8 March, 2024

International Women’s Day 2024! The campaign theme for International Women’s Day 2024 is Inspire Inclusion. 

‘When we inspire others to understand and value women’s inclusion, we forge a better world.’ 

Did you know that women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues? Also, less than 30% of scientific researchers worldwide are female. And only 35% of UK university students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in the UK are women. (source: UN). 

Our science team, here at Breast Cancer UK, is made up of three inspiring women who come from different yet amazing scientific backgrounds. 

We caught up with them ahead of International Women’s Day to ask them a few questions to shine a light on what inspired them to become scientists.  

Firstly, have you always wanted to be a scientist and what inspired you to become one?  

Hannah: I always wanted to be involved in healthcare. I started doing radiography at university but changed midway through to biological sciences. My passion for cancer research came from my undergraduate project supervisor. He was a real inspiration; he always carved out time to talk to me about my experiments and taught me how to analyse and critique data.  

After completing such an interesting project, in which I looked at the effect of chamomile tea extract on proto-oncogene expression, I knew I wanted to do research as a career. I then moved on to a PhD with an amazing supervisor, Dr Stephen Maher, whose many hilarious phrases still remain with me today!  

Those three years were some of the best of my life, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the lab. In short, the supervisors I worked with in my early years have truly inspired me to be the scientist I am today. 

Alice: Yes, I have always wanted to be a scientist. Ever since I was young, I have been very curious, and I like how science can explain most questions. I am very logical and like to make sense of things, so science was my obvious choice. 

Tiphaine: When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect, probably because my grandfather was an architect, and I thought that was very cool. However, in school, I quickly realised I enjoyed biology and was much better at it. I particularly liked how biology is all about trying to make sense of the things around us, and it is rational, which makes it easy for me to understand. So, I then decided to pursue studies in Biology, and the rest is history. 

You’ve been interested in research that is focussed on cancer prevention/chemicals/nutrition for some time; why?  

Hannah: I started my formal research career as a researcher of asbestos-related cancer (mesothelioma). This disease is almost entirely preventable. From that point, my interest in cancer prevention grew. I started looking at how our environment can affect our health. At Breast Cancer UK, we acknowledge that at least 30% of breast cancers may be prevented. I head the science team that provides the evidence for our education and messaging, so we closely research many lifestyle and environmental factors, including endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and how they can affect breast cancer risk. 

Alice: Having been a chemist for many years, I have become very familiar with the risks associated with chemical exposure. EDCs are polluting the environment and are present in many everyday products that we all use. With my work, I want to raise awareness of EDCs and contribute to advocating for better regulations on harmful chemicals.  

Tiphaine: There are many reasons I chose nutrition. One of them is that I find nutrition and how it affects our health and well-being fascinating. Honestly, I can talk about nutrition for hours; you have to stop me. I like helping people understand the science behind nutrition concerns. I believe understanding nutrition can empower us to try to make the right choices for our health. 

What scientist, living or dead, do you most admire?  

Hannah: Dr Rosalind Franklin, she was a chemist in the 1950s that helped to discover the structure of DNA, this paved the way for the fundamental understanding of molecular biology. The structure of DNA is often attributed to two scientists, James Watson and Francis Crick, however it was Franklin’s discovery that really helped to accelerate understanding using her X-ray images. She was really an equal partner is understanding the structure of DNA, but this is often noted as being Watson and Crick’s discovery.    

Alice: Dr Frances Oldham Kelsey was a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientist. In 1960, while the drug thalidomide was used in Europe to treat pregnancy-related morning sickness, an application was submitted to the FDA to start selling it in the US. Dr Kelsey reviewed the application and noticed that the evidence provided was not scientifically reliable and she refused to approve it. In the meantime, scientists linked thalidomide to severe birth defects affecting thousands of people in Europe. The US was largely spared, thanks to Dr Kelsey’s work and perseverance. This case highlights the importance of evaluating the evidence carefully and not being afraid to ask questions when something doesn’t add up.   

Tiphaine: I’m not sure there is one scientist that I admire most, but one whose work I am constantly using is Elsie Widdowson. She was a pioneer for women in nutrition science. She was part of the duo that put together McCance and Widdowson’s ‘composition of foods’ dataset on the nutrient content of the UK food supply, first published in 1940. This is a tool I use in my job practically daily, and it is particularly useful. Among her other achievements, she was president of the Nutrition Society and the British Nutrition Foundation. 

What do you like to do when you are not working?  

Hannah: I enjoy gardening and growing my own produce; occasionally, I’m joined by my kids or the dog (who is absolutely crazy), which is sometimes great but sometimes not! 

Alice: During the weekends, I enjoy going for walks in the Scottish countryside with my partner, whilst in the evenings I like to stay in playing video games or watching a TV series. When my favourite bands are in town, I love attending gigs and seeing them play live. 

Tiphaine: Outside of work, I like to spend time with friends and family. I also love to spend time by myself creating things; for example, I love making jewellery, knitting and watercolour painting. 

What does a typical day at work look like for you?   

Hannah: Every day is different. Which I really enjoy but typically. I will have several meetings in the day, maybe a check-in with my team, review lots of exciting new content, write some presentations, and develop strategies. 

Alice: A large part of my job is to read the scientific literature, understand it and then communicate it in an accessible way. I write educational content for our website and blogs to raise awareness of chemical exposure and breast cancer prevention. I also enjoy collaborating closely with the other Science team members and colleagues from other departments. 

Tiphaine: My work has different aspects, so every day is different. A big part of my role is putting together science reviews. Particularly on nutrition and lifestyle and breast cancer, so I will spend time researching or writing about the latest evidence. Ensuring that this is all communicated in an understandable way. I also help answer queries from the public, making sure they are all evidence-based, and spend time putting together recipes to share with our audience. 

In terms of your career, what do you hope to be doing in five years?   

Hannah: In five years, I hope to drive our science forward at Breast Cancer UK and support our charity to empower people to help them reduce their risk of breast cancer. 

Alice: I hope to continue to contribute to BCUK’s mission of raising awareness of harmful chemicals among the public, while at the same time advocating for better regulations in the UK. 

Tiphaine: In 5 years, I still see myself helping the public understand science and nutrition to help empower and support their health. 

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?   

Hannah: International Women’s Day is a chance to shine the light on women throughout the world who historically have forged the way to make life better for so many, and to celebrate the continued fantastic achievements women make daily. I am thankful to work with amazing women who support and lift others to achieve the best of their abilities. 

Alice: International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to celebrate all women, but to me is also a great day to highlight their fantastic contribution to science, whether they are just starting out their undergraduate degree, working hard during their PhD or leading a team of scientists.  

Tiphaine: International Women’s Day is a space to ensure women’s voices are heard and amplified. I think it’s important for young women to be able to see and be inspired by how much women can achieve. It’s a moment to celebrate all the wonderful things women have done and keep doing. But also an opportunity to openly discuss what still needs to be done for women worldwide. 

We hope you enjoyed this little insight into the three incredible ladies within our science team. They help keep the wheels turning here at Breast Cancer UK, and we can’t thank them enough. 

However, we must remember that there is more to be done to achieve true gender equality in science! Giving women the confidence to undertake equal opportunities can help:  

  • narrow the gender pay gap 
  • enhance women’s economic security 
  • ensures a diverse and talented workforce  
  • prevents biases in scientific fields 

We’re always so happy to celebrate IWD and #InspireInclusion!  

Always keep an eye on our grant page, where our grants will be publicised here.

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