10 months ago
We caught up with Professor Val Speirs, a leading scientist in the field of breast cancer research and one of own research grant recipients. She told us why she became a scientist, what it takes to do the job and provided some sound advice for those women who want to get ahead in science.
Q. Firstly, have you always wanted to be a scientist and what inspired you to become one?
A. I wanted to be a scientist from a young age. I was always interested in biology and curious about how things worked. I did my first experiments in the kitchen at home mixing things like vinegar, sugar, food colouring, bicarbonate of soda etc. taken from the kitchen cupboards. Drove my mum crazy when she went to get an ingredient from the cupboard only to find it had been used up in my latest experiment!
Q. You have been involved in breast cancer research for some time, why this field of research?
A. I’ve been involved in breast cancer research for about 25 years. My PhD was actually in lung cancer. My first postdoctoral research position was in lung development but, when this was ending, I knew I wanted to have a career in cancer research. The next project I was offered happened to be in breast cancer research and I’ve remained in the field ever since.
Q. Does breast cancer research tend to attract women scientists?
A. Not especially. We’re seeing more and more female scientists in general (which is good), all working on various types of diseases, but in breast cancer I’d say the balance is fairly even. Having said that my team at the moment is all female!
Q. You also focus on non-animal research, why is this?
A. Interestingly, one of the most successful breast cancer treatments in the 1970s, the discovery of Tamoxifen, involved the use of animals. But I work on a human condition and for me there is no better model than using human tissues to study human disease. We are very fortunate to have access to the Breast Cancer Now Tissue Bank which provides access to human breast tissue for scientists. And with the technologies available in the 21st century we should be thinking more laterally about developing models which more closely mirror human disease rather than continuing to rely on animal models.
Q. According to UNESCO UIS data, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. What do you think needs to happen to attract more women to work in science?
A. I’m surprised by that statistic. From my experience at conferences I wouldn’t have imagined this. I think having good female role models can help young women and girls see what they could achieve in science. The aim of the Athena SWAN Charter was to establish career progression, success and good practice in gender equality for everyone in higher education and research institutions. Introduction of flexible working and Shared Parental Leave is also starting to have impact in making science a more family-friendly career.
Q. What challenges have you faced in your career; has gender inequality been one of them?
A. I’ve been fairly lucky and not encountered too many obstacles. I’ve been fortunate to have been ‘in the right place at the right time’ and able to take opportunities as they presented themselves. At the start of my career I never really set out to be a professor, I just enjoyed being a scientist and it was only as my career progressed that I realised this might be a possibility. Progression to professor was the biggest stumbling block. I was working in an environment where there were some rather old-fashioned, male-dominated views regarding career progression and didn’t get a lot of support in the beginning. But I kept going and finally made it!
Q. What advice would you give to women who want to become scientists?
A. Do it! Science is a great career and it can be very rewarding knowing you might be the first person to make a new discovery. Get yourself an enthusiastic mentor who is well respected in their field. Be tenacious. Be resilient. Life as a scientist is a series of peaks and troughs of successes, so if things don’t appear to be working, stick at it – it gets much easier with time!
Q. What other women scientists have inspired you?
A. Mina Bissell is pretty amazing and has done some wonderful work on understanding how the normal breast functions. For me this is fundamental; in order to understand what goes wrong in breast cancer, you need to understand what is normal. I’m also inspired by the breast cancer patients I meet, and I’ve been lucky to meet several of them over the years. These women have gone through some pretty tough times and it never ceases to amaze me how they bounce back and channel their energies into fundraising and advocacy work. It’s very humbling.
Q. Breast Cancer UK is co-funding some of your work on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. How is your research going?
A. Our Breast Cancer UK funded work is a PhD project, being carried out by a very talented young lady called Kerri Palmer. Kerri is now in her second year of this 3 year project and is examining how endocrine disrupting chemicals affect cells in the breast. She’s working on the effects of molecules called bisphenols. These are very tricky to work with as they stick to many substrates, so there have been some challenges along the away. Kerri has overcome these and is starting to generate lots of interesting, and unexpected, data.
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