International Day of Women and Girls in Science by Dr Sophie Roberts: ‘never let go of your dream’.
9 February 2024
To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Dr Sophie Roberts, a graduate medical student who spent time working in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences during her course, shares her experience of studying science at school, completing a PhD in molecular biology and joining the graduate medicine course at the University of Oxford.
International Day of Women and Girls in Science is held each year on 11 February by UNESCO and UN-Women. It’s a campaign to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls globally, ensuring their ideas are heard and they have an equal voice in development.
In celebration of the day, Dr Sophie Roberts, a graduate medical student, shares her experience of studying science at school, completing a PhD in molecular biology and joining the graduate medicine course at the University of Oxford.
During her course at Oxford, Sophie spent time in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences undertaking a project with Dr Brian Nicholson’s group looking at the relationship between common blood tests and cancer diagnoses.
As I sit here in a plane seat, heading to New Zealand before I embark on my medical elective in Fiji I cannot help but wonder how this happened. I always wanted to be a doctor. I thought that dream was shattered at 17 when I didn’t get the grades and took a year out working in a mental health hospital before moving to Leeds to study a BSc Genetics. I then stayed in Leeds to complete my PhD where I developed an antibody alternative molecule to specifically target HER2, a receptor that is involved in a subset of breast cancers.
The inspiration behind my PhD came when I was 16 and two of my close friends lost their beautiful mums to breast cancer and a third won her fight. It was both devastating and terrifying. I thought then that people were not meant to die of breast cancer. I wanted to contribute to stopping this, and my PhD focus was for them. When I wanted to quit - which, if you have done a PhD, you know is a lot - they kept me going.
When I embarked on the PhD, I let go if the aspiration of a career in medicine. However, towards the end of my PhD, when people kept asking the very brave question of ‘What are you doing next?’, I knew I still wanted to be a doctor. I went for one last shot at applying for medicine and got interviews and offers all round. This is where my journey at the University of Oxford began.
Women and girls in science
Neither of my parents are doctors or scientists (an answer that surprises many) but they have supported me from a young age and enabled me to follow my dream. At school I was largely supported and my GCSE grades at my all-girls school were what I had hoped for. During my A levels I moved school, which in hindsight was not my wisest decision. During my A levels I was told ‘you will not be a doctor’ and I have not forgotten this even as I take up that Dr Dr title!
What probably should have been said to 17-year-old me was ‘you will not get in this year, let’s discuss your choices’- I didn’t even know graduate entry medicine existed! I went off blindly to university believing that this was the end of my dream.
Being a woman in academia, I have definitely felt outnumbered. The majority of professors I encountered, albeit mostly lovely, were white men. I think it’s true that a male and a female in the same job role with the same personality would be a paradox of each other; ‘dominant and powerful’ would be replaced by ‘bossy and domineering’. I have met some incredible women during my journey through academia and medicine. A subset of the words I would use to describe them are ‘strong, ambitious, relentless, inspiring, sensitive and kind’. Note that not all these words are what one might imagine you ‘should’ be to be a ‘strong woman’. Women and girls should be empowered to believe that they can choose to do whatever they want and not what society dictates. You do not have to be ‘hard’ to be a cardiothoracic surgeon. You do not have to choose between a family and a career. You can go to medical school at 40 if that is what you want to do. We should not be telling girls and women the limitations of their dreams but forming a community that will stand behind them.
Be your own cheer squad so the next generation of women have an army behind them.
Inspiring the next generation
Things have changed a lot over the last 20 years, but there is still a long way to go. As we come into the age of paternity leave and so called ‘equality’ we should strive to ask the uncomfortable questions without fear of being labelled as ‘brash’ or ‘confrontational’. As we are inspired by the generation of women before us, we should not remember them solely as ‘inspirational women’ but for their contribution to their field, for what they taught us and for what they enabled us to dream.
My advice to women and girls in science is ‘never let go of your dream’. If you have a dream, then there is always a way. For years I was embarrassed to say I that was rejected from medical school twice… and maybe I still am. But I knew in my heart that if I got an interview for a course, I would get an offer to study it. I don’t say that arrogantly, it is just the only thing I have ever been confident I would excel at. By excel I do not mean that I would come top and win prizes but that I would be able to interact with patients, form a lasting bond and help them the best I can - and to me that is a win. Patients will not remember the doctors that could dictate every component of the Krebs cycle, but they will remember the one that held their hand through the difficult diagnosis.
You will meet people along the way who will pull you down, and it’s hard to not let the words get to you. But if you have the fire in your heart, then there are people out there that will support you and the sooner you believe in yourself the easier life will be.
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