On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, discover the experiences and opinions of three female scientists at the University of Birmingham, who’ve all been supported by Diabetes UK. Together, they are helping us find out more about how insulin-making beta cells function and how we can grow new ones in the lab.
Celebrated every year on 11 February, International Day of Women and Girls in Science was established in 2015 by the United Nations to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for girls and women.
Beating stereotypes and ending prejudice against women and girls in science means recognising and championing the amazing females who are continuing to break new ground in research and innovation.
Dr Patricia Thomas is an MRC-funded Early Career Fellow at the University of Birmingham. We helped her to take her very first steps into a diabetes research career. We funded her PhD, where she investigated how different types of fats influence the life and death of beta cells, as type 2 diabetes develops.
This experience motivated her to make diabetes research her life’s work and continue making discoveries that could change lives.
“I now am an advocate for people type 2 diabetes and through my teaching and research, I strive to improve the quality of life of people living with the condition," says Dr Thomas.
The importance of being inspired
Dr Thomas credits her supervisors – women scientists with extraordinary skills and strong values, for motivating her.
“Throughout my research career, I’ve been fortunate enough to be supported by many outstanding female researchers and support staff, who are a constant source of inspiration."
Dr Ildem Akerman is an Associate Professor and one of our RD Laurence Fellows. With our funding, she’s exploring how to make new beta cells in a test tube, that work just as well as real beta cells.
“It’s not Marie Curie that I think of on a daily basis, but my close friends and colleagues doing great research, establishing their careers, having children and striking that work-life balance," says Dr Akerman.
Resilience in science
Bad luck can happen to anyone and in science almost nothing you do works the first time. It’s important to look at failure as a learning experience and move past it, as Dr Akerman reminds us.
“Set your standards high and persevere. I got a scholarship to study genetics in the US, but I didn't get it the first time. I didn't get the first four group leader positions that I applied for, nor did I get every grant,” she said.
Having a support network to champion you is also crucial.
“It takes a village to raise a scientist! So, take every opportunity you get, find the support and make the best of it," says Dr Akerman.
Dr Fiona Docherty, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and stem cell biologist, who works closely with Dr Akerman, adds:
“I think the most important thing you can do is speak up, get your voice heard and try to find some great experience that will set you apart from the crowd.”
A changing landscape
Dr Thomas also sees other positive changes taking place.
“More women are being promoted to senior leadership positions and there is a greater awareness of gender inequality. Science may still have a way to go in terms of gender disparity, but it is moving in the right direction, and I am excited to see what women in STEM can continue to achieve in the coming years."
Dr Akerman knows that representation matters. It’s hard to be what we cannot see.
“I want my daughters to see that women can have an established career, be independent and follow their passions. I want them to have a good role model (and why not me!)."
If women don’t have an active voice, then science loses out on the creativity, ideas and perspectives of many essential people.
“I’ve always been inspired by the achievements of other women in science; however, it hasn’t always been easy to find the women behind the science. Early on in my career it felt like most top billing speakers at conferences were men, but it’s great to see how this is changing," says Dr Docherty.
“I know that Diabetes UK and other organisations have been pivotal in championing this representation. We owe it to the next generation to keep the pressure on!"