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PhD journeys at Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health

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It’s (Still) a Mans World!

Kerry A Kite24 April 2019

Written by Rachel Pearson, 1st year PhD student in the Child Health Informatics Group at GOS ICH, researching unmet healthcare needs among mothers involved in care proceedings. Outside of my PhD I enjoy getting out of London and climbing, biking and hiking (not all at the same time)

A few weeks ago it was International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and to raise awareness about issues that affect equality. International Women’s Day was born out of the early women’s rights movement of the 20th century and was eventually adopted by the UN in 1975. Celebrating this day each year helps to spark important discussions about gender-equality, from sexual harassment (in 2017, a YouGov study found that 52% of British women between 18-24 years had experienced sexual harassment in a public place in the last 5 years) to gender imbalance in the workplace (women hold only 10% of executive roles at FTSE 100 companies).

Working in UCL’s Faculty of Population Health Sciences, you may be forgiven for thinking that gender imbalance among UCL’s academic staff is a thing of the past (in fact, we have only two male researchers in our research group of more than 15). Indeed, go up UCL’s departmental hierarchy once more and you’ll find that over 50% of staff in UCL’s School of Life & Medical Sciences are women – so far so good. However, women only make up 37% of grade 9/10 posts in SLMS and just one glance at UCL’s descriptive analysis of the academic pipeline for female researchers in SLMS is enough to see that there is still work needed to combat barriers to career progression for female post-docs (the proportion of female academics drops by more than 50% from post-doc positions to professorships).

UCL Female Academic Pipeline

Source: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/human-resources/sites/human-resources/files/kwi_april_2018_kwi_report_final.pdf

I’m a statistician by training so, to mark International Women’s Day, I attended an event held by the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) – Women in Statistics: Past, Present and Future.

Dr Linda Wijlaars (a senior researcher from the Population, Policy and Practice programme here at ICH) kicked off the event with an engaging talk about Janet Lane-Claypon – the first person to attempt to correct observational data for confounding, to conduct a case-control study and to use a t-test in health research (the t-test was developed in 1908 by William Sealey Gosset, a chemist at Guinness, to compare batches of hops). Lane-Claypon was also one of the first people to hold both an MD and a PhD (making her a Dr-Dr) and used many novel statistical methods for the time such as survival analysis life tables and the Pearson’s correlation coefficient. Despite having studied an MSc in Medical Statistics, where I routinely heard the familiar names of Austin Bradford Hill and Richard Doll in epidemiology lectures (and one of our lecture theatres was named after John Snow), I had never heard of Janet Lane-Claypon’s work before meeting Dr Wijlaars (it’s particularly disappointing as we had lectures solely on case-control studies and confounding – the perfect opportunities to talk about the person who pioneered these concepts). You can learn more about Janet Lane-Claypon in Dr Wijlaars’ article for the society’s publication ‘Significance’ (https://www.statslife.org.uk/history-of-stats-science/462-can-you-name-a-female-statistician).

Left: Dr Janet Lane-Claypon. Right: Her landmark case-control (and multi-site) study in the field of breast cancer for the Ministry of Health (1926).

The next talk of the evening was given by Professor Deborah Ashby, the current RSS president. Prof Ashby is one of only four women who have held the title (despite the RSS being founded in 1834); she is also the chair of Medical Statistics and Clinical Trials at Imperial College London, the co-director of the Imperial Clinical Trials Unit and the deputy head of the Imperial School of Public Health. She highlighted that more men named David (and William… and probably a few others) have been RSS president, than women of any name. For the rest of her talk, Prof Ashby took us through her career as a statistician – from getting her undergraduate degree in mathematics to her appointment as the RSS president. Concurrent to her appointments at various universities, institutions and committees, she highlighted the blatant inequality among the recipients of many of the society’s awards (such as the Chambers Medal, the Bradford Hill Medal and the Barnett Award – each with only 20% of awards ever having gone to a woman) and among the society’s current fellows (<10% are women). The Guy Medal in Gold, the RSS award for “lifetime achievement” that has so far had 38 recipients, has never been awarded to a woman, and yet there is no lack of women with expertise in statistics and data science – nor in academia.

