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Pembroke Women in Science: Georgia Lea

Sunday 11th February is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. We’re celebrating it with a series of interview with our own women in science.

Today’s interview is with Georgia Lea (2017), who is a first year PhD student researching the regulation of trophoblast stem cells. Georgia works in the Epigenetics Department at the Babraham Institute, in Dr Myriam Hemberger’s group. Her advice to girls hoping to study STEM subjects? “Do not let anyone dissuade you from what you know to be the right path for you.”

What is your research topic?

I am looking at the regulation of trophoblast stem cell growth and differentiation at the epigenetic level. Trophoblast stem cells are the stem cells which become all the cell types of the placenta. No pregnancy would progress without trophoblast stem cells and a fully functional healthy placenta. Lots of birth defects are seen with issues in the placenta and an unhealthy placenta can impact on the growth of the baby.

Epigenetics is the study of the changes that occur to our DNA in order to control gene expression. During the baby’s growth in the womb, as well as the development of the placenta alongside the baby, different genes are switched on and off depending on the type of cell and the stage of the pregnancy. Changes to gene expression continues throughout our lives, even within the same type of cells. There is evidence that these changes that happen in utero can have lasting effects which manifest much later in the adult.

What drew you to a PhD in this topic?

When it came to applying for PhD’s, I didn’t have a clear idea of what area I wanted to go into.

I had experience of practical research in several very different subject areas by virtue of summer research placements, a year in Industry with pharmaceutical company AZ, and my final year dissertation project. I knew that I found development, cancer and immunology all very interesting and as such I applied to labs whose research is concerned with these broad areas. Through the process of filling out application forms and writing cover letters, I realised that it was the regulation of gene expression that I was most fascinated by.

It was a lucky chance that I found Myriam Hemberger’s project proposal – I had never really given the placenta much thought and I had never heard of the Babraham Institute. Myriam’s project proposal ticked all the boxes in terms of what I was interested in working on: studying the regulation of gene expression that governs the very earliest stages of development.

What do you most enjoy about your research?

I much prefer the practical wet-lab work to computer-based work. I am quite a proactive person and knowing that I have a thorough set of experiments planned gives me immense satisfaction. The flexibility that comes from practical work is also a huge bonus. I do also enjoy the trouble-shooting which is an inevitable part of research. Sometimes an experiment fails and there is no logical explanation, but often you are able to pin-point where things went wrong so that the next attempt goes better. I love the feeling of besting my past self with a more accurate set of data or a faster turnover time.

Of course best of all is that I genuinely find the theory behind my work interesting. When I read papers now, I don’t have to force myself to get to the end; I am engaged, taking notes and thinking critically about the results being presented.

What’s next?

I am just at the beginning of my PhD, so for the next three years I will be working on my project, writing the necessary reports, and presenting my findings. I would like to get involved in some of the outreach programmes that the Institute runs, such as working with school children or engaging with policy makers. I also hope to get the chance to present my work at a conference. After my PhD, I am on the fence as to whether to continue in academia or to move into industry. I enjoy the work I am doing now, but it is emotionally draining. There is a certain amount of investment you cannot help put into a piece of work when you are putting it together with your own hands. I am also quite a money and waste-conscious person which adds to the stress of a lab-based job in which reagents are expensive and producing a lot of plastic waste is unavoidable.

Another possibility is going into science communications, or science policy-making, both of which would satisfy my creative side despite no longer designing and carrying out experiments. I may move away from science entirely – I have always liked the idea of working as a chef. Maybe in my next life!

Do you feel there are still challenges to overcome for women studying or working as academics in STEM fields?

I think at the PhD level, no. Particularly with biological sciences, the intake of female PhD students is significantly higher than male students. However, when you go up to the level of senior academics it is a heavily male-dominated profession.

There seems to be an idea that that the job of Group Leader or Principle Investigator does not appeal to women as much as men. I would say that this is not the case. Rather, that the nature of the many steps it takes to get to these positions is perhaps more geared towards men. I think it is true that the women often read a job description and come away with a list of reasons that they are not 100% right for the role, whereas men will read the same job description and think, “I can do at least half of those things, I’ll go for it”. I think the main barriers to women progressing in the academic sphere are themselves – or other women. I have often heard fellow female PhD students saying things like, “I enjoy working in a more male-dominated lab”. Such attitudes are deceptively dangerous.

Is it important, in your view, to have women in senior positions within the university, particularly relating to science subjects?

I would say absolutely. It is important to have a work-force which is representative of the public, as much as possible. Of course, the level to which senior academics were educated is not representative of the whole population, but as far as is possible the socio-economic background, gender, race etc. of a work-force should be represented. Having different voices and opinions is important – particularly in a research institute. Diversity of outlook and opinion can only improve our science.

Georgia twitter (small)-01Have you had a positive experience studying at Cambridge?

So far I would say that yes, my experience of Cambridge has been positive. I will admit that I have struggled with my perception of the institution itself and how I anticipated/have experienced my life and relationships changing now that I am a Cambridge student. However, this is not the University’s fault.

The resources available to us as students, as well as the ‘boost’ that comes from having Cambridge on your CV are not to be underappreciated. I am learning to take the pros along with the cons that come from living in a relatively small town (I grew up in London) surrounded by, what can only be described as, exceptional people. (The Imposter Syndrome is palpable!)

Speaking seriously though, I am loving my PhD and the fact that I am at Cambridge is a wonderful, unexpected bonus.

What is it like being a graduate at Pembroke?

Pembroke is a beautiful college, with a rich history. The Graduate Parlour is very welcoming and holds many events for us grad students during term time which provides a welcome and much-needed break from work, and are really good fun. These events do, broadly-speaking, stop with rather jarring suddenness, as the term ends. This is not an issue if you have a solid group of friends to maintain some semblance of a good work-life balance, however if you don’t, it can make life a little harder.

Overall I think there is a good college spirit and people are very friendly. I would say as well that it is a safe place and we are provided with plenty of resources for a happy Grad experience. Trough is very affordable and the food is excellent – especially fabulous since the advent of Meat-Free Mondays (I am a veggie). Life Drawing on Monday nights is very relaxing and Yoga on Sundays (subsidised for Grads) is brilliant.

If you could say one thing to girls hoping to study STEM subjects, what would it be?

Pick your subject carefully: do what you LOVE.

Nothing should stop you following your interests and your passions. I only started to enjoy science in secondary school, although maths had always been (and will always be) my favourite subject. I studied Maths, Biology, Chemistry and Physics for my A-Levels, and I loved every second (more or less) of my lessons.

I had a meeting with the Head of Sixth Form right at the beginning of Lower Sixth and she suggested that I might want to swap one of my subjects for something “non-sciencey”. She said that I would struggle doing only science subjects. I was indeed the only girl at the school doing my subjects, but I was far from alone, with about 10 boys doing the same subjects.

Do not let anyone dissuade you from what you know to be the right path for you.

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