Becoming a scientist – from zoology degree to clinical fellowship
Chief paediatric respiratory research physiologist, Dr Samantha Irving talks about her route into research, the experiences that shaped her as a woman in science, and her thoughts on how we can encourage more women into research.
What was your journey getting into research?
From a young age, I’ve always wanted to be a scientist. My original degree was in zoology after which I went into science communication within the civil service. After a while, I decided that I really wanted to get back into being a scientist.
I arranged for some work experience at a hospital and it was whilst I was shadowing a nurse that I was asked to take a patient to the clinical physiology department. It was a profession I had no idea existed up until that point. I spoke to some physiologists about their role and what they were doing and that’s when I realised that physiology was what I wanted to do.
From then I did a few other jobs within the NHS to gain experience before finally ending up here at Royal Brompton Hospital in the paediatric respiratory department as a respiratory physiologist.
Was there a pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose research as a career path?
I don’t think there was a specific moment when I thought “Ah I really want to do research” but I was aware when applying for my current job that there was funding available to do research as part of the role.
I was reluctant however because I didn’t think research was something I could do. I didn’t think I was clever enough. It wasn’t until we began doing some work with patients with Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia (PCD), and I saw physiology measurements that were not what we were expecting that I began to have some questions. So I went away, looked to see if there was any research to explain what we were seeing in the results, but we couldn’t find anything. That’s when I realised that the reason there were no research papers on the topic was that we were recording measurements that no one else had done on this unique group of patients.
So rather than the usual “I want to do research so let me look for a question”, it was the other way around for me. I found a question and realised that if I wanted the answer to it I was going to have to do the research myself.
There are of course plenty of people who want to do a PhD from the start but for me, it hadn’t been something I really wanted to do. I just didn’t have the confidence. Also by finding a question related to the patients I was seeing it also allowed me to see, directly how it related to their care.
What research are you currently working on?
I’ll be starting a clinical lectureship funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in April 2018, where I will look at a particular type of lung function test called phase 3 analysis.
The test is fairly novel and has only been used to prove mechanistic points about how the lungs work. It hasn’t really been used much in clinical work so during the course of my fellowship I’m planning to investigate the test in children with asthma, wheeze, PCD and cystic fibrosis to see if they have a role in monitoring progression of disease in these patients.
What's been your greatest accomplishment so far?
Successfully being awarded a clinical fellowship from NIHR is probably my greatest achievement so far. It’s definitely something that was a group effort, with support from my department, my supervisors, my mentors and various other people at the Trust.
I was very pleased to get it because I managed to get the funding on my second attempt. Not getting it the first time was really hard and having to pick myself up and trying it again was something I’m very glad I did.
What sort of barriers, if any, have you faced as a woman in research?
Throughout my life, I think I’ve been relatively lucky and certainly here at the Trust I have had the full support of my department.
However, like most women, there have been earlier experiences that were not great. For example, when I was 16 I had the opportunity to work in a lab at a factory for my first bit of work experience. At the end of the first week, the lab manager told me that I’d done really well in the role but that he felt it was a shame that the placement was given to a girl and that it should have gone to a boy because women don’t really match up with science. After hearing that, I went home and cried. It was my dad who told me to pick myself up and that I could do whatever it was that I wanted to do. Of course, hearing that at such a young age was really upsetting and I’ve heard similar experiences from my female colleagues and friends over the years.
I think initially when I began to have an inclination to do my own research I was very lucky to have the backing of both Professor Andrew Bush, whose grant was funding my role, and Lizzie Biggart, my line manager, who were both very supportive and encouraged me to just go for it. I don’t think I would have had the courage to step out of my NHS role and do a PhD without that initial support.
What, if any, do you think needs to be done to help redress the gender imbalances and inequalities seen in research and other STEM-related fields?
I think there is a general reluctance from research organisations, and organisations in general, to hire and keep on staff who have had career gaps due to care responsibilities or maternity leave.
It’s not something I’ve come across here at the Trust but it is something I have heard from other women in research where they have been asked “Do you have children?” or similar when applying for jobs or promotions. Why is the same not asked of men?
Within a healthcare setting, I think there is one way we could potentially increase the number of women in research and that’s by encouraging a wider range of healthcare professionals to get more involved in research. Generally speaking, certain healthcare professions have a larger proportion of women and by offering more routes into research for all professions we can help increase the number of women in research.
It’s by no means the only way to help redress gender imbalances in research but it’s definitely something that could help shift the balance.
What are your research and career plans for the future?
NIHR has developed a new pathway that provides personal research training awards for non-medical healthcare professionals who want to develop careers within research. After securing funding for a fellowship I’m hoping I can continue on this pathway. Luckily for me, the paediatric respiratory department is quite research focused so I should be able to continue to do research as well as keep my clinical role.
Do you have any female mentors or role models in your field?
I’m really grateful that I work in a fantastic department where I have the support of three female professors; Sejal Saglani, Jane Davies and Claire Hogg who are all great role models for me.
However, I also have the added bonus of having non-medic role models in the form of Dr Amelia Shoemark, who completed her PhD a few years before me and was able to advise me on my PhD and keep me motivated.
Lizzie Biggart (Senior Nurse, Children's Services) was my line manager whilst I was doing my PhD and although she’s not in research she was very supportive of my research.
In more recent times Professor Mary Morrell has been a huge inspiration especially because she’s also a physiologist. It’s really inspiring to know that there is a physiologist in such a prominent position and to know it’s possible to get to that level.
What are some ways you think we can encourage women to enter into research? How could we provide a more supportive environment to encourage women to stay in research?
I think one of the main things we need to do is to demystify research. A lot of colleagues I speak to have a perception that research is all about “scary statistics” and “scary clinical drug trials”.
We need to make it clear that it isn’t always about statistics and drug trials and that there is a lot more to research. I think one way we could do this is to offer students and newly qualified colleagues the opportunity to come and spend time with researchers, perhaps shadow us for a couple of days and see what research is really about.
Something else that we need to promote is the fact that if you have carer or family responsibilities research is actually a great field to work in because it offers flexibility. There are also part-time roles, job shares and flexible working, and working in research offers people the ability to fit work around their lifestyles.
Another way to encourage women into research is to make those already doing research more visible. Programmes like the Researcher Development Programme that was developed by Professor Mary Morrell is not only a great way for nurses and AHPs to get into research but also allows people interested in research to meet each other and to network.
When I first started doing research I was relatively unaware of other non-medics doing research at the Trust outside of my own department. Now, thanks to this programme, I’m a mentor for other non-medics interested in research, giving them the network and support they need.
I think the most important thing and something that shows how the Trust supports us is that, in all my time here, I’ve never come across anyone in any department at the Trust that thought it was weird that I was doing my own research. I think we’re quite open-minded and supportive when it comes to research and that’s thanks to the general research culture that we have here.
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