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 on the 20th May, we met Dr Charlotte Summers, a Reader in Intensive Care Medicine at the University of Cambridge who practices clinically at Cambridge University Hospital. Charlotte 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.

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.”

Watch the full recording of the event HERE


COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK)

The current COVID-19 pandemic, caused by SARS-CoV-2, represents a major threat to health. The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium has been created to deliver large-scale and rapid whole-genome virus sequencing to local NHS centres and the UK government.

Led by Professor Sharon Peacock of the University of Cambridge, COG-UK is made up of an innovative partnership of NHS organisations, the four Public Health Agencies of the UK, the Wellcome Sanger Institute and academic partners providing sequencing and analysis capacity. A full list of collaborators can be found here. Professor Peacock is also on a part-time secondment to PHE as Director of Science, where she focuses on the development of pathogen sequencing through COG-UK.

COG-UK was established in April 2020 supported by £20 million funding from the COVID-19 rapid-research-response “fighting fund” from Her Majesty’s Treasury (established by Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance), and administered by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Wellcome Sanger Institute. The consortium was also backed by the Department of Health and Social Care’s Testing Innovation Fund on 16 November 2020 to facilitate the genome sequencing capacity needed to meet the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the UK over the winter period.