Skip to main content

IDEAS for Sustainable Development: championing women and girls in science

February 11 is marked annually as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (IDWGS) to celebrate the achievements of female scientists and promote equal access and participation of women in science.

This year’s IDWGS theme is ‘Innovate. Demonstrate. Elevate. Advance. Sustain. (I.D.E.A.S.) - Bringing Everyone Forward for Sustainable and Equitable Development’, and focuses on the role of women, girls and science to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At the Ineos Oxford Institute for Antimicrobial Research (IOI), a deep commitment to the training and career development of all our staff and students irrespective of gender is at the heart of our approach to tackling the global problem of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Today, we speak to two IOI researchers, Dr Helen Smith and Kate Cook to learn more about their work and their journey into scientific research.

In addition to their research roles, Helen and Kate are also IOI champions. Passionate about supporting early and mid-career researchers, IOI champions organise a range of workshops throughout the year to share knowledge and experiences amongst their peers.

Thank you both for joining us to celebrate IDWGS. Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you are working on?

Helen Smith (HS): Hi, I’m Helen and I’m a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the IOI and my work is focused on biochemistry. The main project I’m involved in is the development of methods to screen potential new antibiotics that target bacterial cell wall biosynthesis. More specifically, we are working to develop alternatives to beta-lactam antibiotics, which are antibiotics that target penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs) that are involved in building the cell wall of bacteria. This builds on previous work carried out in the Schofield group, where I am based.

Kate Cook (KC): I’m Kate and I’m a Research Assistant in the Walsh lab, helping with their large global studies. This included conducting the AVIAR (Arthropods as Vectors for Infection and Antimicrobial Resistance) pilot study, which involved using microbiological and genomic techniques to isolate and characterise antibiotic-resistant bacteria from flies collected from hospital environments. I am about to start my DPhil project at the IOI, which will run alongside the AVIAR global study but will be focused on one hospital in Nigeria.

How does your work relate to sustainable and equitable development?

HS: AMR is a complex issue driven in part by inequalities across many of the SDGs – be that lack of clean water and sanitation or poverty and lack of robust healthcare infrastructure. Our work aims to contribute new antimicrobial medicines that target multi-drug resistant bacteria and help to curtail infections, thereby aiming to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages” (e.g., SD3). However, education underpins everything that we do, and so we also work to promote antimicrobial stewardship, and try to link our research to policy, so that in the future everyone can have equitable access to safe, effective and affordable antibiotics.

KC: A lot of the work in the Walsh lab involves AMR surveillance in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where often there are limited resources for infection control. The first goal of my DPhil project is to use next-generation-sequencing technologies to understand how arthropods spread resistant bacteria to hospital surfaces and patients. We then plan to implement inexpensive and sustainable non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as nets and traps, to reduce the incidence of infection and limit the spread of resistance genes. These interventions should be useful to the hospital for many years after the study ends. They are not difficult procedures to maintain, but the key will be to identify the point in the network of AMR transmission where the interventions are needed. By focusing on cheap interventions, we hope that they will be widely implemented, which could contribute to many of the SDGs, including SDG3 focusing on healthy lives

What got you interested in science, and more specifically in AMR research?

HS: At school I considered studying many different subjects alongside Biology and Chemistry at A-Level, although ultimately my school pushed me towards pure science. I studied for a Chemistry degree, and I chose a chemical biology research project in my final year. I carried out my PhD as part of a Doctoral Training Programme in Interdisciplinary Biomedical Research; the programme took people from very varied scientific backgrounds and trained us for PhDs with a biological focus.

My PhD project focused on natural product biosynthesis; I looked at how different proteins within bacteria interact to facilitate the production of small molecules (or natural products) with biological relevance. The applications of natural products are very broad, for example some act as agrochemicals, whilst others are already in use as medicines. Penicillin is perhaps the most well-known example of a natural product. Working in this area of research inspired me to pursue a postdoctoral research project in medicinal biochemistry to solve real-world problems in healthcare. Working with the IOI is really exciting as it allows me to use the skills gained during my PhD for this purpose.

KC: I grew up in the countryside and spent lots of time outside. I ‘studied’ the natural world in my own way before I knew what science was, learning by observation about things such as life cycles, biological interactions and seasonality. This led me to study Biology at university, where I became fascinated with microorganisms and molecular biology, as well as learning how the scientific process could be used to generate real-world impact. Since then, my work has been focused on infectious diseases, including trypanosomiasis (“sleeping sickness”) and COVID-19. I wanted to apply my skills to AMR research as I believe that it is among the greatest biological threats to the planet and humanity.

Were there any women that inspired your career in science?

HS: My secondary school chemistry teacher was very supportive of my interest in Chemistry. She was the only female chemistry teacher at the school and really worked hard to pass on her love for the subject. She was very supportive during my university application process, which was especially valuable.

