Categories: Sanger Life11 February 20227.8 min read

Women rising in STEM

To celebrate International Day of Women & Girls in Science, we sat down with Sanger Associate Director, Julia Wilson to talk about her career so far and being a woman in science.

Scientific beginnings

I grew up in rural Northumberland and was the first in my family to go to university. Hopefully there aren’t many families who can say that now, as university has become much more accessible. Not having any academics in my family, they weren’t able to give me much guidance, and I wasn’t able to browse the internet in those days. I liked biology and thought I’d like to look down microscopes, so after looking through uni prospectuses, I opted for microbiology, and sent off my UCAS forms.

I went to Newcastle University to study. Microbiology was a good choice, as molecular biology hadn’t yet been invented! I got a really good degree, even as I doubted myself and my own abilities. I went to the floor upstairs in the Newcastle Medical School, and became Professor John Kirby’s first PhD student. He was studying why kidney transplants were rejected by the immune system. As I was his first (and then, only) PhD student, he was incredibly supportive. He read scientific publications for job listings for me, and encouraged me to apply for a job in Sweden that had been listed in Nature, as Professor Hans-Gustaf Ljunggren was looking for a postdoc with expertise in transplant rejection.

Going continental

Perhaps naively, I moved to Stockholm. I’d only been in the summer when it was lovely and warm, but I found that most of the year round it was really cold! It was a bit of a shock to the system.

However, the environment at the Karolinska Institute was great, and it’s one of the best European research institutes. In the UK, we go through the education system very quickly, moving straight from A-levels, to undergrad, to postgrad, whereas they took their time much more in Sweden. Some of the PhD students there had been working on their studies for eight years, and they had vast knowledge. I was a postdoc but younger than many PhD students there, and lost a lot of my academic confidence. In the first year, I had a massive learning curve.

It was a great place to work and learn, I built my confidence back, and found my interest was cancer. The Karolinska is associated with the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, so there were always interesting people there. Potential nominees would be invited to give seminars, so there was always an interesting talk at lunchtime. No one ever declines a visit to the Karolinska, they don’t want to miss a chance to be on the Nobel nominee list! I attended talks given by a few winners, such as Peter Doherty and Rolf Zinkernagel, and Stanley B. Prusiner. The winners would be announced the following October, and you’d think, “Oh yeah, they gave a talk here last year!”

Life gets in the way

After four years in Sweden, I’d married an English man, and it was time to move back to the UK. I became a postdoc for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (now Cancer Research UK) in London in 1999. I had a fabulous mentor here, in Professor Fran Balkwill. She taught me so much about life outside the lab, and working across traditional boundaries.

My research was on the links between cancer and inflammation; I was using all my skills, and at first, was really happy in this role. However, when the cycles of grants and PhD students came, I gradually realised that I didn’t want to be an academic. I loved talking about science, reading about science, having meetings about science, I just hated the doing of it.

This was a really stressful realisation. I was at a junior researcher level and in my late 30s and unsure of what to do. In hindsight, I should have spoken to more of my colleagues at Cancer Research UK and asked if there were other opportunities there, but no one had ever spoken to me about other career paths in science, other than at a lab bench.

I applied for a bunch of different jobs, with one big pharma company (remaining nameless) asking me if I had children at the interview. I got a job as Scientific Programme Manager at the World Cancer Research Fund. It was such a great change, I learned so much about distilling huge amounts of science into useful information, writing science strategy and managing grants. It was quite a small team, so I got great exposure to high level work. A few weeks after I started, I had a dream where I was in a lab filled with test tubes and I had to look at all of the cells, and was so relieved when I woke up to find that I didn’t have to do it!

Life got in the way again, and four weeks after starting this job, I found out I was pregnant. I took maternity leave to gather my thoughts, and decided to apply for charity research management roles, and struck gold at Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

Striking gold

It was incredibly hard work, but the science was amazing. For example, they discovered PARP inhibitors – a type of targeted cancer drug used to treat some women with ovarian cancer.

It was such a great environment. The staff were 80 per cent female, and I think that gave a different perspective on things. For example, maternity leave was deliberately generous, and they accommodated flexible working. Here, I worked with the brilliant Catherine Devitt, who taught me the phrase, “JFDI”. I often still tell myself that.

While there, I was selected to do a ‘Mini-MD’ course, where I got to spend a month in clinical care, and shadow a medical team throughout the breast cancer journey. It was an initiative to bridge the gap between clinical science and caring for patients. We’d ask about using new treatments, and had to realise they wouldn’t reach cancer patients for ten years. It made me realise how large the gulf is between discovery and the clinic, and I wanted to be in that space.

And now

That led me to move to Sanger. While at Breakthrough, I’d invited Mike Stratton to speak to our staff and trustees. It turned out Breakthrough had funded him for some of his early research, and we chatted at length after his seminar.

About a year later, a friend alerted me to a vacancy at Sanger as Associate Director. I almost didn’t apply, as I loved my job at Breakthrough, and the deadline was the following day, but I was leaving for a holiday at 6am and had nothing to lose, so decided to apply.

When you’re training as a scientist, it can often seem like there’s only one path to being successful, but I don’t agree with this. I think the key is to do something that will make you happy, while being aware that what makes you happy will constantly change.

Being a role model

As a woman, you can feel like you’re never doing everything right, trying to balance work and home life. I know how difficult it is to work in an all-consuming job and to be a parent. My daughter has told me that her best day at primary school was when Fran Gale and I brought microscopes for the kids to look down, because her mum came in to showcase science. Recently, she wrote a biography of me for her homework saying I inspire her, and I realised that I’ve managed okay.

Having positive senior female role models is so important. If I had been a man, would I have been asked at a job interview if I had children? This is the kind of thing I wouldn’t tolerate now, but the landscape has also definitely changed. I used to put up with being spoken over in meetings, and I’ve learned that I don’t have to put up with this.

We still need to work on closing the authority gap, and I’d recommend everyone read Mary Ann Sieghart’s book on the subject. It’s such a well-researched book about how every woman has a story of being underestimated, ignored, challenged, or patronised in the workplace. It’s about speaking up in meetings and being talked over by male colleagues, or guests addressing the men in the room. We’ve made massive progress towards equality and the gender pay gap but we still fail to take women as seriously as men.

We can do a lot – the final chapter is called ‘No Need to Despair’, and has suggested changes for individuals, organisations as well as legislation. We can’t do much about the social conditioning but it’s not rocket science; we need better representation, more transparency in the workplace, but also checking the language we use with children, and to notice if a woman is being interrupted or ignored in meetings.

Let’s JFDI.