Ada Lovelace was one of the original computer nerds and her work has inspired many women to take up the geek mantle. So it’s only fitting that on Ada Lovelace day, the blogging troops should be rallied to write about women in science and technology who have inspired us. There’s more about the Ada Lovelace Day Blogging Pledge on the Finding Ada website.
For my part, I’m going to ramble a bit about one of the women who still inspires me about science and science communication to this day – Professor Amanda (Mandy) Fisher at Imperial College, London. Because I’m a self-centred sod it’s all about me anyway, but she’s an amazing woman and deserves a massive high-five. And probably some flowers.
I first met Mandy when I was a wide-eyed and not-entirely-disillusioned-yet PhD student, studying epigenetics and genomic imprinting with Professor Azim Surani in Cambridge. Together with a talented post-doc in her lab, Karen Brown, Mandy had devised a technique to look inside the nucleus (‘control centre’) of cells, to discover if certain proteins were ‘sitting on’ different genes, helping to switch them on or off.
I was keen to use the technique (called immuno-FISH) in my own research, and spent a few happy days in her lab overlooking Wormwood Scrubs prison, manipulating – and breaking – delicate glass coverslips in strange fizzy solutions. By the end of my PhD, I’d be using the same technique on microscopic single-celled mouse embryos – a mind-bendingly fiddly procedure that I was pathologically unsuited to.
I was impressed with Mandy’s sense of fun, her kindness, her ideas, her helpfulness and advice, her keen intellect, and her passion for science and communicating it. Over the painful and frustrating years of my PhD research we stayed in touch, talking about results (or rather, my lack of them) and sharing chats and drinks at meetings and conferences. And at the end of three and a half slow, grinding years, she agreed to be the external examiner for my PhD. I passed, I got very drunk, and I started to look for opportunities to stretch my scientific wings.
After that, my life took a slightly wrong turn. I turned down prestigious post-doc job offers in world-class labs in the US, Edinburgh and Vienna in the belief that I was doing the right thing for love. And by the time I finally ended up on Mandy’s doorstep in Wormwood Scrubs, grovelling for a job, I was battling clinical depression and a brutal eating disorder.
To my eternal gratitude, Mandy took me on. I started working on various projects in her lab, making slow headway when I wasn’t hiding in the toilets, crying. My colleagues were mostly all lovely and supportive and Mandy continued to be inspiring and motivating, even when I felt like crawling into the dark room and drinking the X-ray developer.
Around this time, Mandy started to get more heavily involved in science communication. There was a pot of EU money to help communicate epigenetics to the public, and the air swarmed with exciting and inspiring ideas for sci-comm projects – I have vague memories of something to do with a gorilla genome…
Perhaps sensing that I was miserable as hell, Mandy tried to entice me to get involved too. I was keen to join in, but my career in the lab was becoming untenable (something I spectacularly make light of in this article…). After a horrendous summer, during which I started to suffer from hallucinations and suicidal thoughts, I got an interview for what seemed like my dream job – a position as a Science Information Officer at Cancer Research UK, communicating the charity’s research to the public. And against pretty long odds, I got it – five years later, I’m still at the charity and I’m still doing my dream job.
Since I left Mandy’s lab, we’ve stayed in touch. I’ve done the odd bit of freelance science writing for Epigenome.Eu, made a podcast for Scopic (a fantastic science/art schools project), and continue to turn up occasionally to eat lunch and drink pink wine with the inspiring gang of science communicators she has assembled around her.
Mandy’s passion for bringing science to the public has brought together Nobel laureates and other scientists with designers, film-makers and the like. Her energy and enthusiasm for both her research and science communication is inspiring and contagious. And at the same time she manages to be a nurturing and productive lab head and – staggeringly on top of everything else – Director of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre and mum to a tribe of gorgeous kids.
On Ada Lovelace day I salute you, Mandy. Thank you for the inspiration.