During my undergraduate degree, I undertook a summer project in Prof Molly Steven’s lab (Imperial College London) after hearing her on Radio 4’s Life Scientific. During my placement I was inspired by how Molly runs an incredibly interdisciplinary and diverse group working at different stages of the drug development process; she has great links beyond academia to move things from a lab to industry, producing science with a tangible clinical benefit to patients. In the world of AMR, Prof Dame Sally Davies has done impressive work to put AMR on the political map within the UK and continues to push for greater action and awareness on AMR globally.

KC: One of my A-Level teachers, Amanda, helped me to realise that my interest in Biology could be pursued further at university and that I had the ability to succeed academically. I was never a ‘high-flyer’ at school, but it was her who made me realise that passion could go a long way in helping me to focus my energy and succeed. It was around this time that I read Lynn Margulis’ book ‘Symbiotic planet’, where she expanded on some of the long-held theories of evolution with her theory of symbiosis. I remember feeling inspired by her writing style – she outlined her theories and evidence clearly whilst also writing in an engaging way that highlighted the fact that we are all part of nature and that our actions matter. I am always inspired by the women I work with – both here at Oxford and previously.

What can we do to encourage more women to participate in science?

HS: The definition of a career in science is vast. Studying STEM subjects sets you up with so many transferable skills, and helps to keep lots of paths open to you. Working in science you can also incorporate other things that you enjoy, such as outreach work, or scientific writing. A career in science doesn’t limit you to a lab-based job, it opens up many opportunities based on your interests. For example, I am also working on an outreach programme for GCSE students entitled ‘Discovery of an Antibiotic’. This will allow students to perform real scientific experiments exploring how we develop methods to test for potential new antibiotics whilst educating students on antibiotic use and misuse. By bringing science directly to the student’s doorstep we hope to help students who lack confidence to understand that science is for them, that they can pursue further education and even a career in science. I hope that by organising and disseminating such activities, and using them to showcase how varied a career in science can be, this will help many students – including girls and women – to pursue such a career.

KC: Science is for everyone and there are so many career options available. The generic ‘academic career path’ is quite a masculine framework in its linearity, but this is certainly not the only way to grow as a scientist. I chose to work in Research Assistant roles for a few years after finishing my Master’s degree so that I could diversify my skill set and develop a strong understanding of my interests and where my skills could be best applied. Girls and young women should be encouraged to explore what they are passionate about, instead of being motivated by achieving good grades at school. Spending time outdoors was a pivotal influence in my childhood, so I think that encouraging young girls to interact with the natural world could inspire them to study it and come up with their own ideas about what is important. I am really proud to work in a lab where 80% of my colleagues are women.

Tell us about the IOI Champions initiative and why you got involved?

HS: I think it’s important that at the IOI we develop not just research skills but ensure there is a culture of continuous learning. The IOI champions events aim to bring people together and create networks within the Institute, which help to foster the IOI community spirit and benefit our interdisciplinary research. I was involved in a seminar series during my PhD that focused on presentations, and the development of other skills, which I still draw from daily. Being an IOI champion lets me help pass on the skills that have been so valuable in my career, whilst learning something new myself.

KC: The IOI Champions initiative was developed with the goal of bringing together early-career researchers in the IOI on a monthly basis, to discuss a range of subjects such as writing skills, presentation skills and teamwork. As our teams span different laboratories across two separate departments (Biology and Chemistry), these events also serve as a great opportunity for us to get together in person and integrate and learn from each other. I applied to be a Champion as I wanted to help with this team integration as the Institute grows. I want to make sure that people feel supported in their careers outside of the lab, and that we can learn together in a safe and fun environment. I hope that early career researchers in the IOI feel comfortable to voice any concerns or ideas that they may have to Helen and I, no matter their role or background, and that we can help address these.

If you could snap a finger and change just one thing in the AMR space, what would that be?

HS: There are so many things we could change that would help the development of novel medicines to combat AMR. If I could change one thing, I think it would be to improve the funding landscape for the development of antibiotics. Due to the low return on investment and taking into consideration molecules that fail during the clinical trials process, a recent Wellcome Trust report estimates that each new, successful antibiotic costs in the region of $1.2 billion.

KC: It would be great if everyone in the world had access to the knowledge of what AMR is, the factors that are contributing towards it, and the implications if these factors are not addressed. This would empower people to make their own decisions about things such as their antimicrobial use and their diet (as for example, the majority of antibiotic usage worldwide is in farm animals). If enough people become aware of the causes of AMR, these systems will gradually have to change.

What do you like to do when you're not in the lab?

HS: I do spend a lot of time in the lab but when I can I love to travel, read, and go bouldering. I also like to bake – my scientist friends say that you shouldn’t trust a chemist if they can’t cook!

KC: I spend lots of time practising several styles of yoga and have done so for many years – this is just as essential to supporting my career as my time spent at work! I also like to spend time climbing trees and doing activities such as aerial hoop.