“There is a mistaken belief that science is a man’s world. This is certainly not true.”
Dr. Laura Dearden was awarded one of our New Lecturer grants in Nutrition in 2022. To mark International Women’s Day, we talk to her about inspiring the next generation of female scientists and how schools, universities and funding bodies can help.
Rank Prize (RP): Can you tell us a bit about your current role as Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow at the Institute of Metabolic Science, University of Cambridge? What do you enjoy most about it?
Laura Dearden (LD): My Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship is funding me to start my own research group at the University of Cambridge and as a junior group leader my job is very varied! On a weekly basis I can be doing experiments, analysing results, presenting my research at international conferences, discussing ideas with collaborators or writing applications for funding for future work. I have been in this field for 14 years now and I am still fascinated by how the brain develops and how it controls food intake, and every time we piece together a new part of the puzzle I still get a buzz inside.
RP: What inspired you to pursue a career in scientific research? Did you always know it was what you wanted to do?
LD: At school I enjoyed Biology and History, and I wasn’t sure which I wanted to study at University. The school biology curriculum is very broad but it was the topic of how all the parts of the body work together to function that had caught my imagination. It was only when a friend of mine told me about her older sister who was studying Physiology at University that I decided to apply for Physiology myself (after looking up the word in the dictionary!). Once I was at University, I was lucky to have a lecturer who recognised how interested I was in scientific research and encouraged me to pursue a career in academia.
I have been in this field for 14 years now and I am still fascinated by how the brain develops and how it controls food intake, and every time we piece together a new part of the puzzle I still get a buzz inside.”
RP: Despite improvements, women remain a minority in the STEM sector, both in the UK and worldwide. What do you think are the barriers preventing women from joining or remaining in the sector?
LD: There are still too many gender stereotypes tied to careers which stop some girls from pursuing STEM subjects. This can be corrected through changes in school age education and in public outreach by the STEM sectors. A 2020 study by Teach First found that only half of British adults can name a female scientist, dead or alive. They also noted that not a single female scientist is mentioned in the GCSE science curriculum. Since having children I have realised how important representation is. My 4-year-old daughter knows that I am a scientist and that one of my female friends is too. I recently bumped into one of my daughter’s school friend’s Dad when I was visiting another department, and when I told her that evening she said to me “Oh, so boys can be scientists too, Mummy?” I had never realised before that as the only scientists she knew were female, she thought this meant all scientists were! Presumably in the past many children would not even have considered that girls could be scientists, and that is very sad.
RP: Why is it important that more women do consider a career in STEM? What more can employers or organisations like Rank Prize do to help?
LD: Both women and men should be equally represented in STEM; there is no reason that female performance would be inferior in this field. Organisations should ensure that women are sufficiently represented on award committees/interview panels and in speaker programs at conferences to ensure equity and not just equality.
Funders can also pay attention to deadlines and eligibility criteria for awards/funding (e.g. not scheduling deadlines immediately after school holidays as this is harder for women who often carry the burden of childcare, and take into account parental leave or part-time working). Members of interview panels and selection committees should also consider gender differences in confidence levels that can make men and women present themselves differently in both formal and informal settings.
Since having children I have realised how important representation is. […] A 2020 study by Teach First found that only half of British adults can name a female scientist, dead or alive. They also noted that not a single female scientist is mentioned in the GCSE science curriculum.”
RP: What would you say to girls or women who don’t think science is for them?
LD: There is a mistaken belief that science is a man’s world. This is certainly not true: I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by – and benefited from the mentorship of – many amazing female scientists throughout my scientific career. To succeed in science you need passion and creativity to find the way forward for your research through sometimes challenging times. Regardless of your sex or gender, if you have that passion for science you should pursue your dreams!
Find out more about Laura’s research into maternal obesity and her New Lecturer grant here.