By Catriona Clarke, Social Media & Internal Communications Adviser, Wellcome Sanger Institute
Just 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women, only 35 per cent of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields of study are women , and data suggests that the impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting female researchers more than their male counterparts . To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated annually on 11 February, we asked some of our female staff to tell us about their work, and what being a woman in science means to them.
Hilary Martin – Group Leader, Martin Lab (Human Genetics)
My group works on population and medical genetics within the Human Genetics programme. We use large-scale sequencing and genotype data, combined with electronic health records, mostly in populations with European and South Asian ancestry. We are currently studying the fine-scale population structure of British South Asians from the Genes & Health and Born in Bradford projects, and the implications of this for both rare and common disease risk. Using these cohorts, we are also exploring the utility of polygenic risk prediction in this population, which has a large burden of cardiovascular disease risk. The other half of my lab is studying rare developmental disorders using the Deciphering Developmental Disorders and Genomics England projects. One focus is on identifying new recessive genes using statistical approaches, in collaboration with a consumer diagnostics company, GeneDx. We are also exploring the role of common variants in risk of these severe disorders, working closely with the Hurles group.
As a woman in science, I’ve been lucky to never have felt disadvantaged in any way so far. I have always had extremely supportive mentors (starting with my parents, who also work in the field), most particularly Jeff Barrett and Matt Hurles at Sanger, and indeed, all the Human Genetics faculty. Of course being a Principal Investigator is challenging, but I think a bigger challenge begins for female scientists when they have children (which I haven’t yet) and have to juggle family with work life. Despite the difficulties, I think academic science is a really great career for women who want to have children because of its flexibility compared to many careers in the private sector. Sanger already has some excellent practical measures to help women with children stay and succeed in science, and I hope to be able to help introduce others in the coming years.
Laura Durrant – Research Assistant, Bespoke Team (DNA Pipelines)
DNA Pipelines are Sanger’s core sequencing facility, where we use high-throughput processes to produce sequencing metadata cohorts for our faculty research teams and external collaborators. Within the Bespoke team however, we utilise a more manual and low-throughput approach to optimise samples that cannot be otherwise handled using standard high-throughput pipelines.
Being a young female in science is a very gratifying and rewarding feeling. What’s more, being a part of an institute that acknowledges and values the diversity of its employees serves a potent reminder of the efforts made and that continue to prevail to encourage the involvement of girls and women in science.
Menna Ghouraba – Advanced Research Assistant, Anderson Lab
I work as an Advanced Research Assistant at Sanger. The Institute leads a variety of critical and impactful research projects, and I feel great to be part of it. My project aims to determine genes and cell types responsible for disease through collecting large numbers of healthy and diseased tissue samples, and performing single cell RNA sequencing. This would help identify new drug targets, and consequently the development of effective and possibly curative medicines.
It is not always easy for women in science, even in modern times, to juggle between their roles inside and outside of work. Tackling motherhood in particular, which is a great role that comes with huge responsibility. I think it makes a massive difference surrounding ourselves with people who encourage and support us.
Burcu Bronner Anar – Technician Commitment Manager
Since November 2019, I have led the Technician Commitment team at the Sanger Institute. The Technician Commitment aims to bring people and areas together to tackle the issues that technical staff face in their work environment, like career development, visibility and recognition.
I have worked as a research technician during most of my 24-year career in science and witnessed the struggle. Making the career change was not easy but it is definitely one of the best things I have done in my life. Careers might become stagnant over time but I believe not giving up and looking for opportunities is the key to success. I have found my vocation after many years working in the lab as a technician and it makes it even more valuable for me that I work for the acknowledgement of the brilliant technical staff at Sanger.
I have been very lucky to work at organisations where women are valued and treated equally, such as the Sanger Institute – but there is always room for improvement.
Mara Lawniczak – Group Leader, Lawniczak Lab (Tree of Life & Parasites and Microbes)
My group is currently scaling up projects that use sequencing to study biodiversity and malaria transmission. One of these projects, focused on malaria-transmitting mosquitoes in Africa, was born and nurtured at Sanger. We developed a non-destructive mosquito DNA extraction protocol and combined it with a cheap, targeted sequencing approach that reveals a lot about every single mosquito it is applied to. Now we are turning this into a large-scale surveillance tool that will give us rapid information at many partner sites across Africa. We will gather information on the mosquito species present, their genetic connectedness, and their contribution to malaria transmission over space and time.
This project has that wonderful combination of being fun, important, big, interesting, and hugely collaborative, and this is my favourite kind of science. I enjoy taking ideas and turning them in to large collaborative projects and trying to build a community where everyone feels included, engaged, and valued. This quote is stolen from Anne-Marie Imafidon, but I love it: “If you don’t intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude”. It takes time and effort to look around and figure out who needs to be ‘intentionally included’, but projects and people are better off for this effort.
Hayley Clissold – Policy Manager
As a Policy Manager, I work with our scientists and external stakeholders to advocate for Sanger science and engage and influence science policy developments in areas such as datasharing, genome editing, Brexit and the Nagoya Protocol. I am continually amazed by the truly remarkable work of our scientists and I am proud to be in a position to utilise this research and provide expertise in national and international policy decisions that impact our research and research environment. With a research background myself, I am keen to ensure research can thrive in an open, innovative, ethical and collaborative environment – and to work in this role at an organisation at the forefront of genomics research is really exciting!
Rebecca McIntyre – Senior Staff Scientist, Anderson Lab
I became a biologist because I was fascinated by the biology textbooks that my Dad left around the house. He was a virologist, back in the days when you could work with coronavirus on an open bench. I have worked at Sanger for 13 years, and I love the science and the community culture. I have worked on different cancer types, rare Mendelian diseases, developmental disorders, and now, inflammatory bowel disease. The unifying thread for all of my research is using DNA as the anchor for understanding human diseases. All of my research has involved understanding how genes function in health and in disease, with the aim of finding the Achilles heel of the disease process.
It’s often said that there are few opportunities and significant barriers for women pursuing a scientific academic career, and that can be true, but I started as a fresh postgraduate and I have just been promoted to Principal Staff Scientist, so it is possible! Importantly, I don’t feel that I have been held back at Sanger for being a woman. Dr Carl Anderson, my group leader, supports me to work flexibly around my parental responsibilities, explore my curiosities and make my own decisions. I know I am a valued team member. I currently lead a small team that aims to turn the results of genetic studies into clinically actionable targets for inflammatory bowel disease. My job is hugely interesting, and I get to work with some very clever characters. The “eureka!” moments are few and far between, but that is science in general. When it happens, though, it’s extremely rewarding!
 UN Women – Progress of Sustainable Development Goals – https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2019/09/progress-on-the-sustainable-development-goals-the-gender-snapshot-2019
 Nature – The career cost of COVID-19 to female researchers, and how science should respond – https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02183-x