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Louise

(i) A self-portrait, and (ii) in conversation with John Reed

(i)

My mum and dad are both working class, my dad works in a factory and my mum was a housewife till about five years ago when she accidentally came upon a job. I have never felt limited by my background, I think it has made me the person I am, since I appreciate what I have to a greater extent than some people around me. I feel like I have experienced enough things to allow me to make a choice about what I want to do. I have had my times of working in Burger King and packing meat at the meat factory, now it’s my time of doing something worthwhile.

Like most people, when I am on my own for extended periods of time, I feel lonely. I especially feel lonely when I am working late in the lab and it seems no one else is working. It often feels like I am doing twice as much work as everyone else just to stay afloat. I do like being on my own occasionally since it gives me time to reflect.

I think that as I have got older, and I am able to try out new things, my tastes have changed. I no longer rely on my mum’s repertoire of recipes, and I’m able to try new foods out! In a city of culture like Oxford, one gets the chance to experience concerts and museums, back five years ago, I would never have gone to a classical concert, but now I love going, mainly because I wish I could play like that!

As a child, I thought that the dad of the family had to go to work, and the mum had to stay at home and look after the children all day. As I have got older and experienced women in roles other than motherhood (like lecturers etc.), I have come to appreciate that I could do something like that too. At the moment I am working in a very male-dominated field, and if I stay in this field then I think it will always be male dominated because of the physics and maths. Being a woman, in this field you do get treated differently by men. Sometimes they respect you for being in such as position and others lack respect, assuming that you have used your femininity to get where you are. I guess this must be true of some women but not me!

As a Christian, I have never really been motivated by power or money in how I live my life. I have always tried to gain respect which is why I think I always tried hard (and still do) in whatever I do. I always felt that I have to prove to other people (and myself) that I can do what they do. I guess this comes from being a woman, and also coming from a working-class background. I would like to have a highly paid job, but at the moment the money I have is sufficient.

I would not like to lead in the public eye, but I would like people to view me as being able to lead. I would like to be able to run my own research group at some point, and when it comes to meetings etc. I always prefer someone to go first, as I feel that they are going to be much better than me. At church I tend to do a lot of things behind the scenes, such as making sure that everything is organised, rather than standing up in front of people talking. Recently I have had the chance at playing boss in our lab whilst my supervisor is away on maternity leave. I have been the day-to-day manager of the research group, and have had to deal with all the things I would have to deal with if I was in charge for real. This has actually made me realise how hard it is heading a group, but you have to work hard to achieve what you want.

In some respects, as I have got older, my fears have diminished; my fears especially, about not being good enough, for example. As a school pupil, I was never the star pupil, I had to work extra hard to get that B+! Then I got through my GCSEs and the same fears cropped up during my A-Levels and then again during my degree. I guess achieving something that I know no one has done, such as getting an Oxbridge D.Phil. really has put those fears of not being good enough to rest. However, I also face other fears, such as whenever I come to the end of something, for example, my degree, or my PhD, I do often face fears about what am I going to do next, then things fall into place and I know everything is going to be alright for the next three years. Of course I know that I cannot go on for the rest of my life feeling like that, but I believe, as a Christian, that God will provide everything that we need, and he has a specific plan for each and every one of us.

I like to learn. That is part of the reason why I am continuing to stay in academic research. The whole aim of doing research is to learn and discover new things. I hate learning about maths and physics, though, part of my job relies quite heavily on physics and maths and at times I do find it difficult, but I’ll get there in the end!

I feel that I don’t really have enemies, I try to be nice to everyone I meet and encounter. Of course there are people I don’t like, but as it says in the Bible we must love one another, and I feel that my allies are those that have done through similar things to what I have, or people that understand exactly what I am going through.

At work I feel like I do too much for other people and am often taken advantage of. In other situations such as at home, or at church, I am not taken advantage of so much, but often I feel like I am doing more for other people than what they would do for me.

I feel at home in company where I can be myself. I hate pretending to be someone I’m not, and this often occurs at scientific conferences or meetings, where I have to pretend I am full of confidence and bold, when in reality I am quaking in my boots! It is like this too, when meeting new people.

As part of my research career, I have had the opportunity to go travelling to some countries; I have been to Hawaii, Canada, Japan and various European countries. I have not been to anywhere in the developing world; I would like to have that opportunity. Of the countries I have been to, I have found that being able to see and experience other cultures is amazing. It makes you appreciate what you have in your own country where you are used to certain things. I guess Japan taught me about some of these things.

