Naturejobs is celebrating Women in Science. Every day this week we’re interviewing an inspirational woman in science.
There is an incredible on-going effort to reduce the barriers that women in STEM subjects face, but with these interviews, Naturejobs hopes to show that when you put your mind to it, and follow your passions, anything is achievable.
We’re starting the series with Frances Ashcroft, a professor of physiology, and fellow of Trinity College of the University of Oxford. She’s got an infectious attitude to both life and science, which you can hear in her voice in the podcast.
Frances Ashcroft has always been interested in science, ever since she was a little girl growing up in Dorset, UK. “I was just fascinated by the natural world: by the flowers, the birds and all the things that I saw around me. And I just asked lots of questions about them.”
This curiosity never faded, and after studying biology at A-levels, she went on the University of Cambridge to study natural sciences, focussing on zoology and the physiology of animals. This eventually led to her fascination in human physiology. “I simply loved being at Cambridge, because it was one of those places where it was OK to ask questions. And questions are what I’ve always been interested in…. And the marvellous thing about Cambridge was that people were able to answer those questions, or to provoke more.”
Like many women studying physics and engineering today, Frances was outnumbered as a woman studying science at Cambridge. “I was there at a time when there when only three women’s colleges that it was possible to go to….but as you can imagine this made for an extremely good social life!”
Even with the heavy social life, Frances came through Cambridge, and went on to the University of Oxford to set up her own lab, giving her the freedom to choose her own research direction. “I just picked the pancreatic beta-cells because they had interesting electro-physiology.” Not only that, it was an opportunity to work with people who were studying the same cells but from a different perspective, and as they had a disease associated with them, it was easier to get funding for her research. “It was incredibly scary, to change everything all at once. But, looking back on it, it was one of the best things I could have done.”
Frances was studying a pathway that governed the release of insulin from the pancreas when blood sugar levels rise. It was only one specific part of this pathway that Frances was studying, and when she discovered how it worked, “it was absolutely amazing! Discovery is such an exciting thing! It’s one of those things where the whole world suddenly stands out in a bright light and you feel incredibly excited and you can’t go to sleep. And once you’ve had that type of excitement, science is never going to let you go, because you always want it again.”
But this adrenaline rush isn’t what keeps Frances at the bench. It’s her underlying curiosity to know more about how the world works that she has had since she was a young girl that keeps her coming back to work every morning. “Wanting to know the answer to all these different questions, just puzzling things out.” The rewards of discovery are unfortunately so rare, that it couldn’t sustain anyone as a scientist.
With this discovery under her belt, it’s clear that Frances wouldn’t let anything get in her way. She’s never felt the pressures of being a female scientist, because she’s never thought of herself in that light. “I’ve never thought of myself as a woman scientist. I’ve always thought of myself as a woman…and as a scientist. And I’m both of those things.” With this strong attitude, Frances has let nothing stop her from scratching that itch that makes her want to know more about life.
In all her years as a scientist, Frances has learned many things and she wanted to share some of them with the Naturejobs listeners:
1) Try something new. “Setting up a lab, that’s the first thing to try.”
2) Think about your research field. “Try and establish your own, independent, individual line of research, so that it is thought of as being your area.”
3) Love what you do. “Find what you’re passionate about, and stick with it.”
Don’t miss an episode of this week’s Women in Science spotlight series by subscribing to the Naturejobs podcast via iTunes!