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Women and Girls in Science: PhD

Undergraduate: Holly Chetwood is a third year Chemistry student

Holly-logoHolly is part of the Natural Science Tripos, and has specialised into Chemistry now she’s reached her third year of study. She always wanted to do Chemistry, but also finds Maths and Physics interesting subjects.  Before taking separate science subjects at GCSE she originally wanted to study English, inspired by her parents, but enjoyed GCSE chemistry so much that she completely changed tack. Science appeals to her because she finds problem-solving satisfying, and enjoys studying why the world works the way it does.

If you’re a prospective student thinking about taking Natural Sciences, Holly says “definitely go for it”.  Describing her experience of finding science classes to be dominated by boys, Holly says not to be put off by this.  Sticking with science you’ll begin to realise how fun and rewarding it can be.

Postgraduate: Myfanwy Hill is a Pembroke PhD candidate in clinical neuroscience.

Myfanwy-logoMyfanwy began, possibly unexpectedly, as a veterinary surgeon at Bristol, and then went on to do a Bachelor’s of Science at the Royal Veterinary College in London.  To the casual viewer it may not seem the obvious route, but Myfanwy had a plan from the start. To her, veterinary science looked to be the broadest science training you could get. She was inspired by her now-supervisor, Dr Robin Franklin, who also trained as a veterinary surgeon, when she attended a talk of his when she was a teenager. Now, she researches ways to measure the effectiveness of treatments for myelin damage. She talked to Kit Smart about her path to clinical neuroscience and her love of science.

“I really love being a clinician. It’s not like I don’t like working with animals, I do, I love animals and I love that interaction.  Every patient is like an experiment in the sense that you have a problem and need to solve it.  Those elements are fluid for me between being a veterinary surgeon and being a research scientist. So although everyone is baffled by it, for me it was really obvious! I work on human brain disease now, but that was what I always wanted to do because my supervisor inspired me to see that path.  My PhD was the culmination of a very long plan to do this, and to do science.

I think it’s nice when you get inspired and it opens up a whole new avenue of work and interests, even if you don’t know it’s a thing, or that’s what a vet can do. It was a real epiphany moment, although I was maybe a bit young to be having a big moment! I stuck with it though; I’m the sort of person who runs with things if no one tells me to stop!

The group I work in, we all work on diseases of myelin.  Myelin is the insulation that wraps around all of your nerves, a bit like the plastic around a wire or plug.  There are lots of diseases where that insulation is damaged or broken down.  The most common is Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  The field is full of people looking at why that damage occurs and how it can be repaired, and there are loads that look at how to improve that repair mechanism, speed it up and make it more effective.  So what I actually do is try to design an outcome measure that allows us to demonstrate that these people are getting better and that it’s the myelin that is getting repaired.  At the moment you can do brain scans but they’re proxy measures for people getting better.  We can’t always say whether or not a treatment is effective.  When you have MS you get better and worse in a cyclical fashion, so you might be getting better but it might not be because of the drug but because of the natural progression of your disease.  I try to design outcome measures to see if people are making myelin more effectively, and whether we’ve actually affected that repair process.

I do lots of brain scans and cell work, lots of very technical lab-based things, which is very different to being a vet! I was really bad at it when I started! It was a bit of a shock going from being good at being a vet to being bad at being a scientist, but that’s been good for me. It’s been motivational and humbling as well, I think. I also make lots of pretty pictures!”

What would you say to someone thinking about doing a science?

“I think the most important thing is to do what you enjoy and what you feel passionate about, but to remember that there are so many more opportunities than we could ever dream of.  Really look at combining your passions and interests because there is always a role for science.  It might be art and the chemistry of Art History, or the way bodies move or function.  Science is so integral to everything we do that it doesn’t matter what your passions are, you can find a niche. It’s so easy to pigeonhole yourself as a biologist, or a vet…but you can do whatever you want. Even if you don’t class yourself as a scientist you can use all of your scientific skills and training in so many aspects of life.  If you explore that, you’ll always find a niche that satisfies you.”

There are infinite ways you can branch off in science.

“Exactly.  There’s so much more to it than many people think. Science is such a broad church of ideas, techniques and jobs.  I wish people had a better understanding of what it is to be a scientist.  We don’t all stand around in white coats making graphs.  That’s a great part of science, but not the only part! There’s so much more.  There’s no such thing as one discipline, everyone works in multidisciplinary teams.  We’ve got Physicians, Biologists, Doctors, Vets, Chemists…all of these different people working on one disease.   I have friends who are vets who worked on the Ebola crisis, and friends working for the civil service or home office, but they’re all scientists.  It opens so many doors, and you can still love all the other stuff! You can still be interested in foreign languages and art; I do drama and I dance.  We’re not one-dimensional people.  My supervisor talks about Tennyson and poetry, and birds.  You can have all these interests but still be a brilliant scientist.  He’s so inspirational in that way.

It doesn’t close any doors to you, and I wish people understood that. Science is not as straightforward as black and white facts, or we’d have solved all the world’s problems already.  They’ll always be debate, and that doesn’t make it opinion, but it means it’s not black and white.  Greater understanding, and some scientific training for everyone, would be really beneficial. It doesn’t have to be hard and dry and boring, it can be fun and cool and interesting.  Don’t be put off if you have a bad teacher, you can still read around it just go into it with an open mind.”

What makes Pembroke, and Cambridge, special?

“Pembroke in particular I think has a really strong interdisciplinary community, and everyone has a real sense of genuine interest and respect for each other’s disciplines.  It’s really unusual as a scientist from one discipline to be able to speak to someone from a disparate arts discipline and have a genuine exchange of thoughts and ideas.  Often people think, if they study the arts they’re not interested in science.  But in the grad community we all go to each other’s talks and the sense of community and friendship draws people together.  I have really interesting conversations with people, who study the history of the EU or of human rights, and I learn from them and I am broadened by them.  From the platform of friendship we all build on our wider knowledge of each other’s subjects.  It’s true across the university but it’s well established here, and I really value that.

Cambridge fosters excellence in every sphere.  Your extra-curricular activity is as important as your academic work.  You don’t have to be one-dimensional.  Everyone is really pushed to excel in all aspects of their personality, whether it’s sport, academia, or debate.  You’re expected to be the best you can be, and that’s not always the case elsewhere where you might conform to a stereotype of your subject area.  Cambridge blows those stereotypes out of the water so you can develop as a person, flourish, and thrive.”

Natural Sciences Tripos is the framework within which most science subjects are taught.  Prospective students can read more on our website or on the University’s website here. Pembroke is ideally situated – both geographically and personnel – for those reading Natural Sciences: the back and side gates of the College lead directly into the New Museums and Downing sites where most of the University laboratories are located. The College has teaching Fellows in all the major science subjects, most of whom take a full part in university teaching (lecturing and laboratory work) as well as engaging in research in their own specialist fields (see below). We admit between 25-30 natural scientists each year, roughly equally divided between physical and biological interests. We have about 90 postgraduate students in the sciences in residence at any time. The Pembroke science society, the Stokes Society – named after a famous Pembroke mathematician – is run by a group of undergraduates and organises a series of informal talks from research scientists in many fields and a lot of socialising!

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