Finding funds to care for the kids and the worms

October 18, 2002

Institutionalised sexism discourages many women from a career in science. What's being done about it? asks Helen Hague.

Patricia Murray's PhD, awarded last year, was at the cutting edge of developmental science, exploring programmed cell death in mouse embryos. Her research was of such calibre that it spawned five published research papers. Her supervisor at Liverpool University describes her talent for research as "exceptional". Yet this summer, she was on the brink of abandoning hopes of ever becoming an independent scientist.

At 37, a single parent with two children - Gerard, ten, and Helen, nine - she did not want to remain a perpetual "postdoc", working on other people's projects. Murray was desperately keen to continue her own work, exploring how cells in the early embryo are instructed to die, forming a cavity very soon after they implant in the uterus. Without the cavity, the embryo fails to develop. She used embryonic stem cells grown in tissue culture to mimic the process. While working on her PhD, she discovered some of the mechanisms necessary for the cavity to form. But she couldn't get funding to develop the work.

Fellowships are thin on the ground - especially when you are tied to one place by family circumstances. She had ruled out leaving Liverpool as it would deprive her children of regular contact with her ex-husband, from whom she separated when her daughter was a few months old. Earlier this year, retraining as a lecturer in nursing - she was a nurse for nine years before going to university - seemed the only pragmatic option. She had even made inquiries about updating her nursing skills. But in the summer her prospects were transformed by a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, one of 11 awarded to women this year by the Royal Society and bankrolled by the Department of Trade and Industry.

The scheme is aimed at retaining women scientists and provides a recognised step to an independent research career. Murray's head of department encouraged her to apply. It will provide her with a full salary plus research expenses for four years, the cost of childcare to go abroad for conferences and, crucially, four years' tenure at Liverpool's School of Biological Sciences. This means she can apply for grants in her own right.

Her long-term aim is to build up her own developmental research group at Liverpool - starting with the development of newly implanted embryos in mammals. Finding out how cell death is controlled, and goes awry, also promises to be fertile territory for medical research - perhaps yielding a greater understanding of cancer and degenerative diseases. The prospect of breaking new ground animates Murray. Without the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, her commitment, flair and talent would be lost to science.

"I don't think I would have got a fellowship anywhere else," she says. "It's so competitive, and many people with good degrees and publications go abroad to an international lab to acquire new skills. That was not an option for me.

"It was very depressing and frustrating to think that I would never get back to what I really wanted to do. This fellowship allows me to focus on my own work in my own right. I can launch myself as an independent scientist, and that feels very exciting. There's a certain amount of privilege to being a scientist because unlike most other jobs, your work is also your favourite pastime. I'd carry on if I won the lottery."

And it is also possible to work more flexibly than she could on nursing shifts - she can, for example, stay up until 2am to pore over data on the home computer or pop into the university labs at weekends to feed nourishing bacteria to the nematode worms she is working on. This project (not her own) looks at how the worm, C. elegans - propelled to international fame for its role in the Nobel prize and the genome project - adapts to the cold.

Murray believes she benefited from being a late starter at university. She began studying at Liverpool in 1994 when her children were toddlers. She says being older meant she was more interested in knuckling down to study than going out clubbing and considered her work "a pleasure, not a chore". She is also glad she had her children before she was 30 and so didn't have to interrupt her academic career to have them. Another key factor was her first-year undergraduate teacher, David Edgar, who, she says, whetted her appetite for developmental biology.

"I remember thinking that how cells choose particular fates to become muscle, neurons or skin cells was surely the most exciting area of biological science," she says. Edgar went on to supervise her PhD, and he looks set to collaborate on future projects.

Murray hopes her success will provide a good role model for young women intent on research - and believes more allowances should be made for women scientists who have done a couple of postdocs, get to their 30s and want a break to have children.

"Even junior lectureships are like gold-dust these days, and the danger is that very talented young women drop out when they have children, never having the chance to establish their careers. It's a real waste of talent," she says.

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