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Interview with Nan Fletcher-Lloyd: – “I would encourage my younger self to speak up for what they believe in”

Nan is a PhD student in the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London


Tell me a little about yourself

I’m originally from Norfolk but I moved to London in late 2017 for university. I came to Imperial for my undergraduate, stayed for my master’s, and still haven’t left! Now, in my PhD, I am investigating how we can use machine learning methods to augment the in-home monitoring process and improve the provision of personalised healthcare. I’m also a part of the UK Dementia Research Institute Care Research & Technology Centre so my work focuses specifically on trying to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia, their loved ones, and their care providers. 


What was your journey into science like?

Growing up, I absolutely loved science subjects, particularly anything neuroscience-y but originally, I was hoping to study medicine as I was keen on joining the Royal Army Medical Corps. But then, after my A-levels, I took a year out during which I interned at the John Innes Centre for plant and microbial science, and it was here that I was given my first insight into the world of coding and computer science. Honestly, I fell completely in love with the field and (much to my parents’ relief I think), was then set on pursuing a career where I could merge computer science and medicine, specialising in the nervous system. And that’s how I ended up where I am now!


Do you think being LGBTQ+ influenced your journey in science and/or the choices you made along the way?

I think a few different things influenced my journey into science, including being LGBTQ+. Thinking back to my school days, I realise now the curriculum was very binary. There were the girls and there were the boys. For example, the boys were more encouraged to learn the formal, the natural and the social sciences, particularly when it came to extracurricular opportunities, whereas girls were more encouraged towards courses in the creative arts and domestic science. And that’s not to say that those courses aren’t interesting or valuable, they are incredibly interesting and valuable, but it did not feel like everyone had an equal opportunity to learn everything they might want to learn because of this very binary gender divide. Because of this, I never knew whether a subject like computer science would be something I would be any good at, much less enjoy, so when I was introduced to it, it was quite the revelation!

I think this early school experience made me question how realistic my interest in a STEM career was, especially when I was younger. The fact that I was a disabled, queer woman, I believe, only magnified this feeling. I mean, despite the increasing number of women, queer people and disabled people entering STEM, there remains a distinct lack of public recognition and awareness of the work and accomplishments of these people. When we talk about diversity, we only think about numbers and quotas that companies try to fill. We don’t think about these numbers as real people, we don’t think about their experiences or their journeys and struggles. But this is exactly what under-represented groups need most. When we do not see ourselves represented in our fields of interest, the view we take is that these fields are inaccessible to us. 


You mentioned that living with a disability, being a woman and being queer have all contributed to your journey into science. Do you find that each aspect has contributed equally, or that each brings its own unique set of challenges?

I think that each of these aspects has brought its own unique set of challenges, but I would also say that they have tended to contribute to my experiences as a combined group rather than individually. Again, I think it’s important to acknowledge that such aspects are not just statistics; they are the different facets that make up a person and shape the way in which we experience things throughout our lifetime, because of the barriers we might come across or because of the way other people might view us. For example, for me, I cannot really separate my experiences as a disabled person from my experiences as a queer woman as the former almost always affects the latter and vice versa.

These experiences are also unique to each person. For instance, while I might know what it’s like to live with a disability in my life, no two persons living with a disability will have the same set of experiences. For example, I do not know what it is like to be a person of colour living with a disability. I’m not saying that this makes my experiences or the challenges I have faced any less difficult, but I have not had to face the challenges a disabled person of colour has faced because I am a disabled person who has white privilege. And this is why it is so important that we have initiatives like this one, improving visibility and raising awareness of the issues experienced by under-represented groups as a whole, and specifically in STEM.


What piece of advice would you give to your younger self?

First, know yourself. Then, find your people. Be honest with yourself, about who you are and what you want to do. Then, find the people that make the space for this version of you. They will be your biggest support. They will clap the loudest when you rise and keep hold of your hand when you fall.

