International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Our pain research fellow, Dr Stephanie Koch, on what a neuroscientist really looks like.
To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February, we spoke to Dr Stephanie Koch from UCL about what inspired her to be a scientist, the challenges she's faced being a woman in the field, and the advice she would give to others considering a career in research.
Women especially can want to make themselves small and not take up space, and now is not the time. It’s about knowing what you want and going for it.Dr Stephanie Koch
International Day of Women and Girls in Science celebrates the vital role that women play in science and technology, while advocating for their full and equal access and participation.
Women are more likely to start an academic career in science now than they were 20 years ago, but gender inequality in research is still prevalent with men currently accounting for two-thirds of researchers worldwide.
Despite a high level of participation by women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in higher education, women are typically given smaller research grants than their male colleagues, and they tend to have shorter, less well-paid careers.
We’re proud to support the careers of many exceptional women in research. Our recent data estimates that women make up 48.5% of our grant-holders. Our Emerging Leaders Prize also helps researchers progress their careers and take their research to the next level. To date, 59% of these prizes have been awarded to women.*
One of the inspirational researchers we're proud to fund is Dr Stephanie Koch, whose research at UCL uses cutting-edge genetics to explore how childhood experiences of pain influence lifelong vulnerability to pain.
What inspired you to have a career in research?
“I was a very curious child. I was one of those kids who constantly asked my parents a lot of really annoying questions like ‘How does the blood know where to go in the body?’ and ‘Why do our noses run when it’s cold?’ I think I basically knew I wanted to be a scientist and an academic before I even knew what that meant.
My parents were very good and didn’t lie to me, except for this one time when I asked what goosebumps were, and my Dad said, I guess because he was exhausted, that they were little gnomes pushing up at the skin.
My father was an anaesthetist and also did some research, and my mother was an artist. I was very lucky in that my parents were very encouraging for me to follow whatever I wanted to do.
I was inspired by my mother’s career as well as my father’s. I think it’s a common misconception that all scientists do is stare at boards, write equations, and stroke our beards. But the best science is the most creative science. Essentially, what we’re doing is trouble-shooting - we’re constantly trying to find the best ways of asking a question and then answering it.”
There's this old-fashioned idea, which is changing but still there, that to be intelligent or to be successful as a scientist, you need to look and act a certain way. Dr Stephanie Koch
What challenges have you faced as a woman in science?
“It’s been difficult to try to be taken as seriously as my male peers.
Every time I say I’m a neuroscientist, still someone’s like ‘You don’t look like a neuroscientist’. What does a neuroscientist look like?
A lot of this comes down to this old-fashioned idea, which is changing but still there, that to be intelligent or to be successful as a scientist, you need to look and act a certain way.
I remember the first time I was aware of it - it was my first ever conference. I noticed when people would see me, that they would speak a little slower, a little simpler. The message was, ‘Because you don’t look like my mental image of a scientist, you’re not as smart, you shouldn’t be here’.
I’ve since realised that my work and my work ethic can speak for itself. There was a time when I definitely could have given in and changed the way that I present myself to try to fit in somehow, and I’m very happy I didn’t.
So, I think this is something women have to brace themselves for, and try to stand firm in their values and in what they want to do.”
What advice would you give to other women and girls considering a career in research?
“My first piece of advice would be to seek out female mentors. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have a lot of very supportive female mentors. I would encourage everyone, but especially young women in science, to choose mentors that they admire, and to surround themselves with them. It’s been a complete game-changer for me.
Secondly, take any and all opportunities that are offered to you. And once you take them, throw yourself into it. Get every bit of juice you can out of that orange.
Women especially can want to make themselves small and not take up space, and now is not the time. It’s about knowing what you want and going for it. People want to help you, but you have to really take every opportunity that’s there, and that’s served me well.”
I would encourage everyone, but especially young women in science, to choose mentors that they admire, and to surround themselves with them. It’s been a complete game-changer for me. Dr Stephanie Koch
Understanding how the young brain learns to respond to pain is the first step in identifying how these circuits can lead to chronic pain in adulthood.Dr Stephanie Koch
What have been your greatest achievements in your career so far?
“I feel like every step that I take is the greatest achievement until I do something else.
My first big achievement was when I applied for a travel fellowship here at UCL (the Bogue Fellowship). I didn’t think I’d get it because I’d never really gone for anything like that before. But when I got the scholarship, I suddenly thought, ‘I can do this’, and that was a really big moment.
I’ve never felt solidly proud of my achievements until now, and that’s because I have my own lab. I’ve been working for this for many years. The funding from the Medical Research Foundation was a game-changer, and, it might sound silly, but it’s only now that I really feel like a scientist.”
* Diversity data collected in 2021 from current Foundation grant holders awarded via open funding calls.