that’. To be part of that, even if it’s only a little part is amazing. Well, being a scientist is fantastic, really.”

Saher Ahmed is coordinator of the Sex in Science initiative at the Wellcome Genome Campus.

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