Scientific spirit lived in monastic, scholastic and business lives

September 15, 2006

'I sold my house and gave everything away. It was liberating, and it's not something I regret. But after a year in a contemplative Benedictine monastery I realised that it wasn't for me'

Many top scientific researchers have no time for religion, let alone considering it as a vocation, which makes Sohaila Rastan doubly exceptional, writes Anthea Lipsett.

The "easily bored" keeper of the Wellcome Trust's £450 million purse for science funding abandoned a high-flying research career to become a nun, then left the all-female monastery - with faith intact - to return to the world and stints of consultancy and entrepreneurship before becoming director of science funding at one of the world's biggest research charities.

The 50-year-old former geneticist oversees the distribution of Wellcome's fellowships and grants in the UK and abroad. Having enjoyed autonomy that allowed her research career to blossom, she is keen for the trust's new fellowships to foster a sense of early independence.

Her PhD, under renowned geneticist Mary Lyons, was on X-chromosome inactivation, which enables females to "switch off" one of their two X chromosomes to balance the number of genes in female cells with those in males, which have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome.

Dr Rastan worked out that there was a single master switch to inactivate the second X chromosome, which she helped to identify and characterise. "It turned out to be a really interesting gene, 'Xist'. Most genes make proteins that do work in the cell, but Xist was functional as an RNA and was one of the first examples of an RNA, so it was a key finding," she explains.

She continued with postdoctoral research at the Medical Research Council's Clinical Research Centre in Harrow. "My boss was a vet who knew nothing about genetics. I started as a technician, then the lab grew and my boss retired and I got his job.

"I was given a free rein and took opportunities where they came. When I was a young scientist, I would have paid someone to (be allowed to) do what I was doing."

In the midst of this burgeoning research career, Dr Rastan's husband died, and she made the unusual step of taking vows.

"Everyone thought I was completely mad and I had wall-to-wall opposition, but I really did believe I had a vocation. My sister suggested that I take a sabbatical and do it as an experiment, but I decided that I wouldn't be entering into the spirit of it if I did it with a parachute," she says.

"The lab was going really well, but I sold my house and gave everything away. It was incredibly liberating, and it's not something I regret at all.

But it was an enclosed contemplative Benedictine monastery, and I realised after a year that it wasn't for me.

"Going in was hard, but coming out was even harder. Because I had done this fairly crazy thing, I needed to start again and I was 39 with nothing," she explains.

Friends and colleagues expected her to go back to her lab, but Dr Rastan went instead into administration at the MRC.

"It was difficult broadening out from a specialism to know a little about a lot. But it's a transition that you need to make if you do anything other than academic research. You have to process information very fast. It has stood me in good stead here," she says.

A stint at SmithKline Beecham as director of comparative genetics was followed by a period of "wonderful normality" combining lucrative consultancy work with having time for family and friends. Then she set up a biotechnology company creating anabolic treatments for osteoporosis, but it was scuppered by the collapse of the US economy after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Although she now has to satisfy Wellcome's governors, she has autonomy and an affinity with her boss. "It's important for me to respect my boss [Mark Walpert, director of Wellcome]. You can't get a cigarette paper between us in our views about science."

And while she no longer has time for hands-on research, she gets her "fix" from seeing all the research going through Wellcome, Dr Rastan says.

I GRADUATED FROM Oxford University

MY FIRST JOB WAS "non-clinical scientist" at the MRC Clinical Research Centre at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS  to identify and reward the best science

WHAT I HATE MOST is narrow-mindedness, prejudice and indifference (they often come together as a package)

IN TEN YEARS I would like to see sustainable peace and stability in the Middle East and an effective vaccine for HIV/Aids

MY FAVOURTIE JOKE What do Catherine the Great, Winnie-the-Pooh and Attila the Hun have in common? Their middle name.

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