Published: 11 February 2022
Emma Palmer Foster, Chair of an NIHR Invention for Innovation Product Development Awards Selection Committee, writes about what excites her about science and argues that we must make science a natural career choice for women and girls. Her blog marks International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022.
‘Science Rocks!’ proclaims one of my favourite T-shirts. I couldn’t agree more. It’s fantastically interesting and intellectually stimulating. It’s also the door to a range of exciting opportunities, and a very varied career - at least in my case.
Where it all began
My pathway into science is similar I believe to many of my generation. During the 1980s at (an all girls) school I enjoyed and did well in science and maths, was encouraged by a great teacher to study biochemistry as an undergraduate, and went on to do research. So far so good, but then I decided a research career wasn’t for me. I had no idea what to do next – what does a scientist do if they’re not doing science?
How science saved my career
Like a gift that keeps on giving, it was science that helped the next phase of my career take off, and has been powering it ever since. In my first post-research job I was a science journalist, followed by technology transfer at what is now Cancer Research UK. This was followed by roles in financial communications and biotechnology stockbroking (with the latter resulting in an accusation of ‘selling-out’).
In these roles I’ve had to understand and analyse hundreds of technologies and R&D processes – none of which would be possible without my scientific background. That continues in my roles today, which include being Chair of one of the two NIHR Invention for Innovation (i4i) Product Development Awards committees. That certainly gives the brain a STEM workout, as we assess inspiring research projects to develop new medical technologies and devices, and allocate funding in the millions of pounds.
Inspiring the next generation of (female) scientists
The pandemic has raised the profile of scientists and the idea of science as an inspirational career as never before. We need to build on that, making sure public interaction with scientists isn’t restricted to world crises. Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert in Vogue? Great. Sarah and Dr Catherine Green in GQ? More of it please. Government scientists recognisable in the street? Fantastic. The media needs to play its part too – science isn’t too difficult to engage with, it’s worth the effort. Girls and young women need to see science and STEM careers as accessible, valuable and thrilling. Teachers and outreach programmes from local universities, companies and science parks can play a role here too.
It’s long been recognised that women are underrepresented in many areas of science, both as scientists and researchers and as patients and service users. NIHR is working on a comprehensive strategy to promote equality, diversity and inclusion in research. In the future the best science will be done by everyone, for everyone.
My tips for progression in science and innovation
Be opportunistic! Today’s careers are long and varied, so embrace the STEM opportunities that come your way. Develop your transferable skills! My first job, in journalism, was poorly paid but taught me vital writing, editing and interviewing skills. Be enthusiastic! Always.
It won’t come as a surprise to you if I say that I’m proud to be a scientist, a role which has enabled the twists and turns of my career. Biochemistry has been a great foundation for all the exciting work I’ve been involved in. It’s enabled me to play a role in helping companies and other organisations develop new medicines and technologies to improve public health.
Emma Palmer Foster, Chair of the NIHR Invention for Innovation Product Development Awards Selection Committee A
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