 

Former Royal Statistical Society presidents

The remainder of the event was spent discussing the future of women in statistics and data science. Several women gave short talks about their experiences working as a statistician and highlighted several groups that have been created to provide a peer support network for women in statistics and data science. Peer groups are a valuable way to network, spark new ideas and to share advice. Female-only peer groups can also provide a safe space to discuss gender discrimination and issues around equality in the workplace and can be a positive tool to narrowing gender gaps in senior leadership roles. However, women are not a homogeneous group and not all women experience the same obstacles in the workplace. It’s important that peer groups are intersectional and recognise that there are barriers associated with overlapping social identifiers such as race, age, disability, religion and sexuality that can be compounded by those related to gender. Effective peer groups work to boost confidence and, therefore, female-only peer groups can be a positive tool to support more women into senior roles. A few groups mentioned on the night include:

Some other groups that are worth a mention:

For anyone interested in seeing the talks for themselves, the event was filmed and can be found at https://youtu.be/NMAIvv-5z40).

Dr Giles Yeo “Why research matters and how to share it”

Kerry A Kite22 February 2019

Written by Emeline Rougeaux, PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health. Emeline is an avid proponent of sustainable living and enjoys travelling and being outdoors.

Last month we had the pleasure of receiving Dr Giles Yeo, genetic endocrinologist, for a talk on Public Engagement here at ICH. You might know Dr Yeo from his appearances on BBC shows such as Trust Me, I’m A Doctor or Horizon. When he is not discussing the dirty truths behind clean eating or whether genes make you fat on screen, you can find him studying the brain control of body weight at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Yeo opened his presentation by stating that, as scientists, we have to engage with the media especially today. His research has revealed that humans have little choice with regards to obesity and that genetics have a big influence on our bodies’ weight and food behaviours. Do the public always believe him? Unfortunately, no. Yet, as said by the astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, whom Dr Yeo quotes, “when different experiments give you the same results, it is no longer subject to your opinion. That’s the good thing about science. It’s true whether or not you believe in it. That’s why it works.” So, why is there such a lack of faith in science from the public?
According to Dr Yeo, we often end up having to frame science against faith. Some scientists believe it is not about faith, but in reality, all of us have to rely on faith every day. He gives the example of trusting that our car brakes will work when we press on them, we trust that experts designed them and tested them so that other non-experts can use them with the belief that they will work when needed. Similarly, we trust that a plane will fly (using something other than magic). While as scientists we understand that scientific consensus is key, it takes a long time to obtain. We all know how long it can take to go from a research problem, to findings, and then on to a possible solution. The problem, according to Dr Yeo, is that humans are impatient and this creates a vacuum of knowledge, which gets filled with alternative facts.
As a result, we get the likes of celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow (Goop) and Eleanor Laura Davan Mills (Deliciously Ella). They sell ideas and products claiming certain health benefits, which although not supported by any scientific expertise or evidence, are gobbled up and regurgitated by hundreds of thousands of followers. Why do so many people believe what to others is so obviously false, Dr Yeo asks? According to him, it depends on who is saying it. When people with power or fame profess certain facts, it is difficult for the public to know who to believe. We should not, however, put these sorts of beliefs down to stupidity or ignorance, but should instead engage with these people and the public to discuss the evidence base. The best way to do this is through the media, and this is why we should engage with it when given the opportunity.
As scientists and researchers, we need to stand up for the truth. How we do this is important. Dr Yeo finds the perfect way to illustrate his point with one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons (like me, it turns out he is, a fan).

How should we structure our message? How can we speak to non-experts via the media? How we frame the message is important. Below are Dr Yeo’s suggestions on how we can do this effectively:
• Why? How? What? are good ways to frame the message. Why are you doing what you are doing? How have you chosen to answer the question? What have you found out?
• This framing can actually be used in all sorts of settings (grant applications, social events, etc.), but the amount of information you provide will vary between these and is critical.
• Difficulty: the type of audience will determine the level of difficulty of engagement with ‘academic specialist’ being the least difficult to engage with and ‘the general public’ the most difficult.
• Simplicity does not equal wrong: when we simplify the information we have, we make sure it remains correct.
• The medium chosen for your message will determine how much editorial control you have. Ranging from complete to no editorial control we have: speaking, writing, social media, radio and TV. Simplifying the message yourself in advance, by preparing your how-why-what elevator pitch, will allow you to keep more control.