My spending habits are terrible. I will not buy something when I see something I like. This characteristic stems from my childhood where we never had what we wanted as children; as a young student I worked in the summers in a meat factory or Burger King to get as much cash as I could. I always look around to get the cheapest deal I can for something which often annoys my friends and certain members of my family. Even now, when I am earning a salary (albeit not a huge salary), I am still the same. People tell me that if I see something that I like then I should buy it! I’m sorry but I actually get a thrill knowing that I can buy a loaf of bread at a rock bottom price if I wait until the end of the day to go shopping!

I sometimes find it difficult to make friends. Sometimes it takes me a while to be able to trust someone, and I often feel like people judge me too much before they really know me. I would like to have more friends; I have a lot of acquaintances that I see frequently, but I can’t talk about my problems to them. Although if I had more friends, it would mean that I would have less time to spend with my close friends that I have already. My friends have to understand who I am and what I am. They have to be able to support me when I am in times of crisis, and to be fair, my friends do just that. If I want to talk then, there is someone there to talk to.

I don’t feel as if I have wasted any time in my life as a whole. I go through some days thinking, ‘Oh I wish I had not spent so long doing something,’ like most people. But that time is not wasted; whatever you spend the time doing, you always achieve something, even if you have spent 30 minutes surfing the web when you should have been writing a report!

The work that I have chosen to do now comes from my early desire to ‘help people’. I always wanted to be a doctor and unfortunately my school grades were not quite good enough. The next best thing was to do something medically orientated such as Medical Biology and the plan was to do medicine afterwards, only I did some work in research labs as part of my degree. It became clear that I could also make a difference to someone’s life by doing medical research. Now I have made a choice to stay in the academic environment to continue to carry out medical research. As a side issue, at some point I would like to pass on my knowledge to others by teaching, so I am trying to get involved in teaching. I am already involved in the day-to-day supervision of D.Phil. students in the lab, but that’s not enough! At the moment I am happy chasing a hypothesis in the lab, and everything is as I hoped it would be, although currently I have far more responsibilities than what I had ever hoped for, since my supervisor is away on maternity leave, leaving me to fill her shoes! I may get disillusioned by the academic world at some point; people I know have felt let down by their colleagues and have left academia to pursue research in an industrial setting where the money is better. I know people that have left science altogether and have become teachers, so it is not too late for me to change my mind in the work that I do.

At some point in my life I would like to settle down with a man, get married, buy a house and have children. At the moment, I can’t foresee any of those things happening, but I am still young, so I guess there is still time for these things to come along! The man I would like to marry will have to understand exactly who and what I am, where I have come from, and what my life is like. He would have to have Christian beliefs, a good sense of humour, and an intelligent enquiring mind. He could also be tall dark and handsome, but I think that might be too much to ask on top of everything else!

(ii)

I do something called magnetic resonance imaging, MRI. When people have had a car accident or something and you have a brain scan and you see people going through this big tube, that is an MRI scan. And I use that to look at the brain of animals, mice in particular, and rats, to look at diseases like Multiple Sclerosis and Prion diseases like CJD or Mad Cow Disease. That is it in a nutshell.

I get a mouse and give it a disease like Prion disease and I leave them for the disease to develop over three months. When I give it Prion disease I have to make it go to sleep and do surgery on it, just like you see on casualty, and sew his head up and allow him to recover and he goes back in the cage. He is completely happy, no harm done at all in terms of his behaviour. At the disease stage I have to put him back to sleep again and put him in a special holder and put him inside the big magnet and get a lot of nice images and pretty pictures of his brain. The way we give the animal the disease is to inject something into his brain using a really tiny, thin needle to a specific place in the brain, called the hippocampus, which you have to do under a microscope because it is so small. And then you get lots of images and pictures which tell me about how much water there is in the brain, how much blood flow in the brain, lots of information about different properties of water in the brain, and then I kill the animals, humanely of course. Then I do lots of staining of the brain to look at certain cells which might be active in the brain and try to see which cells change certain things in the pictures. The whole thing takes forever to do.

Everything is done against controls so the control animals will have the same surgery, it will have something injected but not the disease, so they go through the same procedure and we do everything and compare it to the controls, so that we can do statistics. We have to have at least three control animals and three experimental animals in each group to be able to do the stats, but the bigger the sample size the more robust the stats will be. My last paper that I published had 5 to 10 numbers in each sample group, you can get away with less, 10 in the controls and 10 in the experimental group. 20 animals per paper, quite a large number. That paper took me three years to do because it was a lot of work and a lot of animals. But sometimes you can get away with having less, some journals publish brief communications where there are a couple of animals, but that is only if you have really, really good results.