I would also encourage my younger self to speak up for what they believe in. Don’t be afraid to question the status quo. We’re always getting taught that there’s only one right way of doing things and often that way is quite exclusive, particularly in STEM fields. Make your own way!


What inspires you at the moment?

This might sound corny but I’d say being alive and life, in general, inspires me. We are all so unique and here for such a short time. I want to live as fully as I can, experience as much as I can, and accomplish as many of my dreams as I can – and if I can help someone else do that too, even better! My experiences as a queer woman living with a disability often remind me of the fragility of life, perhaps even helping me appreciate how precious life is and how it should never be taken for granted. 


This interview is one of the many initiatives run by the LGBTQ+ Allies Network in the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial. If you would like to get involved with what we do or just find out more about us, follow this link.


Graphic illustration of Imperial Queen's Tower on the LGBTQ+ flag

Interview with Jake Symington: “Don’t be afraid of being unconventional and of doing things differently”


Jake is currently a third-year PhD Candidate in the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial.


Tell me a little about yourself.


I’m originally from up north, in Nottingham, but I moved to London in 2016 to pursue my medical degree. At the moment, I’m what’s known as an MB-PhD student. This is a bit of a unique arrangement, but in short, it’s a pathway that supports medical students to do a PhD midway through their medical degrees, with the aim of getting medics involved in research earlier and of retaining them to become the next generation of clinical academics. In my PhD, I am investigating a new metabolic treatment for Glioblastoma, the worst type of brain tumour, particularly focusing on how this treatment stimulates the immune system to attack the tumour, rather than allowing it to grow.


What was your journey in science like?


Growing up, I really enjoyed science subjects and I seriously considered specializing in one for my university degree (with chemistry and biology being strong candidates). Eventually, I decided to go on and do medicine, the reason being that I’m a massive people person and I love the human interaction that medicine provides. Then, in year 4 of medical school, I had the choice to study science for one year in a field of medicine that I was interested in. I chose to specialise in oncology (cancer), and spent much of my time learning about tumours and immunology, and became deeply interested in this field. During that time, I also learned about the scholarships offered by Cancer Research UK that allow medical students to pursue a PhD during their medical studies and I immediately jumped at the opportunity. Now I am in the third year of my PhD and will be returning to my medical studies sometime next year (fingers crossed that my PhD thesis is ready by then!).


As you are approaching the end of your PhD, do you feel things have changed since you first started?


Hmmm, I must say that in the beginning, I was very very lost! Also, starting the PhD during COVID made the first few months quite difficult, as I couldn’t really come into the lab at all. The scheme I’m on has a very tight deadline, so if you don’t manage to finish everything in three years, you can’t return to medical school and you have to take another whole year out, which is of course not funded. So for the first few months, I felt a lot of pressure to make progress and use my time effectively. Looking back now to that first year, I realise I should have trusted myself more and not worried so much about things that are not in my control.

I have found that the first year is all about making mistakes and learning from them, and about mastering the techniques needed for the PhD. I think, as PhD students, we tend to forget that the doctorate is also supposed to be a learning opportunity, not just a period of time where we have to produce as much research output as possible. Now, halfway through my third year, I feel so much more independent, and it’s strange to look back and think just how far I have come since my first day as a PhD student!


Do you think being LGBTQ+ influenced your journey in science and/or the choices you made along the way?


I wouldn’t say that being LGBTQ+ affected my journey much but it did influence some of the decisions I made along the way. For example, when I was looking for a PhD supervisor it was important to me that the lab I joined felt very inclusive and friendly. When I first met my current supervisors, I immediately felt supported and comfortable to be myself (and the fact that they do fascinating work really sealed the deal!). On the science side of things, I don’t feel my identity or sexuality has really affected my journey or the research that I get to do, but it did motivate me to get involved in advocacy work and to raise awareness of the issues experienced by others in the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, during medical school, myself and a few others noticed that there is nothing on the curriculum about LGBTQ+ identity. This was particularly concerning as we know there are higher rates of mental health problems in the LGBTQ+ community and that trans and gender nonconforming people often have a unique set of healthcare needs, which cannot be addressed properly if not well understood. We raised this with the medical school and after several discussions with them, they have now added LGBTQ+ health as part of the curriculum. This was a big moment for me and it was when I got interested in advocacy work within the community.


