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Professor Dame Caroline Dean – who is one of the five L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science laureates for 2018, explains how her interest in flowering plants and a curiosity to understand how this works has guided through her career as a scientist.

What advice would you give to those who want to pursue a Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) career?

I would encourage everyone to follow their curiosity. When you’re really interested in something then you’ll be motivated to find out more about how that thing works. This is how most STEMM careers work – we ask questions, and the journey to the answer is what we do every day as scientists.

Don’t let others put you off, or make you feel like you can’t achieve something because of your gender, or what you look like or where you were born. Those barriers pale into insignificance if you have a genuine curiosity for something.

Women in STEMM industries are still underrepresented as compared to their male counterparts. What can be done to improve female representation in science?

There is a need for role models to encourage the next generation of scientists. I hope this year as a L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science laureate I can provide something positive for a wide range of people. As female scientists we can raise aspirations by being more visible and honest about what a career in a STEMM subject is really like, and how a diversity of personalities and skills is essential to success.

The Athena SWAN Charter is a useful scheme here in the UK which recognises organisations who are working to improve in areas where women are traditionally underrepresented. Their bronze, silver and gold awards give a visible sign that the organisation understands the values of a diverse workforce.

Now there are also many schemes that enable women to have families, and to work in STEMM subjects, you can do both. For instance, here at the John Innes Centre there are family and career break initiatives, support for attending conferences, or fellowships designed specifically to enabling women to return to STEMM careers following the birth of a child.

You are a distinguished and award-winning scientist in your field. Tell us about the importance of role models and mentorship.

My passion for science was born through watching Jacques Cousteau on TV as a child, really enjoying lab experiments at university and then working with visionary scientists in my early career. Watching those minds linking apparently unrelated results into a unified picture describing a new concept was inspirational.

Is there a need for workplaces to become more culturally inclusive so women do not face barriers but can reach their full potential?

Indeed, work places need to be culturally inclusive, but the greatest challenge for a woman’s advancement is herself. Constantly working just a little out of one’s comfort zone increases self-confidence and enables those apparently unattainable goals to be reached.

How can STEM industries attract more women and girls into the field?

By helping to nurture their scientific interest from an early age and fanning the desire to discover.

“Excellence THEN relevance.” It was the persistent message from the Chief Executive at BBSRC, Professor Julia Goodfellow, in the late 1990s.

This struck a chord with me. I’ve spent most of my career at the John Innes Centre, where fundamental research into plant and microbial science is central to our ongoing success.

The impact of these new discoveries may not be obvious at the outset. It’s not always easy to see where relevance will appear but excellent science will always have impact.

Professor Goodfellow’s message has been very influential in my own research. Many years ago, as a post-doctoral researcher in California in the 1980s I’d noticed the seasons were less distinct than in my home in the north of England. I was intrigued and began to investigate why.

Then there was a moment that cemented my interest. I went out and bought some tulip bulbs, and the man who sold them to me said: “Don’t forget to put them in the fridge for six weeks before you plant them.” That moment triggered my interest in how plants align their development with the seasons.

Many years later, when I applied for a position at the John Innes Centre I proposed to work on vernalization – the requirement for prolonged cold before a plant flowers. Commercial plant breeders had exploited this process to breed winter and spring-sown varieties, but we had no clue as to the molecular mechanism.

I began with three research questions: why do some varieties of plants not flower until they have had cold? How does the plant know it’s had prolonged cold? And how have those molecular mechanisms enabled adaptation to different climates?

All three questions led to a focus on the regulation of a single gene, Flowering Locus C (FLC).

FLC acts as a brake to flowering, if the plant is making this protein it stays vegetative: it won’t flower. Interesting and conserved mechanisms involving non-coding RNAs and chromatin (the interwoven DNA and protein that makes up our chromosomes) underlie all three questions we had posed. How much the gene is expressed affects whether plants need to overwinter. Winter is registered by progressively switching off the gene in more and more cells. Adaptation is the result of small changes that affect the regulation of the gene.

So, after 30 years my research has come down to a very detailed study of basic principles of gene regulation. But it is this same regulation that is important in humans too. Instructions are given to genes in the embryo (human or plant), but the initial instructions don’t stay around all the time, instead the instruction is remembered. The memory is passed down from mother to daughter cells by epigenetic regulation- through non-coding RNA and chromatin regulation.