It is intellectual in terms of understanding what the MRI changes mean. It is all down to physics and how molecules move in the brain and knowing what the brain is made up of in terms of cells and neurons and other molecules and metabolites in the brain and trying to figure out what is underlying these changes and what they mean. And also having ideas to develop new sequences to look at new things on the MRI, understanding maths and physics to tweak things, to adapt things to what you want to look for. It takes students a long time to be able to use the machine, the basics.

In some ways there is a creative element in what I do. If I was a physicist or engineer it would be more creative because you would, for example, design new ways of holding the animal in the magnet. We have a lot of engineers to design new ways of doing that, but that is not what I do.

In the group we have a principal investigator, two post-docs and two students. Recently we had a technician but he had to leave. There is a hierarchy.

I have my own research project that I do and I do help out with the students’ work, and the other post-doc does his own work and has a hand in the students’ work. So we all have our own separate things to work on which I like, but I also want to have my fingers in a lot of other pies as well, because it’s interesting, and also being able to help students when they have problems. I don’t feel isolated at all. I’m just finishing up some work from my D.Phil., being in contact with my other supervisors, so I am interested in what they are doing as a result. I am interested in other stuff. But I only get paid to do the Prion stuff, that’s how I advance.

You are very much judged on your publications list. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good way to judge people. For example, it took me three years to get enough data for one paper. Some people who do molecular biology techniques where you just stick things in a gene thing, 200 samples and you get the results two hours later. That is unfair I think because you can publish a paper on one day’s results. I feel that my work is more clinically relevant, my view is that I am contributing more to the advancement of science and human knowledge than they are.

Prion disease is already one of the biggest sources of brain degeneration, especially in areas of Europe, in the UK. The main aim of my work is to find an early marker for brain degeneration, so looking before you see clinical signs. Having an animal model is really valuable because you can’t look if you’ve got a patient with CJD, you can’t go back in time to look at its brain, but you can do that with an animal. So I feel that is really relevant and also the Multiple Sclerosis stuff that I’m doing – that is really important.

With the D.Phil. work, the Multiple Sclerosis stuff, that was pretty much guided by my supervisors. She did suggest how to do things. With the post-doc work, Prion, I have had pretty much my own reign. I can do whatever I like, although I do have regular meetings with my professor. The project was their idea and they found the funding, but it was an idea that has been going on for a long time and I didn’t have to take the position and I thought it would be really interesting because it carries on from work I had been doing before. But within what I’m doing now, I have a lot of leeway, I feel reasonably free.

If I find my own funding I’ll be free to do what I like. If I go somewhere where the funding is already there then I may have to work on a different project which someone else has already thought about. Either way, if they are working on something similar it will still be interesting.

The work that I’m doing is in collaboration with four other groups, two clinical groups and another group working on animals. They are working on a hamster model rather than a mouse model. I think in the UK there is only one other group working on the mouse model, but they are looking at when the disease is happening, not early on. I am the only person looking at this in the world, as far as we know. If they haven’t published it then we don’t know, it’s a race.

There is pressure to develop ideas quickly. One of the perks of being a post-doc is that you get to travel a lot to conferences, and these happen every year, when you get to find out the progress of other people’s work, and that gives you some ideas into what they are doing or thinking of doing. You can find out by the type of questions people ask, they are probing, it is sort of detective work.

So you need to know what to give away and not to give away. My supervisor especially says, ‘We shouldn’t be talking about that kind of stuff yet,’ and I sometimes think after I’ve mentioned something to someone I think now they might go away and do it themselves and get better results. But since I know of only one other group in the UK doing a similar type of thing I’m not too worried because I know that I’ve got better results than them. We are not collaborating with them, but with the groups that we are collaborating we share information, they are our allies.

My work has developed me intellectually, although it took a long time. I think the intellectual side does spin off. I like to research around subjects, if I’m thinking of buying a car I’ll always do loads of research around that to try and find the best thing for me.

Morally, obviously working on animals is a big thing to some people and initially to me it was big thing as well. I couldn’t quite get my head around that but knowing that my work is progressing the knowledge of humankind and helping to find out these causes of disease and find markers…The life of an animal is important but in comparison to human lives, its life is negligible. The animals are specially bred. So my moral outlook has changed. My work has made me more aware of diseases that other people might know off, Multiple Sclerosis is quite widely known, and if you talk to someone they’re likely to know someone who’s got it. So it just helps to relate what I’m doing. It does make me more determined to do things properly and get the results out there…

The working with animals thing socially limits me because I can’t talk to people about it, you don’t know how people will react to it. In Oxford it is quite a big thing with the animal rights people. So I have to be careful but it hasn’t really limited me socially. I talk to people, I find it interesting talking to people. I do know people that get a bit introverted in the lab, but travelling to all these conferences you must’nt be introverted because you have to be able to find out what they are doing. Part of my work is also done at another lab so I have to integrate into their lab and to be more open to fit in with what they are doing socially as well as academically. If you were just very quiet you would flounder and get nowhere.