Why is advocacy work important to you?


Oh, there are many reasons for this! One of the reasons why I got involved in advocacy work is to improve the visibility of queer people and to raise awareness of the whole spectrum of LGBTQ+ people. Sometimes, when there is a lack of visibility, LGBTQ+ people might find it hard to fit in or might resort to suppressing what makes them unique to better fit in with their peers. This coping mechanism is often not healthy in the long-term and it can lead one to feel isolated. That is why I think this type of advocacy work is really important, as it creates opportunities for queer people to meet other like-minded folk and provide a safe space for them to share their identity and experiences with others.

Within the science workplace, visibility and awareness contribute to making people feel comfortable about their identity, and with being their authentic selves. Having higher-up role models and seeing them being promoted and appreciated is also fantastic for early career researchers and medics who are coming into the field or who are exploring their identity. It is hard for LGBTQ+ people to find role models because we are less visible and we have fewer opportunities to talk about our experiences, so having such models goes a long way in making us feel that we are part of a community and we don’t need to hide who we are.


What advice would you give your younger self?


With the risk of sounding a bit corny, my advice would be to believe in yourself. It seems like such a basic thing to say, but I have found that many of us still fail at it (even I still do sometimes). What I have realised with time is that there is no set path to achieve what you want, so just because your journey doesn’t look the same as another’s, it doesn’t make you any better or any worse than them. As researchers, there’s always this pressure to do things in a certain way, but that may not always be the right approach for you. So, don’t be afraid of being unconventional and of doing things differently.

Also, remember you are on a journey and it’s okay to be confused or feel lost sometimes. Growing up, you might feel like you always have to put yourself in a box with regards to your gender identity or your sexuality, and so if these things start changing you may find yourself feeling scared and confused. I have found that once you start framing your identity as a journey, it becomes a lot less daunting navigating it and more of an opportunity to discover yourself and what makes you happy.

I would also tell my younger self to stop viewing their identity as a weakness and finally start viewing it as a strength. Growing up, we may feel like we have to hide who we are, or that it’s wrong, depending on our experiences with others. However, I have found that being LGBTQ+ can bring a unique perspective to the table, one that can be harnessed to make a positive difference in the life of others. I have also found that working together with others and not being afraid to put forward your unique perspective is what makes science and medicine such a fascinating place to be in.


This interview is one of the many initiatives run by the LGBTQ+ Allies Network in the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial. If you would like to get involved with what we do or just find out more about us, follow this link.

Interview with Dr Philippa Wells: “I think representation and community is important in general for LGBTQ+ people but even more so in STEM”


Philippa is currently a Research Associate in the Nott group in the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial and the UK Dementia Research Institute at Imperial. Philippa completed her BSc (Hons.) in Medical Sciences at the University of Exeter and PhD in Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London (KCL). Philippa then joined Imperial College London as a Research Associate in the lab of Abbas Dehgan.


Tell me a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in Lincolnshire, which is in the East Midlands (and is famous for Lincoln cathedral and Lincolnshire sausages). After I moved out of my parent’s house, I moved to Exeter to do my undergraduate degree, so I feel I also have some roots in Devon. I then moved to London for my PhD and I have stayed here since. Growing up, I lived pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so it’s strange to think that I can now call a place as busy as London my home!


What was your journey in science like?

