RoleModels

Natasha Karp

Natasha Karp

Born in United Kingdom • Birth year 1974 • Studied Biochemistry at Warwick University in United Kingdom • Highest Degree PhD in Chemistry from University of London • Lives in Cambridge, United Kingdom • Occupation Director Biostatistics at AstraZeneca

I really struggled at school in the early years, particularly with reading and writing; but then when I was around 12, it started to make sense. I was formally diagnosed as being dyslexic when I went to university, I guess when I was 12  things clicked into place as I found my strategies to get round my dyslexia. Those early years of struggling and being in bottom sets has left me with feelings of doubt but also a drive to prove people wrong. At 16, I selected mathematics with statistics, biology and chemistry as my specialist subjects and got the highest grades possible. I really enjoyed statistics and mathematics, and used to do extra work for fun. However, it was taught as a theoretical subject and I had no sense of what you could do with it. I also had no role models; I am the only person in my family to graduate from university. If you were a clever woman, you became a teacher or a doctor. Being a doctor didn’t appeal, so teaching became the ambition and I decided to study biochemistry with a year in industry at Warwick University and graduated with a first-class degree.

After I conducted some experiments, I felt the mathematical techniques used to make decisions were poor. Consequently, I started studying statistics (…).

I really enjoyed my year in industry, where I learnt the fundamentals of research, but after years of conditioning that my path was to be a teacher, I then trained as a secondary school teacher. After a couple of years teaching, I realised that I didn’t feel satisfied intellectually. I was working hard but didn’t feel I was growing. I decided to return to science and was offered a role back with the industrial placement company who sponsored me to complete a PhD in partnership with Imperial College, London. Unfortunately, the company folded but I just managed to complete my PhD. My confidence as a scientist felt low, I felt I had snuck in my PhD and I decided to work in academia to prove myself and joined the Cambridge Centre for Proteomics as a post-doc. I was very lucky and given a lot of freedom. After I conducted some experiments, I felt the mathematical techniques used to make decisions were poor. Consequently, I started studying statistics and writing papers exploring experimental design and data analysis for proteomic experiments. I was flying high and had 12 publications but then my first son was born and he was very poorly and I had to prioritise the family. I found a part-time job as a biostatistician with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute supporting in vivo research. It felt like I was starting again but I could meet my family needs and keep working. Over time, my son got better. The new environment gave me new opportunities; for example, I spent some time with database experts who helped me learn to code. I started publishing again in data analysis and experimental design for in vivo research. There wasn’t permanent funding in academia for this type of role so I applied to AstraZeneca, who had just relocated to Cambridge, as a statistician.  

I feel my dyslexia is a strength, as it helps me see the bigger picture, connect ideas and be a better manager.

What am I doing now? I now lead a team of statisticians for AstraZeneca supporting preclinical research. I still work part-time (80%) to meet my family commitments. The work is very varied and we have the opportunity to make a big impact. We jump into projects, assist the scientists, enable their research and then jump to the next project. I find it surreal that I, a self-taught statistician, lead these amazing statisticians. I feel my dyslexia is a strength as it helps me see the bigger picture, connect ideas and be a better manager. As a dyslexic woman who has an unusual career path I bring diversity to the leadership element of my role. I also give lectures around the world on my research topics of interest and get the opportunity to work outside of AstraZeneca on working groups exploring topics such as sex bias or reproducibility. I love my job. It is applied statistics having impact.

As an individual with imposter syndrome, you have to recognise your voice of doubt but not let it control you.