Scientists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work, particularly to wider audiences and the public. Dr Yeo has found that television is an effective way to do this. While not all of us will be following this route with our research, he believes many of us will at one point in our careers be subject to interviews or invited to speak on television. His advice is to be ready, and what better way to do this than to practice explaining your research as ‘an elevator pitch’. Being able to deliver your research in a succinct form and in layman’s terms is a skill that will help not only with public and social media interaction, but also with career networking and job interviews.
Television is one of many ways for a researcher to engage with the public. In addition to television, Dr Yeo also gives public lectures, uses social media (although he highlights this can be a useful tool or a curse) and occasionally writes articles in newspapers such as the Sunday Times or the Daily Mail. Attending a writing or journalism course during your PhD is great way to learn how to communicate your research in an accessible and compelling way, which may also help with grant writing and cover letters amongst other things.

In conclusion, we should all take part in public engagement. Not because our funders require it, or because it looks good on a CV, but to uphold the truth and better guide the public in a media sea of information. Preparation is key, so keep your elevator pitches ready because you never know when someone might stick a microphone in your face.

Also, a special thank you to Shikta Das, Caroline Fraser and Emma Butcher for organising the talk.

[All images are from Dr Giles Yeo’s presentation at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health on the 23rd of January 2019]

How to Put the Pro in Conference

Emma J Butcher3 January 2019

Written by Birgit Pimpel, PhD student at UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, and coffee lover

In August this year, I attended the 13th European Congress on Epileptology. The 5 day congress offered a broad spectrum of topics related to epileptology – from basic to clinical research – and was organised into four main themes: Adult Epileptology, Basic and Translational Science, Childhood Epileptology, and Pharmacotherapy. It took place in Vienna, the capital of Austria.

I would like tell you why I always enjoy conferences and what I liked about this one in particular.

Let me start with a non-academic benefit: conferences offer a great opportunity to get to know new places, sometimes in locations you would not otherwise visit. In the case of the Epileptology congress, rather than discovering a new place, the conference gave me a chance to visit home. Before moving to London to pursue a PhD, I lived in Vienna for about 10 years and I was pleased to return. All the more so at the end of summer when the city is not too hot, it is still sunny, and there is a relaxed atmosphere all around.

One of my favourite things that Viennese people do is have schnitzel with noodles coffee and cake. They can spend hours on it at a time. This pastime is precisely what I enjoyed before the conference started (exhibit A). To my delight, more of my favourite beverage was served during the conference at a tiny mobile café that offered delicious coffee, foam art included (exhibit B). Conferences offer you the chance to try out new traditions and temporarily immerse yourself in the culture of the place.

 

Exhibit A: coffee time

Exhibit B: fancy foam art

But let’s talk business. A great plus of conferences is that one has the opportunity to showcase academic work. Abstract submissions and conference presentations entail deadlines, which always help me focus my ideas and reassess the objectives of my research. Puzzling over how to best present my data and make it understandable to a broad audience aids my own understanding and sometimes leads to further questions and ideas for analysis. Conferences commit you to delivering presentable work and thus can help you keep you on track with your PhD in terms of time.

I was informed prior to the conference that a poster I had submitted was shortlisted for one of the ‘Best Poster Awards’. This provided more motivation to prepare a great poster. Spoiler alert: I did not win the prize. However, knowing that over 800 posters were presented during the conference, I was happy to make it into the shortlist. Furthermore, a number of interested conference participants came to see my poster during the poster session and I had great discussions about mine and others’ projects – a rewarding experience, which helped me see the value in my research. Disseminating findings, whether through a poster presentation or a talk, is also a great opportunity to build networks for future collaboration.

Exhibit C: a poster and its happy creator

Last but not least, I really enjoyed this conference because there were two oral presentation sessions closely related to my PhD. Both sessions were stimulating, with top researchers giving talks. In this way, conferences can be a perfect way to get up-to-date about the most recent advances in your field.

To sum up, attending the conference was a really rewarding experience. Not only did I get to immerse myself in the local culture, but I got a chance to focus my ideas and reassess the academic work I was doing. I got an update about recent advances in a highly specialised field of research and I shared my own preliminary findings with like-minded participants.

Finally, a word of caution. I suggest you do not – as I did – offer to too many colleagues to take along their posters to a conference because you happen to have a cool poster tube. It’s easy to cram posters into a tube – the tricky part is getting them out.

Exhibit D: surgical removal of posters from a poster tube