Thursday, 2 March 2017

WONDER WOMEN: Psychologist and Epidemiologist Suzi Gage on Making STEM Careers More Accessible, and Getting Started as a Scientist

Wonder Women is a new series in which I interview the women who inspire me the most. These women are making waves in their careers and changing the world one step at a time - but most importantly, they're doing it for themselves.

Today I'm talking to Suzi Gage: psychologist, epidemiologist, writer for the Guardian, and lecturer at the University of Liverpool. Bit of a mouthful! Read on to discover how Suzi became a scientist, how you can get involved in her research, and her thoughts on making STEM careers more accessible for women...


Can you take us through a typical work day?

Well - I've just changed jobs, so I'm in month one of my new post (lecturer at the University of Liverpool), which means I haven't really established a routine as yet... In general, I will walk or cycle to my office and work at my (standing) desk. I am a psychologist and epidemiologist, which means I'm interested in population level health. In particular I want to understand associations between substance use and mental health. To do this I use large datasets - so I spend a lot of my day at my computer, looking at 1s and 0s, plotting the data as graphs so I can visualise it, and running statistics. I'll probably drink too much coffee, have meetings with colleagues and collaborators, and look at Twitter a bit (to find interesting research papers, honest!) Some days I'll be teaching medical students. It's also possible that I'll be writing up my results ready to submit to journals for peer review and hopefully publication, or writing grant applications to apply for money to conduct more research.

How did you get to where you are now?

At school I didn't really know what I wanted to do. As such my A-Level choices were pretty eclectic - Maths, Biology, Music and English. I went on to study Psychology at UCL. Surprisingly my English A-Level was probably the most helpful for this; not only was it useful to be able to write essays, but we studied Regeneration by Pat Barker, about shell shock and mental health during WW1, and I had a great chat about it in my interview for my place, which I'm sure helped me to get in! Even then I didn't truly realise I wanted to be a scientist, but during the summer of my 2nd year I got a placement working for one of the academics there on a project looking at Synaesthesia, a condition that can connect the senses - some people can smell words, or in this case see colours when they hear music. Doing this project was my first real experience of conducting research, and I loved it. When my undergrad finished I went on to do a masters at UCL, in cognitive neuropsychology. Then I moved to Bristol - because I was in a band and the rest of them lived there (!) After a year or so temping, I got a job as a Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, and then I realised I really could do scientific research for a career. My PhD followed at Bristol, then I worked as a post-doctoral researcher there for a couple of years before I got my lectureship at Liverpool, where I've just started.

What led you to follow a career in science?

As a kid I was always curious as to how things worked. Originally I really wanted to be an astronaut, but given I was once sea-sick in a pedalo my parents kindly but firmly talked me out of that one (!) That said, I was extremely lucky because they really instilled in me the idea that I could do whatever I wanted to - I never felt that because I was a girl there were certain careers that were closed to me.

Was there ever a time when you weren't sure you could get to where you wanted to be? Have you faced any hurdles along the way, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest hurdle and the most disheartening time for me as a scientist happened when I was trying to get funding to do a PhD. It took me 4 years of applying to actually be successful, and I must admit that I nearly gave up. I'm so glad I persevered, though, as it's all panned out brilliantly. Even the people who look successful in academia have dealt with rejection a lot. Almost every paper I've ever submitted to a journal has been rejected at least once, and it's extremely competitive to get research funding. Academics need quite thick skins!

Your blog for The Guardian is called Sifting the Evidence. In an increasingly online world, it's easy to be led astray by headlines and clickbait-y photos. How can we more easily make the distinction between actual facts and a bad article?

Sometimes it can be really hard to tell - and that's part of the reason I write the blog, and I also have a podcast Say Why to Drugs, which tries to provide clear and unbiased information about the science around the effects of recreational drugs. I guess my advice would be take everything you read or hear with a pinch of salt. If an article talks about one study that's 'completely changed the way we think about x' or 'overturned everything we previously knew about y' I would be skeptical. One piece of research doesn't exist in a vacuum, and if it finds something very different from all the research that's gone before, I would wait for someone else (another research group, for example) to replicate it before I put too much faith in it. I suppose the general rule of thumb is 'if it seems too good to be true, it probably is'. Sadly!

What do you think could be done to make STEM careers more accessible for women?

I think a lot of great work is happening in this; firstly: raising the visibility of women in science, particularly in fields historically dominated by men. It's making a big difference, because I think there's a lot of truth in 'I cannot be what I cannot see'. For girls to see successful women in fields such as physics and engineering is hugely important. But the problem isn't just getting girls to study sciences at A-Level, degree, and PhD. Even in fields where there are plenty of female undergrads, the top jobs still tend to go to men. So why are women less likely to get to these jobs? There are plenty of theories as to why: for example, perhaps women are less likely to go for promotion until they're really sure of their CV, while men might be more likely to take a punt early (these are generalisations, of course). And there's the issue of having a family, which is still likely to hamper a woman's career more than a man's. Initiatives like Athena Swan are doing a lot to support care-givers in academia, changing the culture of a department. This can mean moving seminars to the middle of the day rather than at the end where care givers may have responsibilities. Another idea could be that when promotion opportunities arise, everyone has to submit their CV rather than deciding whether or not to put themselves forwards. Having a mentor is also extremely important. We have a way to go, but I think we're going in the right direction.

What advice would you give to young girls wanting to get into science?

Go for it! Be inquisitive, ask questions. Learning every day is amazing and I love my job. But the other bit of advice would be to develop a thick skin. There's a lot of rejection in this job; and that's not just for girls, that's for everyone. If you've got great colleagues and friends in your field, like I'm lucky enough to have, you can share in your successes and commiserate together when you have setbacks. This makes it easier.

What has been the best moment of your career?

Can I have two? Firstly, last year along with my colleague Becky, I was awarded a grant from Cancer Research UK to investigate e-cigarettes. Getting funding to conduct research is no easy task, so it was really exciting to be awarded this. In fact, we've just started the project now - we are looking for people who vape but have never smoked, smoked but have never vaped, and people who've never done either, so we can collect their saliva and investigate the methylation of their DNA.

Secondly, being invited on Scroobius Pip's Distraction Pieces podcast was an absolute thrill and an honour. I'm in esteemed company - the list of actors, comedians and musicians he's spoken to is pretty awe-inspiring. Not only that but after I appeared on his podcast he's been incredibly supportive of me setting up mine - Say Why to Drugs. Not only does it appear on his podcast network, but each episode is me in conversation with him!

Who inspires you?

Ooh. Well when I was a child I was really inspired by Helen Sharman - the first British person in space. An absolutely incredible achievement. I'm inspired by my colleagues and friends in academia, my friends Sally Adams and Olivia Maynard are incredible scientists, and I don't know what I'd do without their guidance. The same goes for Tamsin Edwards - she's a climate scientist, and she's also been a great mentor to me. I've found it really useful to talk to people in different fields to myself, to learn from their experiences too.

Click here to follow Suzi on Twitter.

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