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3 Jun 2021

“Girls like you can’t be doctors” — how Charlotte Summers battled stereotypes to thrive as a woman in science

At our inaugural ‘Women in COG’ event we met Dr Charlotte Summers, who spent last year on the front line treating patients with COVID-19 in intensive care, while leading the national HEAL-COVID clinical trial and several other respiratory research projects. She shared her inspirational story, and we heard first-hand how unwavering determination helped her to defy expectations and become an esteemed clinician-scientist.

Watch the full recording of the event from the 20th May, 2021, or read our summary of the conversation below.


Challenging Gender Norms

Growing up in the southwest of the UK, Charlotte didn’t have a traditional academic background. Neither of her parents had been to university, yet they strongly valued education and, with two daughters, saw no reason why their girls couldn’t pursue the same opportunities as boys at school.

After informing a school careers advisor of her intentions to study medicine, Charlotte was told “girls like you can’t be doctors, you should be a nurse”. Not being one to accept no as an answer — especially due to sex — Charlotte was resolute in ensuring her goal to attend medical school became a reality.

Dogged Determination

Charlotte was soon accepted into the University of Southampton’s medical school, where she was initially content with “not doing much else other than passing the exams and playing hockey”. However, a lecture in Charlotte’s third year unexpectedly stopped her in her tracks and forced her to reconsider her career path.

The medical students were told if they wanted to pursue a teaching hospital career, they would need to study an intercalated BSc — for which most of them wouldn’t make the cut.   Again, she refused to be limited by expectations, and achieved the grades needed and crucially received a British Pharmacological Society scholarship, meaning she could afford another year at university.

The Importance of a Mentor

She fell in love with lab work during the BSc while in the group of Professor Jane Warner, her supportive and forward-thinking supervisor who saw no boundaries to what women in science could achieve.

Shortly after joining the lab, Charlotte spent time with Professor David Lomas, and was inspired by him as one of the first clinician-scientists she had met. Professor Lomas soon became Charlotte’s mentor – a relationship that would stand the test of time for over 25 years. “I’ve been really lucky that I have had…a variety of supportive and inspiring mentors…without whom I wouldn’t be here”, said Charlotte.

Spinning Plates

After three years studying for her PhD in the lab of Professor Edwin Chilvers at the University of Cambridge, Charlotte moved to London and restarted full-time clinical work. While somehow managing to simultaneously write her thesis, Charlotte worked long hours at her hospital, navigating the busy intensive care wards during the swine flu pandemic.

Charlotte soon became pregnant with her son, and, while roughly 28 weeks’ pregnant and suffering from illness, had to defend her PhD at her viva. She submitted the corrections the following week, and only two hours later was admitted to hospital due to pregnancy-related illness. Her son then arrived prematurely a little while later, and after recovering, Charlotte was thankfully able to be awarded her PhD in person – a relief for her after a challenging nine months.

Inherent Sexism

Five and a half months after giving birth, Charlotte felt her PhD students and lab team needed her support and so returned to work. “I got about 10 yards into the building before a senior male colleague stopped me and suggested that now I was a mother I was going to give up my academic aspirations and work less than full-time”.

After informing her colleague that her husband had chosen to stay at home and look after their son, Charlotte was asked “but however will your poor husband cope?”

Charlotte also makes the point that “…it’s not just women with children who get judged, women who choose not to have children also get judged”, and these women are labelled as being “too focused” on their career and “selfish” and considered to value work above having a family. “We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

Finding a Voice

While it’s clear that Charlotte now feels comfortable flagging issues around gender balance in science, she notes that for years she has “often kept quiet and not spoken up” when in junior roles or when she felt that being labelled as outspoken could damage her career. “I absolutely understand why women…feel like they are not able to speak up when they see unfairness…I felt powerless to do anything in multiple situations”.

Try and find allies, find strength in numbers, and in the senior people around you”, Charlotte advises those struggling to feel at ease with speaking up about gender imbalance. Charlotte noted that her PhD supervisor was “much more vocal about the importance of women in science than I ever managed to be…so there are ways that don’t involve you personally having to say something”. However, Charlotte encourages more junior scientists not to stay silent and to share their feelings about gender issues, as it is likely that others will agree.

“Equality and diversity in science is not a ‘women’s problem’…the moment we allow it to be made into a ‘women’s problem’…then it stops it being taken as seriously as we need it to be.”

A Word of Advice

Delving into Charlotte’s story gave us the opportunity to hear an inspiring yet honest account of a successful woman’s career journey in science. On the surface, one could assume it was a clear, straightforward path to where she is today — however we learnt that her true story is far more relatable.

“All too often advice is given and people make their careers sound like a meteoric rise from A to B without any hiccups along the way…my career was absolutely not like that, there were set backs on the work and the home side at different times throughout. But stay true to what you value because nothing is more important…and if you really want to do it, go for it.”

Dr Charlotte Summers

Dr Charlotte Summers is a University of Cambridge Professor of Intensive Care Medicine, who co-leads the Peri-operative, Acute, Critical Care and Emergency medicine (PACE) Section of the Department of Medicine and is the Clinical School’s Director of Clinical Academic Training. She is a member of the UK-COVID Therapeutic Advisory Panel and Chief Investigator of HEAL-COVID, the national Urgent Public Health platform clinical trial that aims to find drug therapies to improve the longer-term clinical outcomes of people who were hospitalised with COVID-19.


About Women in COG

The COG-UK consortium has over 500 members with a range of scientific and business expertise in genomics, bioinformatics, operations clinical science and public health. Women in COG is a supportive network to share experience and knowledge and to promote science careers in women and girls.

This was an event in our series of monthly lunchtime Women in COG events and everyone (regardless of gender) is welcome to attend. The events will feature a conversation with a guest or consortium member followed by an informal Q&A.

Check out our past and upcoming Women in COG events.

COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK)

The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium works in partnership to harness the power of SARS-CoV-2 genomics in the fight against COVID-19.

Led by Professor Sharon Peacock of the University of Cambridge, COG-UK is made up of an innovative collaboration of NHS organisations, the four public health agencies of the UK, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and sixteen academic partners. A full list of collaborators can be found here.

The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by SARS-CoV-2, represents a major threat to health. The COG-UK consortium was formed in March 2020 to deliver SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing and analysis to inform public health policy and to support the establishment of a national pathogen sequencing service, with sequence data now predominantly generated by the Wellcome Sanger Institute and the Public Health Agencies.

SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing and analysis plays a key role in the COVID-19 public health response by enabling the identification, tracking and analysis of variants of concern, and by informing the design of vaccines and therapeutics. COG-UK works collaboratively to deliver world-class research on pathogen sequencing and analysis, maximise the value of genomic data by ensuring fair access and data linkage, and provide a training programme to enable equity in global sequencing.