You will read about epigenetics everywhere at the moment – in the context of how the environment affects our genes. When memory mechanisms go wrong and genes turn on and off at the wrong place, disease is the result: most cancers carry genes that are expressed in the wrong place.

What is also amazing is that we can now build on our fundamental understanding of the vernalisation mechanism to help plant breeders produce Brassica varieties that respond to winter temperatures in predictable ways. New varieties could flower earlier, or be resistant to cold snaps, where previously premature flowering led to a glut of certain varieties in the supermarkets.

 

Ahead of our Diversity Dialogues event on Feb 29th, we asked Prof. Cecile Wright, Honorary Professor at the University of Nottingham to give us an insight into the challenges we face in eliminating discrimination in the workplace. It’s probably the most important read of your week.

All the woman are white, all the men are black but some of us are brave

This statement points to the tendency for the lives and experiences of black and ethnic minority (BME) women to be missing from discourses of race and gender. In relation to the debate concerning women’s positionality in the labour market it is necessary to invoke the notion of “intersectionality”, namely ‘visualising the combined discrimination experienced by being black and ethnic minority and a women’ (Kimberle Crenshaw,1989). For instance, there is a plethora of research which explores the notion that black and ethnic minority women is subject to multiple disadvantage in the labour market and within workplaces as a result of their ethnicity and gender. While there is literature which seeks to locate this situation within the developing literature on gender and globalization ,this multiple disadvantage will be addressed with respect to Britain. Focusing on black and ethnic minority women’s position in the labour market and the wage gaps.

High levels of unemployment and job segmentation experienced by black and ethnic minority women are well recorded. This is despite the fact that within the UK there is an over representation of young black and ethnic people in higher education compared to their presence in the population.  In the second decade of the century, following the worldwide recession and the imposition of austerity policies in Britain, especially cuts to public-sector employment, it is becoming apparent that women in general, and black and ethnic minority women in particular, have suffered disproportionately. While considerable attention has focused on women as victims of the recession, it can be argued that the plight of black and ethnic women has been somewhat overlooked.

The Runnymede Trust report (2014) for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community, showed that women from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are twice as likely to be unemployed than white women.

The report found women from black and ethnic minorities face discrimination at “every stage” of the recruitment process. For instance, women reported having to ‘Westernise’ their names to improve their employment prospects. Indeed, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently called for employers to adopt name – blind applications to address discrimination and unconscious bias, following research showing that people with traditionally British -sounding names are nearly twice as likely to be called for a job interview than candidates from other backgrounds.

Cecile Wright

The unnaturally high unemployment rates of women in black and minority ethnic communities has considerable implications for families and society as a whole – particularly given the situation that for large numbers of black and ethnic minority families the mother is the sole earner.

Research on the patterns of women’s employment reveals patterns of gender and ethnic segmentation . Findings of a European commission report(2014)show the pay gap between men and women at 16.4% across the EU, with the UK still one of the worst offenders despite having slightly narrowed its disparity to 19%. Ethnic and gender penalties may intersect insofar that in the UK white people earn more than people from ethnic minorities on average. It is argued that the wage gap therefore derives in significant measure from occupational segregation. This occurs because ethnic minorities tend to cluster into low-paying occupations. Thus, the pay gap for black and ethnic minority women has the double dimensions of both gender and ethnicity.

With a quarter of the UK’s population projected to come from a black and ethnic minority background by 2051, in particular employers’ need to address the specificities of patterns of gender and ethnic discrimination in the labour market. This includes practical steps to increasing diversity in professional occupations ensuring they are recruiting from black and ethnic minority women and other underrepresented groups, removing barriers and creating future approaches to increasing business engagement with policies ,tackling discrimination and supporting employees as an urgent priority.

References:

Crenshaw, K.(1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and sex. University of Chicago.

Runneymede Trust(2014) ‘All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community Ethnic Minority Female Unemployment: Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi Heritage Women’

European Commission (2014) ‘Tackling the gender pay gap in the European Union’, European Commission

Professor Cecile Wright, University of Nottingham,UK . 12, February,2016

Professor Wright lectures in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham and has previously made appearances on BBC East Midlands, BBC News Online and the Sunday Politics show.

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