The SUSTAIN programme: Creating a safe place for female researchers in science to thrive – Professor Susan Wray, Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences

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Professor Susan Wray is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences who works in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology at the University of Liverpool. Susan has worked on the design of SUSTAIN, a year-long programme of training and mentoring developed by the Academy of Medical Sciences to help female researchers in science progress to senior leadership roles. The programme provides an innovative programme of training and supports development of leadership and career potential, with 20 participants selected for the pilot announced in June 2015. 

Susan Wray

Professor Susan Wray

“…The Academy has done extremely well to create a safe place where these women can just go for it, or say what’s worrying them or what they want, without being reticent, without being embarrassed. So they can say, “You know what? I do want to be a professor of clinical medicine, how do I make it happen!..” 

Learning what physiology is

I was an undergraduate and a Ph.D. student in Physiology. Physiology is one of the medical sciences – for those who don’t know it’s the study of how the body works. We’re more familiar with pathology when the body goes wrong. Physiology is about what makes the body work, so it is quite closely linked to studies of medicine, so the two go very much hand in hand.

I was interested in science as schoolgirl but then what got me most intrigued was thinking about biology, the human body. When I filled in my UCAS form I had no idea that the big word for what I wanted to do was called ‘physiology’. As I was chatting with my biology teacher and when I explained what I enjoyed she said, “Ah! You want to be a physiologist!” And that’s what I did and that’s what I’ve been doing since. Maybe that’s boring or maybe that’s just decisive!

Not everything is absolutely signposted and planned

I studied physiology at undergraduate level and did a Ph.D. This was back in the day when one didn’t have to have things planned quite so much. I waited until I got my degree result for University College London and when it was a good result I thought, “I like this. How can I stay on? I’ll do a Ph.D. And UCL had an MRC [Medical Research Council] funded place.” So perhaps like many real world careers, not everything is absolutely signposted and planned by you. Sometimes you do happen to fall into things, and sometimes that’s a good thing.

So then I started my own research theme – that was on smooth muscle. Smooth muscle is the muscle that surrounds our internal organs. So for example your blood vessels, your bladder, and your womb (your uterus), which is a muscle, so if you imagine childbirth, for that to be successful the muscles need to really be able to contract forcibly and repetitively – that’s the job of smooth muscle. So that’s what fascinated me – trying to find out the basic science of it and then also looking, along with clinical colleagues, as to when it doesn’t always work well, and why not.

I left University College London to take up a lectureship at Liverpool in 1990. I stayed on the at the University of Liverpool and became a Chair there in 1996 – I became head of department for four years, and more recently I’ve become the university’s director for Athena SWAN. I still do research but I work on the equality agenda two days a week. I’ve really enjoyed the slight change in activity.

Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences

The Academy of Medical Sciences is still a relatively new player on the national scene. It came together as an academy because there wasn’t really a voice that united experts or key player in the fields of medicine and medical science – so the clinical and the non-clinical worlds and given how important that was, a group of founders came up with the idea for the academy, obviously it’s grown and been successful.

You have to be elected to the Fellowship. It’s incredibly competitive. The Fellows are high achievers and they cover the full gamut from dentistry, public health, all the way through to obstetrics and physiology, and so it really has got a powerful body of people who are able to share their knowledge and give their opinions.

Practising what I preach and standing for Council

I was a Fellow of the Academy and there were elections for Council – their governing body, and of course I never considered applying because I never thought I would  be successful. I always considered it for others and not for me.

It was the deadline on the Monday and on the Saturday a friend said, “Sue, I’d like to propose you for Council.” And I said, “What?! It’s for really, really successful people – not for me!” My friend said to me, “Don’t be silly! Of course you should put yourself up there for it, so I then thought, “Yes! Why don’t a practise what I preach?” 

So when I’m talking to my post docs and my Ph.D. students I’m always encouraging them to be open to ideas and put themselves forward, and there was me shying away from a potential opportunity! So I wrote the blurb on the Sunday and my name was put in the hat, and I was elected to Council. It has been such as great opportunity because it increased the people I came to know and interact with and I learnt a lot.

SUSTAIN – working with female researchers to enable them to thrive

The idea of SUSTAIN is an obvious one. We all know that the leaky pipeline for women finding other career opportunities means that we aren’t seeing enough women staying on in medicine and technology. There aren’t enough reaching the top

We’ve examined this via our own experience, via activities like Athena SWAN proposals. We all have ideas about why this might be. Concrete plans to change the culture are obviously more difficult, but the SUSTAIN scheme is about saying, “If we can train or bring through (albeit a small) group of women, and give them the support at a crucial stage in their career to actually make a difference so they do not only stay on – they will thrive and they will certainly become the next generation of leaders in their fields.”

This is in whatever way one wants to describe ‘leaders’ – it doesn’t have to mean that everybody has to be President of the Royal Society, for example. It’s about success in one’s own terms. Because of the enormous appetite for this the way the scheme works is that we selected only women who already had some form of Fellowship from the agencies that were going to fund and support the SUSTAIN scheme – so for example, the Royal Society, the Royal College of Physicians and the MRC [Medical Research Council].

Prestigious cohort of women

So these women has already been through a big hurdle in getting a Fellowship, therefore this was a very prestigious cohort of women that have already demonstrated how clever and bright they are, and what we wanted to do was just to give them additional skills, mentoring, coaching and peer to peer support so that they can get the very best out of their careers, because we all know there’ll be wobbles along the way, they’ll be difficulties.

We wanted to give them the confidence and the armoury to thrive, so while 20 is only a small number, but we each do what we can and hopefully ideas like this will spring up in other situations.

Networking and mentoring eventThe women applied for the 20 places – they had to fulfil the criteria, which were that the funder was on a certain list and that they’d got a Fellowship at a certain level, but then you know how we got our 20? We pulled them out of an electronic hat.

We knew they were all going to be great applicants because the women all had Fellowships and are all brilliant. How can you pick one and not another? Randomly seemed the best option. (We had to pro-rata dependent on where the funding came from.) At least if you weren’t selected you could take comfort that it is really just random. I like that as a message.

This is a year-long programme which started at the end of September with a two-day residential and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Creating a safe place where these women can just go for it

The Academy has done extremely well to create a safe place where these women can just go for it, or say what’s worrying them or what they want, without being reticent, without being embarrassed. So they can say, “You know what? I do want to be a professor of clinical medicine, how do I make it happen?!” and for them to have people there to reply, “Well of course you should be. You can be! Here’s a role model.” So it’s just building their confidence.

Next on the agenda is that we’re just finalising the mentor pairings, and then we’re having the first meeting and we’ll know whether those have worked from the feedback from both sides. We worked hard to get the chemistry right by having a speed mentoring session where potential mentors had questions from mentees to try and answer in just five minutes. So the chemistry had the best chance of being right. The next phase is getting our mentoring pairs in harmony. There are male mentors as well as women – there’s about an equal split of male and female mentors.

There’s a whole team behind this initiative – the Academy Fellows and the staff. There’s a whole team behind SUSTAIN at the Academy and there’s the supporting organisations too. We’re all excited to follow the women’s progress moving forward.

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