The macho world of scientific research

When I was interviewed for a lectureship at Oxford, where my husband worked, I was advised that a junior position would be more appropriate as it would enable me to go home and cook dinner.

I have spent over forty years in science and, I hope, have made a significant contribution to our understanding of the relationship between our genes and disease, particularly in relation to Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But it very nearly wasn't so.

Upon graduating from Oxford University with a vocation for science, I initially decided to fulfil it through teaching. This, I had been advised, was the only scientific career I could reasonably combine with my husband's: he was a scientist who would move from institution to institution, and I would be expected to follow him.  Fortunately, the education professor who interviewed me thought otherwise. Teaching, he said, would be a waste of my talent. He urged me to do a PhD instead.

My interviewer was right. Research was my true passion, and I embarked on a successful career in science.

A career in science is never an easy choice, however, and particularly not for a woman in the 1970s. When I was interviewed for a lectureship at Oxford, where my husband worked, I was advised that a junior position would be more appropriate as it would enable me to go home and cook dinner. When I had a child, I could no longer work the long hours that were often expected. Without a supportive partner - and, crucially, a sympathetic employer - my career would have been short-lived.

The challenges I faced were not unique to me and nor are they entirely a thing of the past. The environment has improved, but as a report published by the Wellcome Trust shows, there is still some way to go: more women than men still drop out of research, and earlier in their careers. The reasons they cite chime with my own experiences.

Like many professions, science requires hard work. By its nature, it also requires robust challenge from your peers. Too often, though, this can translate into a culture where long hours are felt to equate to productivity, and where macho and adversarial behaviour is rewarded. This can be difficult for good researchers of both sexes, but the report finds that men and women feel it disadvantages women more.

Science needs a working environment that better recognises that individuals' personal circumstances and approaches to research differ, in ways still compatible with excellence. Collaboration is the lifeblood of science, but this need not always mean early-morning meetings or after-work drinks that don't suit the nursery run. When I was the mother of a small child, commuting from Oxford to London, I proved that it is quite possible to deliver first class research without working late into the night. It is too often assumed, wrongly, that it can't be done.

Women in science also need positive role models and, critically, mentoring and career support. I try to give advice where I can. Be aware of your limitations, I tell them, but above all be confident and give it a try - it nearly always works out. Those of us who have shown what can be done need to share our experience more widely. The young researcher struggling to balance research against family often needs only to see what is possible, and to be encouraged not to give up. Her enthusiasm and drive will do the rest.

Science is an exciting and fascinating field to work in. It needs diversity of talent to provide diversity of thinking. I have been fortunate enough to have lived and worked in a supportive and encouraging environment. I want this to be the same for today's scientists.

Dame Kay Davies is Deputy Chair of the Wellcome Trust and Professor of Anatomy at the University of Oxford

Women in science still face prejudice. Image: Getty
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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.