My journey in science started while I was still an undergrad. As part of my course, I organised a research placement where I worked with post-mortem brain samples from patients with Alzheimer’s Disease at the University of Bristol and the Bristol Brain Bank. This was also the first time I came across bioinformatics and I realised I would really like to work in that area. At the time, I was interested in a lot of different things (and to be honest I still am!) and was not sure what to specialise in during my PhD. In the end, I decided that studying the microbiome is a good place to start my research career as you can apply it to many different types of diseases. This led me to study the link between the microbiome and rheumatoid arthritis, and how genetics drive that link, for my doctoral training. However, after my PhD was over, I realised I really wanted to go back to studying Alzheimer’s Disease and apply the bioinformatics knowledge I gained during my training in that field. This brings me to where I am today, working as a postdoctoral researcher on the cell type-specific epigenome of Alzheimer’s Disease.


Do you think being LGBTQ+ influenced your journey in science and/or the choices you made along the way?

This is tricky to answer because I think it’s hard to know for sure, we all have multiple things which influence us and it can be hard to separate one from another. However, in school, I did come across a lot of homophobia, which likely made me internalize some of that and led me to shy away from sharing my identity with others. Now, I can see how that experience may have led me to feel less confident in my identity and in myself in general. And as anyone who works in science can tell you, confidence is really important to succeed!

However, I wouldn’t say that being LGBTQ+ has influenced my journey into science too strongly. I’m also a female, so within science, I’m part of two minority groups (female and LGBTQ+). Female scientists are known to suffer more, on average, from imposter syndrome and are less likely to progress to independence within academia. So, this aspect may have also played a role in how I felt during the early stages of my PhD.

One thing that I really appreciated, though, during my doctoral training, is working in a very diverse lab surrounded by many other LGBTQ+ people and women like myself. This felt like a supportive place to develop as a scientist, and it definitely had a positive impact on my academic journey and well-being. Now, during my postdoc, I once again feel very fortunate to be part of a diverse lab where people with different backgrounds are welcomed and supported.


What do you think needs to happen to improve the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in STEM?

I think representation and community is important in general for LGBTQ+ people but even more so in STEM where I feel there is a lack of visibility. Imperial is actually the first workplace I’ve been part of where there is a department-specific LGBTQ+ network and it does make me feel welcome and supported. We also have rainbow stickers in the entrance to the 7th floor Uren Building and across the office spaces (where I’m based too), which sounds like such a small thing, but it really goes a long way in making LGBTQ+ people like myself feel welcome.


What piece of advice would you give to LGBTQ+ students who are thinking of starting a career in research?

The best advice I could give would be to work with supportive supervisors, who will give you the right opportunities for you to develop and publish papers, as these are so important in the early career stage. When I was younger, I was very focused on finding the right project but did not pay as much attention to the supervision style of all of the supervisors, which I think is a very common mistake that students make. You might have the most exciting project, but if you don’t have the right support and the right people around you, it will be an unnecessarily challenging experience in the wrong ways. So, before you decide on PIs, I recommend visiting their office, talking to their students and seeing the kind of environment you will be working in. Also, have faith in yourself and trust your gut feeling! If your gut tells you that a place is not good for you, you should trust it. Bear in mind, this piece of advice comes from someone who actually studied the gut microbiome!


What advice would you give your younger self?

I’d tell my younger self to have more confidence in her abilities and to spend less time worrying about whether things will work out and whether she’s doing well enough. Have the confidence that even if things don’t work out as you planned, you will always be able to recover from it and find new and exciting opportunities, some even a lot better than you might think. You will also be a lot happier if you try to enjoy the journey rather than always focusing on the long-term destination. When I look back, my life has been really transformed to how it is today because of my science. This, of course, is advice that I also need to take in the present! But even just taking a step back every so often and shifting your focus on the present helps put things into perspective.

I’d also tell my younger self to look for people who care and to surround herself with them. There will always be good days and bad days, but those bad days will feel a lot better when you have the right people around you to help you get through them.


This interview is one of the many initiatives run by the LGBTQ+ Allies Network in the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial. If you would like to get involved with what we do or just find out more about us, follow this link.