My career path has had many twists and turns. That is real life. There are benefits, I have more experience to draw upon. I feel my journey shows there isn’t one path that is right for you. You should be open to opportunities and change. Change is positive. You do have to be prepared to take risks. As an individual with imposter syndrome, you have to recognise your voice of doubt but not let it control you. From the perspective of maths, data is everywhere, being good with data is such a strength. You don’t have to be a theoretical expert to add value and have impact. Enjoy your journey but don’t expect to know exactly where you are going and keep growing and challenging yourself.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Gabriela Capo Rangel

Gabriela Capo Rangel

Born in Pitesti, Romania • Studied Applied Mathematics at Politehnic University of Bucharest • Erasmus MUNDUS fellow in Mathematical Modeling from University of L’Aquila, University of Nice and University of Hamburg • PhD in Applied Mathematics in the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics, Bilbao, Spain • Lives in Okinawa, Japan Works as a Postdoctoral Scholar in Computational Neuroscience at Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST)

My love for math started very early on. Since I was very young, I seemed to always have an analytical mindset and I adored solving puzzles. I was always the geeky kid, that was always curious about everything and I have always been a very solution-oriented person. My parents tell me I was determined to be a researcher from the age of 5, although I am not certain I actually understood what that meant. I used to love all analytical subjects, not only math, but also chemistry and physics. In fact, choosing my career path came extremely close between mathematics and chemistry. Somehow, I always missed chemistry, this is the reason why I went towards neuroscience and every now and then I get the chance to model some biochemistry.

I grew up in a freshly post-communist Romania, where the old generation generally believed that girls should study law or biology just due to the common misconception that girls can memorize better than boys.

Being a woman and choosing to study mathematics, I had to always fight for what I wanted. I grew up in a freshly post-communist Romania, where the old generation generally believed that girls should study law or biology just due to the common misconception that girls can memorize better than boys. Well, my memory has never been very good. I was lucky, because I had an amazing family that supported me in making my own choices and encouraged me to follow my own path.

[My high school professor] was the first person who showed me how to think outside the box, he sparked my curiosity for higher-level math and he treated me as equal to the other boys when preparing for competitions.

My first role model was a young professor in high school. He was my math professor only for the first year of high school and he directed me towards mathematics contests and math olympiads. He was the first person who showed me how to think outside the box, he sparked my curiosity for higher-level math and he treated me as equal to the other boys when preparing for competitions. In most of the contests that I have been, I was even the only girl or between the very few ones. The same trend continued at the university, where I went on and studied Applied Mathematics in Engineering. I studied in an engineering university, with under 10-20% of the total number of students being women.

After I graduated from university, I got an Erasmus MUNDUS fellowship for a Master of two years in Applied Mathematics, a highly competitive master program between three different countries: Italy, France and Germany. I got to experience the educational systems of the three different places, I had the chance to live in all these different places and learn the languages. Even in this international setting, I was still living in a world of men, having very few female colleagues and absolutely no female math professors in any of the three countries.

After graduating with the Master, I was awarded a Severo Ochoa Fellowship at the Basque Center for Applied Mathematics to pursue my PhD in Applied Mathematics in Biosciences. Particularly, I was modeling the interaction between the electrophysiology, the metabolism and the hemodynamics in the human brain. This captivating research gave me the chance to study not only the mechanisms behind the normal functioning of the human brain during resting state or neuronal activation, but also during various pathologies such as brain ischemia and cortical spreading depression. We focused on understanding the strong interconnection between how the electrical signals are transmitted in the brain, the interaction between multiple biochemical species constituting the brain metabolism and the blood flow.

[During my PhD] I met my biggest role model, my PhD advisor, Prof. Daniela Calvetti. She is all I ever dreamed of becoming: extremely intelligent, successful, determined, strong, loving and caring and the best mentor I have ever encountered.

It was then when I met my biggest role model, my PhD advisor, Prof. Daniela Calvetti. She is all I ever dreamed of becoming: extremely intelligent, successful, determined, strong, loving and caring and the best mentor I have ever encountered. She inspired me to gain not only knowledge and passion in my research field, but she inspired me to fight and pursue my dreams, no matter how much work that involves. There are no words to describe the depth of my gratitude, respect and love for her. I can only hope that one day I will inspire somebody, the way she inspired me.

After my PhD, I did a brief postdoc in Bilbao, after which I came to Japan to work as a postdoc at OIST. Here, I belong to the Computational Neuroscience group and my research concerns the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls fine movement. I study the Purkinje neuron dendritic trees and I seek to understand how their morphology affects the spiking properties of these neuronal cells.

