When I was about nine, I announced to my family that I wanted to be a scientist. This became my passion, despite my lack of excellent grades and my Physics teacher’s statement that “Louise will never amount to anything”. From then on, my supportive family would joke about having a card ready that read: “Congratulations on your Nobel Prize!” Believe it or not, I really did go on to become a scientist (I’m a Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Sussex) though I do sometimes have to pinch myself to check it’s not still just a dream.
So what does a grown-up scientist like me do and, especially in these difficult times, what is it that drives us? I realised early on in my career that I relished the freedom of scientific research – the ability to choose what to do each day, the excitement of getting the (tantalisingly rare) positive results, and the opportunity to hear about the work of other scientists at conferences. Research Science, like many fields, has its share of critical evaluation. We are constantly striving to win grants to fund our research, and then to share our work with the community by publishing in high-impact journals. These measures of success are key to the progression of our careers, but so much is out of our control – our “achievements” entirely dependent on others’ opinions of our work.
In the UK, only 21-25% of science research grant applications are successful, meaning that over 75% are rejected. Having to cope with frequent rejection fuels my own fundamental self-doubt and impostor syndrome. Additionally, the system drives competition, leading to inequalities. Managing a work–life balance is more difficult when you are constantly being made to feel that you could achieve more if only you worked more.
Over the years, I have often wondered what drives me to carry on. I came to realise that scientists do science research primarily because of a thirst for knowledge. It is hard to explain the feeling you get when your hardworking team presents a new finding that nobody else has ever seen – “happy” is an understatement. As scientists, we pursue discovery and new knowledge with the wider goal of improving the world. Recently, this has been demonstrated clearly by the contributions of many teams of scientists internationally, all working round the clock to rapidly elucidate the structure of the COVID-19 virus, understand its workings, and develop highly effective novel vaccines in record time.
My own research in Sussex Neuroscience at the University of Sussex aims to understand the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. We are contributing pieces of the puzzle being used to try to understand this complex disease that affects so many people over the age of 70. My job also involves teaching undergraduates and postgraduates, and leading a team of scientists to answer specific questions that will help us understand what happens in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s to cause such neurodegeneration.
Recently, I attended a talk by a female Nobel Prize winner in the field of Medicine. I was keen to hear what she had to offer in the way of advice, remembering my family’s jokes during my childhood. Her message was clear: be passionate about your topic, choose to do something no one else is doing, win a prize. The last part troubled me. Is our final aim really to win a major award? Are other scientists actually working towards glory and celebrity, putting in the hours while dreaming of fame and fortune? The fact that so many Nobel Prize recipients are incredibly modest makes me think this is not the case: they simply worked hard at what they loved, and would have continued with or without any accolades.
Inclusivity and diversity in science is a very important issue and one that I feel incredibly strongly about. After the Nobel Prize winner’s talk, my immediate thought was: “Do I need to become more like that?” I wondered if being more “alpha” and competitive, and striving to be better than everyone else would result in me believing I am better, and therefore lead to my becoming a higher achiever. Often people refer to the difficulties with imbalance in science by suggesting that women are less “confident”, that they should try harder to put themselves forward, to be more “masculine”. Of course, the reality is that both men and women doubt themselves at times — we are all different and on a continuum. There are strong, confident women, just as there are less confident men. Shouldn’t we be striving for an equilibrium or middle ground where it is okay just to be YOU? Not conforming to some gender stereotype and expecting women to be “masculine/ alpha”, or encouraging any researcher to push their own agenda above others? As Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman wrote: “Let’s drop the gender stereotypes – we are all non-binary”.
However, some top scientists still advise that we must be “wedded” to our science in order to succeed. They say that unless we devote 99% of our time to this endeavour – and therefore to the pursuit of our own success – we have not really taken it seriously enough, and cannot expect to excel and rise to the very top of our chosen field. A few years ago one female scientist based at a university in the States, who was working “only” around 50 hours per week in order to spend at least some time with her family, wrote a blog post titled: “You do not need to work 80 hours a week to succeed in academia”. This sparked a Twitter debate, including a (since deleted) tweet by a male Scientist/ academic opining that a 60-hour working week was akin to slacking. Is this true? And if so, is it worth it?
While I have grown up to fulfil my childhood career aspirations, and remain a passionate and committed scientist, the most important part of my life is my family. And, as with everyone I know, it’s a daily struggle to achieve the right balance. I strive to be a good friend, parent, daughter, sister, as well as a decent (or, dare I say it, successful) scientist who supports other researchers and brings them up the ladder with her. So much of my job is encouraging students to do the best that they can and, in turn, to mentor other researchers. Nobody is handing out prizes for this work, but whenever one of my students achieves something, no matter how small, I experience a thrill of professional pride. And I don’t believe that being handed a trophy could generate a greater sense of accomplishment.