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#STEMStories: Emma, Innovation and skills manager, England

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do? 

I’m Emma, I currently work at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) where I help fund new innovations in biology, support scientists to find partners in industry and commercialise their research. Some exciting projects we have funded include Super Broccoli, which could help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease and the Gribble, which is a small crustacean which can turn waste wood into renewable biofuel and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. 

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do? 

I didn’t always know I wanted to be a scientist. I trained as a tailor after leaving school at 16, but unfortunately couldn’t find a job, so I returned to school to take my A-levels in the hopes of eventually becoming a manager in a shop.

I initially studied biology, where something just clicked and I fell in love with genetics. I went on to study genetics at university and then worked in a range of STEM roles; everything from clinical trials to develop new treatments for the flu, to helping develop algorithms which look at a patient’s cancer genome to identify the most effective treatments.

One of my favourite roles was at a start-up non-profit DNA repository, which acts as a central place for scientists to share genetic materials with other researchers around the world. My role involved managing the logistics of shipping biological materials in Europe, assisting in problem-solving researcher’s experiments, and traveling to visit scientists and collect samples around the world. It was wonderful to be part of a small organisation where I could learn lots of new skills and felt I was making an impact. In contrast to this, I have also worked in large organisations, where I was one of a group of scientists responsible for processing samples and carrying out biological tests. The work is very structured and scheduled, working from a standard protocol in cutting edge labs to process a large volume of samples, so there is a wide range of roles in STEM to suit different people.

I have been lucky enough to work in Australia, America and around the UK, as STEM gives you skills which are in high-demand globally. 

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings? 

Personally, my motivation and fulfilment comes from helping others. I feel great satisfaction from being able to help someone with a problem; I enjoy speaking to other scientists, recommending available funding and support, learning about their research and promoting their scientific discoveries. I also feel job satisfaction when I’m able to make improvements in a process and have a lasting impact, as it is important to me to feel I’m making a difference and that my work matters. 

4. What do you do outside of work? Hobbies or interests? 

I have a variety of hobbies and activities I do outside of work, as maintaining a good work-life balance is important. I enjoy pottery and still do some tailoring. I’m a collector of random skills and hobbies at the moment, most recently having learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube. I love volunteering for science festivals and running science workshops for kids. I also enjoy speaking on panels representing women in STEM, and promoting scientific careers to young women through visits to local schools and mentoring students. 

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I didn’t have any STEM role models or mentors growing up, as none of my family went to university and I didn’t know any scientists, so determining a career path was more difficult. I tried out a lot of different STEM roles to find a good fit. I really wish I had a mentor who could have helped me explore career options and the opportunities available, as this could have made this process easier. I think that’s why I’m always happy to mentor young people who want guidance about careers in STEM, because it’s so valuable to have access to guidance and support from someone who has relevant experience and works in the career you are interested in. 

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time? 

I wasn’t very academic at school, so I never imagined becoming a scientist. I honestly believed that you needed to be a genius to study at university, because I never knew anyone with a degree. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that you just need to find a topic you are interested in and work hard at it and you will find success. Grades are important but they are not everything, especially when you start working, as skills and work experience are just as valuable. I also wish I had learned more outside of school or from other sources like online or books, because at school my enjoyment of a subject was heavily influenced by the teacher and their teaching style, and at the time I didn’t realise there was other ways to learn. I now read lots of non-fiction books about a wide range of topics in science, I just wish I had discovered them sooner! 

7. Top tips for girls starting out in STEM? 

I would recommend anyone starting out in STEM to just ignore the haters and negative people and just do what you love. Don’t be scared to change courses or jobs if it’s not a good fit, it’s not a failure as you always learn something from every role you try. People don’t tell you that you will get dozens of rejections before you receive an acceptance, and it can really knock your confidence, so stay positive. Don’t be put off applying for jobs if you’re not 100% qualified, and don’t be scared to ask for a promotion and recognition for your achievements. 

8. How do you measure your success? 

I think success means different things to different people. Success for me is when I’m able to use my problem-solving skills to overcome a challenge, stretch my abilities, learn something new and push myself to achieve something. Hopefully, my work will help other people or make a lasting difference. 

 9. Where can we find out more about what you do? 

You can find out more about BBSRC and UK Research and Innovation here: https://www.ukri.org/

I’m very active on Twitter and discuss a wide range of topics in different fields of science, I also post about forgotten women in STEM. I’m very happy to answer questions or provide support to anyone considering a career in STEM, so feel free to contact or follow me on Twitter @GeneticCuckoo.