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Women in STEM | Eleanor Gilbert

In honour of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8, we asked women in environmental sciences to answer questions about what it is like being a woman in STEM. The following is a compilation of questions and answers from the questionnaire with Eleanor Gilbert, a third year PhD student at the Marine Biological Association.


What was your favourite subject in school and why?


Biology, especially cellular biology. Even after several years of working in molecular biology, I am still fascinated by how the forms and functions of living things is controlled almost entirely by molecules and processes that we can't even see.


How have your beliefs, motivations and aspirations changed over time? When did a career in STEM become a priority or choice?


My motivation for originally going to university was the opportunity to continue learning. Now that I am in the final year of my PhD, I aspire to use the skills that I have learned to make a difference somewhere in the world. I also want to be a good role model to the girls and young women in my life, to show them that they can have a successful career in STEM.


What is/was your PhD topic?


My PhD looks at the evolution of a sensory organ in marine invertebrate larvae. I spend a lot of time in the labs and working with a variety of different microscopes which I really enjoy!


How did you get into your current field? What is your academic background?


I started out by studying Marine Biology and Oceanography at the University of Plymouth. At the time, I was initially interested in big megafauna, like whales, and coral reefs, and how we could protect them. During my second year, I took a marine molecular biology module which completely revolutionised my degree experience. I enjoyed the module so much that I undertook a six-month placement at the Sars International Centre for Marine Molecular Biology in Bergen, Norway. I progressed onto the MRes Marine Biology degree, also at Plymouth, where I ended up completing a computational biology project due to the Covid-19 pandemic. My MRes supervisor was advertising a PhD project through ARIES, which I was encouraged to apply for. I was successful at interview and started my PhD in October 2020 at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth.


What are the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome? Do you feel that your academic career would be easier/harder if you were male?


I have had a very privileged upbringing where my access to education was relatively free of obstacles. Both of my parents went to university, and it was my dream early on that I would also study for a degree. I feel that, even now, I have not had to overcome any major obstacles as I am still very early on in my career. I think my biggest obstacles are to come. When I look at the Fellows at the MBA, and at the University of Plymouth, most of them are male. I think trying to develop a career as an established scientist and the inevitable career breaks that will come with having children will be the biggest obstacle I will face in the near future.


In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?


I would love to see more diversity in science! I think the nature of academic science (i.e., short term contracts) make establishing an academic career very difficult for those women that move to the UK from outside of Europe, who need permanent positions for visa applications, etc.

Do you have a female role model?


Yes - my supervisor! One of my PhD supervisors (and the only female in my team) is such an inspiration to me. Not only is she a fantastic scientist, but she and her husband recently had a baby boy. She has imparted so much wisdom to me over the years about the academic journey, and she always views everything with a positive and determined attitude.


What advice would you give to other women beginning their PhD journey?


Do not conform to what other people think is "your best". You are a human being, and you are defined by so much more than just your PhD. As long as you are happy with what you are achieving, it doesn't really matter what other people think. Their disappointment is not your problem.


Do you have a network of women in STEM around you to share knowledge and remind you that you are not alone? If so, how did you go about creating that network?


I have a fantastic network of women around me, but it has grown mostly organically. I work in an almost all-female PhD student office, where most of us are at the same stages of our PhDs.


If you could go back and change one thing in your STEM path, what would that be?


I would go back and chose a different undergraduate/masters degree. I really enjoyed marine biology, but most of what I do now isn't specific to the marine field and could be transferred to so many other systems. I think I would have benefitted more from doing a biomedical or biological science undergraduate degree - hindsight is a wonderful thing!


Do you have any plans for the future, both in your academic and personal life, and do you feel that there are any barriers to these plans?


As someone who shares her life with a non-scientist, the two-body problem throws up a lot of challenges. I originally wanted an academic career, but the nature of academia and short-term contracts has steered me towards planning for a move to industry once my PhD is complete. I still want a career in molecular biology, but I am now looking at biotechnology - specifically drug development or food security - where I can still do science that I enjoy, while being settled in one place and raising children that I hope will one day be proud of the career that I have built.

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