I think I have evolved and developed and it makes me appreciate what I had before. In some ways I think I’m still the same old person, in other ways I think I’m completely different. In the last five years I have become more confident, I know myself more, I know what I want more. My friends from church are important to me. Church does make a big part of my life.

I consider that I have a very personal relationship with God, he rules my life in the way that I do things and the way that my life has panned out. God has a specific plan for me. In each of the steps of my life those paths were mapped out for me. And similarly, what happens next, God knows; I don’t know. But he will put things in place for me to go on and do things. And the way I live my life day-to-day I try to be a nice person, try not to swear and do naughty things, and relationships with other people generally I just try to be Godly.

God for me is a Father-type figure who is in power and in control, He has ultimate power over the whole world and the earth. I believe that He does have a plan for everybody, He has a plan for all people.

I was brought up as a Christian, I went to church and my mum and dad stopped going to church when I was 13, but they continued to encourage me to go to Christian Union at school. When I went to university at the age of 18, I went to church, then my thinking was for myself, not forced upon me by my parents. They never really forced it upon me, at that stage it was my own decision, and that is how I got to make friends and got to know people.

Obviously I do not do things if I don’t want to. If I feel at the time that it is right then I will go ahead and do it. Sometimes you just know that God is telling you to do something. It’s a feeling. Some things just randomly fall into place and you think ‘Wow, well that must be a sign.’

Science and religion…I know what I believe. I know what science is telling me and I know what academically I see, and it is difficult to get the two joined in. And I do agree sometimes when people say that that is what happened, we had this primordial soup and all these molecules and it suddenly comes to be a mouse, and in the Bible we have all this creation theory. It is difficult to understand and I’ve been to lectures and seminars and things with Christian academics talking about these things and it is really hard to understand and when people like you ask questions like that I still personally don’t know how I feel about these things. I know what I believe in my Christian view and I know academically and scientifically I know what’s happening. You can’t get something out of nothing, but then God is also very powerful and can do miracles and things, so maybe it is possible. I do believe in creation. I believe both! They are both possible, it is really hard to try and figure out…

I don’t find any hostility in science, they know I’m a Christian, I try to make that quite widely known. That is part of what being a Christian is all about, making sure that other people are aware by the things you do and the way you live your life that there is something different about you. I hope people do not judge me or my work differently.

With science you don’t know anything until you do a test for it, or you look to see if it’s there, and until you’ve done that test you are sceptical and then it is a reality. And one thing that I have said, and other scientific Christians say, is that the more knowledge I have the more I realise that I don’t know. It is so true, you get bogged down with little things, the more you know the less you know! I believe in God’s absolute complete certainty, because God is so powerful and everything he has created is so intricate – that is why we know so little about it and how amazing things are. So I’m doing a test for one cell in the brain that is just one cell in a mouse and a mouse is just tiny compared to a human. It just puts it all into perspective, you are basically in awe.

I have very clear ideas about what I believe but I wouldn’t try and force anything on other people. If someone doesn’t believe in God then that is their decision. In some ways I do have judgements on them, but I don’t know their experience and they may have been brought up like that by their parents. I can’t judge them because of their parents. In the past, I have worked closely with Muslims and Hindus, I can’t force my ideas upon them because that is what they believe and I respect them. I respect their beliefs but I do believe that they are wrong.

It is really hard being a woman in science because at some point you have to make a decision when to have a baby because either you have a baby and come back or you have a baby and don’t come back. If you work so hard like I have and my supervisor has you wouldn’t want to leave it all and never come back. So I suppose you will have to have a trade-off between being a mum and being an academic. A lot of high-profile women scientists like Susan Greenfield or Nancy Rothwell don’t have children. I am not sure if they want children or not but they can’t because they’re so tied up with their work. I’d hate that to happen to me. I do want to have kids. I do enjoy the science. I’m always being told that I need to leave my work behind in the evenings, I get engrossed. I always feel that I have to finish something and if I don’t understand something I will do it until I understand it. That is the way I have always been, proving to myself or others that I can do it.


February 2005
* Louise is not her real name.