Interview with Professor Jackie de Belleroche: ‘Just be yourself, follow your dream’

Professor Jackie de Belleroche leads the Imperial College London research group that has a strong commitment to investigate on Amyotrophic Lateral sclerosis (ALS) through molecular genetics, expression profiling in spinal cord and through the use of experimental models to develop new therapeutic approaches.

The key aims of this new blog are to enhance the curriculum and innovate pedagogy, highlight the contribution of women in academia within and outside the College, and engage and inspire the society. The founder and editor of the blog is Dr Stefano Sandrone, Teaching Fellow within the Faculty of Medicine, and the contributors are Imperial’s MSc Translational Neuroscience students.

Leire Melgosa) What made you choose science and the area of research you work in?

I was always deeply fascinated by Molecular Biology from DNA to medical research.

Caroline Schaufelberger) What were the main considerations you made when taking your career forward in research rather than in a clinical environment?

I was lucky that my early research was always relevant to neurological disorders such as epilepsy and stroke. This background helped me to gain a lectureship, a joint appointment in Biochemistry and Neurology, which provided the perfect environment to pursue research in clinical Neuroscience.

Leire Melgosa) What have been the most challenging part of your career and the most satisfying one so far?

In common with many others, the most challenging stage was finding an established position that would enable me to develop as an independent researcher. For me, this came with the award of a Mental Health Foundation Fellowship. Research is full of surprises, but each new discovery, however small, is very satisfying. However, even more than this, is to see the success of members of my research group in setting up their own research teams and establishing themselves in their various chosen careers.

Ryan Dowsell) How realistic is it to think that gene mutations play a much more significant role in motor neurone disease (ALS) than we currently believe?

Understanding how gene mutations cause disease in families has had a phenomenal effect on our ability to define the processes that underpin disease processes and also occur in sporadic cases, and are therefore targets for therapeutic intervention. This is, of course, only part of the story, as ALS is an adult-onset disorder and effects of ageing play an important role and an increasing number of DNA variants are being discovered that modify gene function and act as risk factors. Overall, multiple factors will undoubtedly contribute to the final evolution of disease, e.g. age at onset and duration of disease.

Claudia Ghezzou) Throughout you career, what have been the motivations and incentives that have kept you focused in your impact as a researcher regardless of the possible difficulty of the processes or discouraging results from the research carried out? 

I have always been committed to finding out the basis of disease both in neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders. This is never ending, whatever the setbacks, the challenge is always there to find a way forward. Discouraging results may even provide a greater depth of understanding and lead to a more fruitful approach.

Shinil Raina) How has your experience as a woman in science changed since when you started as an undergrad?

Jessica Hain) Did you encounter any difficulties in your pursuit to be a female scientist, and do you think attitudes have changed over the years? If so, to what extent?

Of course attitudes have changed monumentally which is a major achievement, but there is still room for improvement. As a scientist, I did not think of myself as being different, being female. Travelling to international conferences, where female representation amongst the speakers is low, just makes you realise how much has been achieved.

Caroline Schaufelberger) What do you think are the main challenges for women in science and what has your experience taught you that would aid the next generation tackle these challenges?

Danielle Kurtin) How do you balance work as well as motherhood?

These are of course relevant to all walks of life. The framing of your question is absolutely correct to address the issue of balancing work and motherhood. Once you return from maternity leave you need to find a balance, allocate your time as much as possible equally to your work and your family. There are many options available for childcare and universities like Imperial have many facilities available and provide other types of support, which all help to make life easier at what would otherwise be a challenging time. My daughters have greatly benefitted from attending the crèche and nursery which are highly recommended but many other options are available.

Ryan Dowsell) How has working at Imperial College London helped to shape your career as a woman in science?

Imperial is a very dynamic and supportive place to work, whether male or female.

Caroline Schaufelberger) Especially in our MSc cohort there is a higher percentage of women compared to men, what do you see is the importance of more women entering a career in science?

Ryan Dowsell) Throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate studies, I’ve noticed how the classes have always included more female than male students. So from your experience, what do you think is causing a gender disparity between the roots of STEM and the managerial positions?

Across UK Universities as a whole, there are similar gender differences in particular subjects, more females in biological subjects, more males in engineering. Medicine and chemistry are more evenly balanced. The disparity may be based historically on traditional attitudes, but there have been some marked changes in some subjects, such as Medicine, to reach an equality between males and females compared to a few decades ago. I am encouraged to see more women embarking on careers in sciences, where there will be increasing opportunities available.

Jessica Hain) Do you have any advice for neuroscience students?

If you have a passion for a subject, you should pursue it.

Leire Melgosa) Do you have specific advices for young female scientists (i.e. a hard truth or something we tend to worry about but we should not)?

Just be yourself, follow your dream. There are always difficult times, whether male or female, but there is always a way through.

 

Photography credit: Jackie King

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