The Institute of Biomedical Science works at the forefront of biomedical science, supporting the development of the profession and promoting public understanding.
We hear from Sue Alexander, Principal Biomedical Scientist & Pathology Services Manager at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. Sue is also a STEM ambassador, working to inspire young people to pursue a career in science.
What made you decide on a career in biomedical science?
Although I was always interested in science and the natural world, so biology in particular, I was unaware of biomedical science until I went to a jobcentre and was offered an interview for the Microbiology lab at a Great Ormond Street.
Now I am an active STEMNET ambassador in order to raise awareness of biomedical science as a career. I did want to be a scientist and knew that early on and took biology, chemistry and physics A levels because I wanted to study science at university. Ironically I realised when visiting potential universities that I did not want to follow this course and that is how I ended up at a job centre and in this profession.
Did you find there were any barriers or negative perceptions of women in the biomedical science workforce when you embarked upon this career?
Personally I have not found this myself although I have met women or heard women speaking who say they hit glass ceilings. When I started out, all the Laboratory Managers I knew were male and even when I came into my current role all the Laboratory Managers reporting to me except one were male. That has changed a lot now and I know many female colleagues who are Laboratory Managers and Pathology Service Managers.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
When I worked on the bench I found it fascinating as you never knew what you were going to turn up. Microbiology has remained a highly topical area with so many new pathogens emerging, world problems with antibiotic resistance and controversies such as the MMR vaccine.
These days it is very satisfying to see potential in someone and help nurture and develop that potential. I like giving people confidence in themselves and helping them raise their self-esteem as well as develop and expand their scientific skills. For managerial staff I like to support them through difficult situations and help build their resilience.
On the scientific side I love the constant changes and developments in technology, the flow of new techniques and equipment into laboratories, cutting down on tedious and repetitive work and speeding up results to inform patient care.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in your job?
Resources such as space and funding for new equipment and staffing to meet clinical demands. Not having these leads to staff pressure, frustration and stress. IT is also a challenge as so many developments depend on IT interdependencies which never seem to resolve. The other thing is managing time well and not getting frustrated by errors or slow working by corporate departments: we are used to being fast and accurate. When other areas are not, I and my team members get very frustrated.
Do you think things have changed for female scientists over the course of your career?
As I said, there are far more women in senior roles now, gaining high level qualifications and taking roles in developing education and policy. For example, the CEO and Deputy CEO of the IBMS are both female. More than half of my staff are female. The Chief Scientific Officer is female.
What inspired you to become a STEMNET ambassador?
I heard about the scheme and thought it was a great way to get out there and raise the awareness of biomedical science and careers in the profession plus offer work experience.
What is involved in being a STEM ambassador?
You have to be vetted first to be able to work with students and then you are enrolled with them. There is training and updates, mentoring and hints from experienced ambassadors. You get sent a list of schools seeking ambassadors to attend careers events, talk at schools, help with projects and various other activities. You can do as much or as little as you want.
What do you enjoy about being a STEM ambassador?
Being able to explain what biomedical science is all about, what careers are open and what sort if opportunities the area can open up. I particularly choose to go to girls schools to champion science and to show what is it possible to achieve without getting a degree.
How important is it that young girls see visible female members of the STEM community?
I think it is a good thing: although science is now an area where women have good opportunities, this may not be well known. It is also important to put science and biomedical science up on the same platform as medicine because it can be seen as “second best”. Having actual examples of female scientists standing in front of you can be very powerful as a message. It’s like the poster on public transport: what do ticket inspectors look like? They look like you and me. It is the same for female scientists.
What message would you have for aspiring female biomedical scientists?
Don’t just aspire, achieve! The biggest thing holding women back I find most often is lack of confidence and self esteem. So I say: believe in yourself, pass your exams, aim high and amaze yourself with what you can achieve. I never thought for one moment I would get to where I am and am constantly pleasantly surprised at just what it is possible to achieve.