To celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March, COG-UK hosted a panel discussion with Colby Benari, CEO of In2scienceUK, and Phoebe Reynolds – an alumnus, and now trustee, of their programme. The panel was chaired by Angela Beckett, a Specialist Research Technician at the University of Portsmouth, who helped to establish and maintain the university’s COG-UK sequencing site.
Watch the full recording of the event from the 8th March, 2022 and read our summary of the conversation below.
Reflecting on their experiences in STEM both Colby and Phoebe emphasise the importance of building a “community of support for yourself” – and for scientists to enable and encourage young people from underrepresented groups to aspire to careers within STEM. “Some people have access through family and friends and if you don’t have that you spend a lot of time and energy trying to break in”. This is the raison d’être for In2scienceUK, a social mobility charity that was launched in 2010 with the vision of promoting social mobility and diversity in STEM fields.
The feeling of isolation that originates from not being part of a support system, coupled with a nagging sense of self-doubt, can be exhausting for many women in academia, especially early-career academics. However, this isn’t an isolated phenomenon and women in STEM face discouragement at all levels. One key aspect of developing an empowering network – and something that can remedy a lack of self-belief – is mentorship. Phoebe cites her mentors as having an “unwavering belief” in her abilities whenever she showed the slightest hint of pessimism. “Their response to any doubts was always, ‘you can do it, why not?’”. Angela agrees: “Having somebody in your corner to support you no matter what, with a combination of giving you specific scientific advice of how to work within this system is invaluable for a lot of people”.
The best advice for finding a mentor figure? “Mentoring relationships built organically take time, but you have to invest in those relationships”, Colby says. “Sometimes, you just have to get out there, meet people, and not be shy.” Phoebe reflects on her own experience of reaching out to scientists by saying that, “I was surprised at how willing people are to talk to you”. Colby insists that it is important not to feel disheartened on the rare occasion that some emails to academics go unanswered. “Don’t take it as a black mark against you, keep going for it”.
In addressing the challenges that women still face in STEM, Colby notes that, ultimately, the focus should be on making an impact in ways that you have more control over. “When you’re faced with really frustrating circumstances you must focus on the things you can change – and what we can do as a community is to support young people coming up through the ranks. She believes that the more people speak out, the better. “It’s going to improve things now as well as for people joining the workforce in the future”. Angela links this back to the power of mentorship by pointing out that “when you meet great mentors, you also learn so much from them because you see the way they treat you and what works and then you know you can pass that onto the next person”.
Organisations like In2scienceUK play a crucial role in advocating for and affecting this meaningful change. “From In2science data analysis, we know that our Summer Programme has a statistically significant impact on a young person’s ambition and ability to progress to university after A-levels”, Colby says. She is confident that the tide is turning and universities are realising that there is a void to fill with regards to STEM researchers from underrepresented backgrounds. Phoebe is concrete proof of this. As one might expect, her outlook on her fledgling career in science is characterised by something we should all associate with science: curiosity. “I don’t know where I want to be in 10 years – for me, it’s about finding things I’m passionate about”.
Colby is a passionate leader and CEO of In2scienceUK, a charity dedicated to empowering young people to choose STEM. She has over ten years of experience of developing programmes to promote diversity in higher education and research as well as building career pipelines to increase access to the full range of opportunities available in STEM.
Phoebe is a PhD student at King’s College London in the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, where she studies visual plasticity. She is a former participant with In2scienceUK and has experienced first-hand how successful the programme can be. Phoebe is now a trustee with In2scienceUK to further promote diversity in science, as well as being involved in a range of science communication projects, where she enjoys building connections between the scientific community and public.
Angela Beckett is a Specialist Research Technician at the University of Portsmouth, with a background in infectious disease and high containment. After completing an MSc in Medical Microbiology, she went on to work at Porton Down, where she was responsible for developing viral, diagnostic assays and specialised vaccines. Initially hired to perform research on novel PETase discovery, her first day on the job was the first day of lockdown. Since then she has been working at the local NHS site, where she has helped to establish and maintain the University of Portsmouth COG UK sequencing site.
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.