This month EPWS gives the floor to Prof. Karen Vousden, Principal Scientist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. She received her PhD from the University of London and following postdoctoral fellowships at the ICR and NCI, she led research groups at the Ludwig Institute and the NCI. After serving as Director of the CRUK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, she became Chief Scientist of CRUK and a Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute. Karen has been elected as a fellow of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and a Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences. Her awards include the Royal Medal from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Sergio Lombrosco Award and the Pezoller-Marina Larcher Fogazzaro-EACR Women in Cancer Research Award. In 2010 she was made a Commander of the British Empire for services to clinical science.
EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?
I chose to do a degree in biology simply because this was my favorite subject at school. As my degree progressed, I became increasingly interested in genetics and this inspired me to stay with my studies and carry out a PhD in microbial genetics. At the end of my PhD I realized that I didn’t have a career plan, so I applied for a postdoc opening in Chris Marshall’s lab at the Institute of Cancer Research that was advertised in Nature. I had no background in cancer – or even mammalian biology – but it sounded fascinating. Chris was a hugely inspirational person and after interviewing with him I was certain this was the area for me – and I’ve been working in cancer research since then. I had no models for this type of career when I was young – I didn’t know anyone who had been to university. But I was lucky to be at a school where my interests in science were encouraged and fortunate to be living at a time when students at university were supported by grants from the government, meaning I was able to afford to stay in education for so long. Later in my career I was very lucky to be supported by wonderful mentors, Chris Marshall, Doug Lowy and George Vande Woude. They all believed in me (more than I believed in myself) and pushed me to be better, try harder and reach further.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
Throughout my career I have studied the mechanisms by which normal cells become transformed to cancer cells. With Chris, I looked at how RAS oncogenes become activated, and then in my second postdoc with Doug I helped to identify oncogenes encoded by human papillomaviruses. This work led me to the study of p53 – which plays an important role in preventing cancer development and is the most mutated gene in human cancer. Trying to understand how p53 functions has taken me into the field of cancer metabolism. These areas of research are exciting as they are all leading to important advances in the prevention or treatment of cancer.
EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of? ? Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
It is satisfying to me that the research I have been involved in has led to the development of some important new approaches to prevent and treat cancer. There is now an inhibitor of KRAS in patients, a human papillomavirus vaccine has virtually eliminated cervical cancer from young women in the UK, and drugs to activate p53 are in clinical trials. These achievements are the result of many people’s work and I can’t claim any credit, but it is exciting to feel involved. I am also very proud of the wonderful people I have worked with over the years and the success of my students and postdocs in achieving their own career dreams.
EPWS: In which country/countries have you been doing research?
I have worked in the UK and the US – as a trainee, a group leader and an Institute Director. I find the research environments and the attitude to science very similar in both places, so it is easy to move back and forth between the two countries.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
I am planning on spending less time on administration and more time in the lab. My research is my first love, and I am looking forward to refocusing on that.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
I know that barriers do exist, but I have been very lucky and never felt held back because of who I am. I am eternally grateful to my wonderful mentors who encouraged me to take on challenges I might not have been brave enough to attempt on my own. I had my daughter when I was a junior group leader in London and while it was tricky to juggle work and childcare, my husband and I found a routine that worked well for us.
What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
In my field there are probably more women students and postdocs, but then the numbers drop as we move to fully tenured faculty positions. Both the US and UK have very robust gender equality policies and I think things are changing. I see more women in junior faculty positions, and I hope this will feed through to the more senior roles as the years progress.
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
I do feel sorry for young women who tell me that they are being held back, or that they feel it’s impossible to have a career in science and a family. Of course, it isn’t impossible – you just need to look at all the successful female scientists with families. But I think more encouragement and better access to childcare could help a lot.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
I regret to say that I didn’t experience networking between women scientists, although it would have been a wonderful thing to do.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
I would definitely become a scientist – I think it’s the best job in the world. As a research scientist you can set your own agenda – each day is an exploration into a world that is undiscovered with the potential that you may uncover a critical piece of the puzzle of human life. Your colleagues are the smartest, funniest and most wonderful people and in the end, something you do may help to treat or cure someone with a dreadful, life-threatening disease. What could be better? I wouldn’t change anything.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
My advice would be to be brave and follow your heart. We are all afraid at times – scared to make a big move or try something new. But don’t let that stop you achieving your dreams, please don’t aim low because of fears of failing. Take advantage of opportunities, even if they make you feel nervous. Take a deep breath and go for it!