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30 Jul 2021

From London Zoo to NHS England – the story of Angela Douglas, Deputy CSO

In the latest instalment of our Women in COG series, we caught up with Angela Douglas – Deputy Chief Scientific Officer for NHS England and NHS Improvement – a genetics expert with a plethora of prestigious accolades to her name, including Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). Watch the full recording of the event here or read a summary of Angela’s story below.

Fighting stigma

Middle child to an “arty” younger sister and “mathsy” older brother, Angela was a self-confessed bookworm in her early years. From the age of 12, Angela knew she wanted to be a scientist, just like the ones in the story books.

During her school years, Angela faced pushback from a close family member, with whom she used to have frequent arguments about the importance of education for girls. Thankfully, the overwhelming support of her parents, in particular her mother, instilled in her an unfaltering confidence in the face of sceptics — something that remains a goal for many women to this day.

A budding geneticist

Angela continued to progress through secondary school and began studying for her A Levels, which was when she discovered her love for genetics. An inspiring substitute teacher at school helped to unearth Angela’s interest in the subject, and eventually supported her in writing her UCAS form and securing a place to study genetics at University College London (UCL).

Angela thoroughly enjoyed her time at university, and was surrounded by a wealth of inspirational lecturers and supervisors. Professor Stephen Jones was one such supervisor, who not only encouraged Angela during her studies, but also helped her to land her first full-time job at London Zoo. This period in Angela’s life highlights the vital role of motivational, supportive teachers in helping early career researchers find their path and succeed, stressing the importance of building positive, strong relationships with mentors.

Lions and life lessons

As part of her first project at the Zoo, Angela was tasked with mapping all of the animals’ chromosomes. Taking blood samples from the smaller animals was relatively straightforward, but the larger, more dangerous animals posed more of a challenge. One time a condor’s claw got caught in her engagement ring after the bird had tried to attack her. Another time after waking up in a hospital bed following an encounter with a sedated lioness, Angela started to question her role at the Zoo.

Having decided that working with animals was not a longer term career choice, Angela moved to a human cytogeneticist role at Guy’s Hospital, thanks to the support of her mentor David Whitehouse. Working with humans turned out to be much easier than working with animals, and she settled into the hospital setting with ease; and soon began studying for her Member of the Royal College of Pathologists (MRCPath) qualification. While some would see Angela’s move as a potential hindrance to career progression, it taught her a valuable lesson relevant not only to scientists, but all in the working world: “It’s never too late to change your mind and direction; you might have to start again but you soon get back up to where you want to be.”

Support networks

Years later, now happily married Angela started a family with her husband Paul and while continuing to progress her career at the Christie Hospital, simultaneously managed to juggle mothering two young boys. Without the solid foundations of an incredibly supportive family and collegial network, Angela would not have been able to nurture both her children and her career. Thanks to this robust infrastructure, Angela was able to return from maternity leave when her son was just three weeks’ old – something that most mothers would not have the opportunity to do – demonstrating the value of building a system of strong, supportive connections prior to starting a family.

Instigating behaviour change

After moving from the Christie Hospital to the Liverpool Women’s Hospital, Angela worked hard to embed the relatively new concept of image analysis into her new workplace. She gradually succeeded in transitioning her team onto the new image analysis system, but the process taught her an important lesson which she continued to apply throughout her career.

Angela learned that the most efficient way to instigate behaviour change is to focus efforts on the early adopters — those open to new concepts and eager to test new methods of working. “You’re always going to have people who are the change agents…and you’ve got to work with the willing,” — a valuable piece of advice relevant not only for those within STEM, but anyone looking to encourage behaviour change in their working environment.

Winning hearts and minds

Besides her family and the success of her sons, Angela is most proud of being honoured with her MBE title. Seeing her family’s elated faces on the front row while she was awarded the accolade by Prince William was an incredible moment for Angela, and one that she will never forget.

Given that Angela’s mentoring skills were recognised in her MBE, the audience were keen to hear her mentoring advice and any pearls of wisdom she could share as a successful woman in science. One such piece of advice was the importance of not only communicating the facts, but also understanding the value of connecting with your audience, a critical skill that transcends sectors and is applicable throughout any stage of a career. “The science isn’t enough, you’ve also got to learn to tell your story…you’ve got to have a narrative that not only captures people’s minds…you’ve also got to be able to tell a story that captures people’s hearts.”

Find your passion

As a final word of advice for younger researchers considering their future career path, Angela commented, “You’re going to be in a career for a long time… you’ve at least got to feel moved and passionate about what you’re doing, otherwise you’re wasting your time.” Echoing the tone of the whole session, Angela’s conclusion left us with a powerful and inspirational message: “Make sure that you feel that your career is going to make a difference, and has purpose.”

Watch the full recording of the event here and check out our other Women in COG blogs, events and recordings here.