photo: Katrina Campbell
I met Jo at my pregnancy yoga class when we were all newly pregnant and, well, feeling pretty rubbish and definitely needed emotional support. I can tell you that we didn't end up doing much yoga in the end, it turned into a counseling session for all of us instead. But through these yoga counselling sessions I met some of the best friends that I have today. Jo is one of them. The ladies I ended up bonding with couldn't be more different to me, but it just worked and to this day I really, really cherish their friendship.
Jo is the ‘set-you-straight’ one in the group and I just love her for this. She is incredibly intelligent, has the kindest heart, but also likes it straight. Unlike most of my mama friends, she is not in the creative industry. She's a chemist – and a very good one at that. She's on a mission to encourage more girls to get into science because god knows we need them! I sat down and had a lovely chat with her about her career, being a working mother and science.
Read on for the interview.
1. TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF. WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?
I’ve been a medicinal chemist working in drug discovery research for almost 10 years, working on medicines for different respiratory diseases for GSK. Medicinal Chemists design the shape, properties and synthesis of a prototype drug molecule. I typically work in a team of scientists from different disciplines with a common goal of testing a hypothesis to treat a disease. I love my job; I find it challenging and rewarding and am privileged to work alongside some really talented people. Before GSK, I did a PhD in Synthetic Chemistry at Imperial College London, and before that an MChem at the University of Oxford. I met my husband when we were undergrads and we now have two kids – a five year old little girl and a one year old little boy. Since children I work part-time; four days a week in the lab/office and a day at home with the children every Friday.
2. WHAT SPARKED THE IDEA OF BECOMING A CHEMIST?
I enjoyed Chemistry at school and just kept on following what I found interesting and felt I was good at. My PhD opened my eyes to a career in research in industry and the rest is history...
3. WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE PART ABOUT BEING A CHEMIST?
Designing and then making molecules of very specific 3D shape by a series of reactions (basically like cooking, but more dangerous!) in the lab. I’ve always found the process beautiful, fascinating and really satisfying. And then we put them in a biological system and see what they do... Amazing!
One of the drug molecules I contributed to the invention of is about to go into clinical trials next year. It will be the ultimate test of whether what we designed is good enough to treat patients and the first time something I’ve worked on has reached this hurdle. I’m really excited to see whether it’s as good as we hoped…
4. WHAT CAN YOU DO OR WE DO TO ENCOURAGE MORE GIRLS TO GO INTO SCIENCES?
That’s such a difficult question! I’m not sure I have a very good answer... I’ve been into a few secondary schools as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) ambassador trying to do exactly that and I’ve never been convinced I’ve done much good. I think gender stereotyping of what boys and girls should be good at can be very damaging (“Delusions of Gender”, by Cordelia Fine is a great book on this topic) – I have sometimes got the impression that girls are afraid to have a serious try at a field that they believe females are less likely to excel in. Personally, I have always had a stubbornness to persist at things it has been implied by others that I won’t be able to do and I think it has always stood me in pretty good stead! Now my daughter has started school I’ve decided I will volunteer every UK science week to run some science workshops with her year group. The reception classes seemed to enjoy it last year and I can’t help thinking that a mum in a lab coat doing some exciting experiments might counterbalance a few stereotypes...?
Whilst I’m on the topic, I also think retention of more senior women in science and technology is really important. The presence of more experienced female role models as a junior scientist is affirming and motivating. This is one of the things that keeps me determined to continue with scientific research after having children. I have been really lucky in a lot of ways, with a brilliant husband who is committed to us working as a team at home and a company like GSK who are amazing at supporting flexible working for parents. But even with that, I have found it really hard returning to work; figuring out how to balance everything and dealing with being out of date and low on confidence after returning from maternity leave. I’ve needed all the support I could get and, despite really enjoying my job, have often questioned whether it was worth persisting with. But in my lowest moments, the mentoring and inspiration from more experienced women at work has strengthened me and convinced me that I would be able to work through the difficult times and, ultimately, be happier for it.
That was a long answer… Perhaps more than you bargained for…!?!
WHEN YOU AREN’T WORKING WHAT ARE YOU USUALLY DOING?
I am usually spending time with my family. If I get some time to myself, I’ll be at the gym or out running. And very occasionally (at least at the moment) I might make it out for dinner or a few drinks with my husband or with old friends.
photo: Katrina Campbell
5. WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE TO GO TO WITH YOUR KIDS/YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE JUST YOU?
If I could choose anywhere to be with my kids, it would be exploring a beach, maybe Kynance cove in Cornwall. Or nearer home, it would be Queens Wood or the Heath. I really value the chance to find a peaceful, green space within London and our children love climbing trees, collecting leaves/stones/conkers/acorns/blackberries/flowers (random stuff that I then find going mouldy in my pockets or scoop out of the washing machine filter) and generally exploring. On my own, it would be central London, walking and mooching in the shops and cafes.
photo: Katrina Campbell
6. IF YOU COULD COLLOBARATE WITH ANYONE ON A PROJECT WHO WOULD THIS BE? WHY?
At the moment, it would be an expert in the field of biological chemistry. It’s a field I really want to learn more about and what better a way to learn than to collaborate on a project with a researcher for whom that’s their main interest.
7. WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN? WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO US?
I used to waste a lot of energy worrying what other people thought of about me. Quite soon after I’d met my husband I was engaged in a very typical spiral of anxiety about something someone had said to me/about me. He asked me if I respected the opinion of the person who had made the comments. I thought about it and decided, no, I didn’t really and he said; “stop worrying about it then”. It sounds so obvious, but it really wasn’t to me. I realised I could stop worrying about what everyone thought and choose whose opinions I really cared about. Most importantly, it set me on the road to being content with who am. Not bad advice to pass on....
8. IF YOU WEREN’T WORKING IN A LAB WHAT WOULD YOUR SECOND DREAM JOB BE?
A doctor. I wasn’t emotionally strong or mature enough to take something like that on when I was 18, but I’d love to be a little nearer to the people we’re trying to find medicines for.
9. WHO IS YOUR INSPIRATION/ROLE MODEL?
The people who are closest to me; my mum, my dad and my husband. They are, hands down, the three best people I know. They inspire me to strive to be the best I can be.
10. FAVOURITE CHILDHOOD MEMORY?
Narrow boat holidays – we went every single year! Walking the dog with my dad in the early morning with the dew still on the grass and breakfast smells coming from all the other boats moored up on the canal.
11. ANYTHING YOU ARE WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT? ANY EXCITING NEWS?
I’m hoping to expand my scientific horizons a little in the next couple of years... I’m feeling a desire for something new. I’m making a start on this with a 12 month secondment to the Francis Crick Institute near St Pancras to work on a project related to searching for new cancer treatments. I’ll be working in a predominantly biology-focused lab, trying to develop a collaborative approach between industry Medicinal Chemistry and academic Chemical Biology. I’m really looking forward to it – I’m hoping to learn loads both scientifically and about new ways of working outside of my current sphere of experience.
Photos: Katrina Campbell