I just hope one day I will have the chance to teach and to provide my students not only with the scientific knowledge, but also with the courage and confidence to follow their own dreams.

The academic path is extremely hard to follow. I always feel like I am lacking stability. So far every few years, I have been changing between jobs, countries, friends and languages. Many times I dream about family life, stability and job security. I wanted to give up academia countless times, but I was lucky and I met people who inspired me to go on. I just hope one day I will have the chance to teach and to provide my students not only with the scientific knowledge, but also with the courage and confidence to follow their own dreams.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Dr Camilla Schelpe

Dr Camilla Schelpe

Born in UK • Studied Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Theoretical Physics  Lives in Cambridge, UK Current Occuptation: Quantitative Researcher at GAM Investments

I think I was very fortunate that as I grew up, what I was interested in and what I was good at aligned, so that even well before applying to university, I knew I wanted to study astrophysics and general relativity. Really, I think the seed was planted when I was about seven years old and my parents got me Patrick Moore’s “The Starry Sky” – an introductory book for budding astronomers. By a stroke of luck, my family moved to South Africa a few years later, and with the beautiful southern skies to gaze up at, my vague interest in astronomy became a cherished hobby. In retrospect, my parents and sister were amazingly supportive, but I took it completely for granted at the time. I remember family observing holidays in the Karoo (a semi-desert outside Cape Town), visiting the SAAO in Sutherland on their public open days, and camping out until 4am to observe Comet Hale-Bopp in ‘95.

I had a one-track mind about studying physics at university, and I specialised as quickly as I could into astrophysics and cosmology.

My early interest in observational astronomy developed into a much stronger theoretical interest as I got older and discovered that I found maths and physics intuitive and easy compared to other subjects at school. I had a one-track mind about studying physics at university, and I specialised as quickly as I could into astrophysics and cosmology. My PhD was focussed on a particular model to explain dark energy within modified theories of gravity, and I spent a happy four years exploring the possible astrophysical signatures that could lead to detection and proof, or disproof, of the model.

However, during my PhD I came to realise the difference between pure academic learning and a career in academic research. I loved learning about cosmology, but when it came to research, I found the techniques for making progress weren’t very field specific – I was chipping away at the corners of the unknown without much day-to-day exposure to the bigger picture. Those techniques could equally well be applied to other applications with just as much satisfaction.

I made the leap at the end of my PhD to join a small hedge-fund in Cambridge.

Funding is a constant challenge in the pursuit of any academic career and stability comes late in life, if at all. Shining as an alternative was a career in quantitative finance – either in a bank (to price exotic derivatives quickly and reliably) or in a hedge fund (to find patterns in data and design computer algorithms to predict the markets and manage risk). The advantages: no prior finance knowledge required, plenty of maths to keep you busy, a PhD is valued, and you are surrounded by a team of like-minded colleagues working towards a common goal. In my spare time, I started playing around with quant trading strategies, using Matlab and end of day close data from the stocks trading on the DAX, and really enjoyed the challenge, although in retrospect I look back in horror at how naïve I was and almost certainly overfitted the data. I made the leap at the end of my PhD to join a small hedge-fund in Cambridge.

They instilled in me a sense that anything was possible if you were interested and worked hard.

I have been extremely lucky to have two amazing, strong role models in my life: my mum and older sister, so if anything, I have a subconscious bias to see women as more successful! They instilled in me a sense that anything was possible if you were interested and worked hard. Also, I was home-educated from the age of nine, and so sheltered from much of the peer-pressure and judgement that a lot of teenagers experience. I only really woke-up to the existence of a gender imbalance in the sciences quite late in life. Both as a student and at work, I have (and I realise I may have been lucky in this respect) always felt I was being treated as an individual, and not categorised as a woman, whether for positive or negative discrimination. There is such a diverse range of personalities, both male and female, that seem much more important than any simple gender divide. I hope we can move towards recognising that as a society.

Posted by HMS in Stories