The medical researcher who draws creative energy from walking and photography
Jane Goodall was brought up to think independently. But, like many women, she had to overcome a lack of confidence to progress in her career. Now, she’s determined to encourage other female scientists to aim high. A keen walker, she balances life in the lab with landscape photography.
I took these self-portraits while on a coast to coast walk across England. I was sheltering in a hut in a bleak part of the Lake District, waiting for the swirling rain and wind to subside. I created my own photoshoot and took multiple images for a composite shot. A bit of image blending was all that was required to produce the finished image.
Yes, I’ve got the same name as a famous primatologist. People ask me if I am THE Jane Goodall, I’ve received letters and job applications from prospective primatologists. One plane passenger picked up my luggage by mistake and got really excited on seeing my name. When I retrieved my suitcase, I was greeted by a look of huge expectation. Only me I’m afraid! You need a sense of humour.
I grew up in a household where everything was debated. We lived on the edge of a small town in Oxfordshire and both my parents were scientists. On Christmas day, we’d be putting the turkey in the oven and arguing about how the size of the bird affected its thermodynamic capacity.
There was never any suggestion that girls couldn’t do what they wanted. My siblings and I went to Catholic school a bit of a distance from home. In the holidays we were pretty self-sufficient. I would hunt in the streams for wildlife, collect caterpillars and have snail races with my sister.
I did a lot of riding. I never had my own horse but adopted families who did. Those frosty mornings, riding on the Chilterns, gave me a deep love of landscape. These days, my main hobby is photography. It provides a work-life balance to working in medical research. I’m never without my camera.
When my son was born, I took photos of him — and then got into landscape photography. I love hills but I’ve got accustomed to the Cambridgeshire fens — the big skies and wide expanses. I’m a member of a women’s photography group called CamIRIS. I give talks about photography, judge competitions for the East Anglian Federation, and write a blog.
One of my missions is to encourage women to aim high. A lack of confidence is something I had to overcome. In 2001 I went up to London for an interview with Arthritis Research UK. I was applying for a junior fellowship. I was so nervous and feeling so scatty that my partner (now husband), Giles Yeo, went with me. We’ve both come a long way since then.
Sitting in the interview anteroom, my knees were literally trembling. But all of a sudden, I said “Giles, I can do this” and walked around the room making fist pumps and high fives which seemed to lower the stress hormones and got me into a much more positive vibe.
I marched into the interview and faced the panel of six interviewers. They were actually quite benign, compared with the panel I’d faced at my mock interview held in Cambridge, and I was awarded the grant. On the way home in the train, I felt elated and excited and a hint of trepidation about a new career opportunity.
Since the award of my senior fellowship, I’ve contributed to schemes and events to support women in taking their careers to the top of their fields. I give talks on public speaking to help women find their own voice and speak with confidence, and contribute to programmes such as Athena Swan.
I did my PhD rather late and I came to motherhood late too. I got my doctorate when I was 30 and I had my son when I was 36. After school I went to Bristol Polytechnic (now the University of the West of England) to study applied biology. For my intercalated year I went to the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket. It was there that I became interested in research.
In the 1990s I worked on human immunology at a time when it was a new subject. It attracted a lot of young people, many of them women. The realisation that specific targeting of components of the immune system in arthritis patients could modify disease was a massive breakthrough that opened up new areas of research and new treatments. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time.
Having worked on arthritis for 18 years, I’m now moving into cardiovascular research. This field offered me the opportunity to gain a position as a lecturer working with Professor Ziad Mallat, one of the world’s leading researchers of cardiovascular disease.
On a western diet, we develop lesions in our blood vessels called atherosclerotic plaques. These lesions form organised structures that change as we age, accumulating inflammatory cells and becoming vulnerable to rupture. The formation of inflamed and unstable plaques results in arterial narrowing and heart disease. My work will identify if certain stress pathways exacerbate the problem.
When I give talks to students I emphasise that to thrive in research science you need to be resilient. Only 8% of Medical Research Council projects achieve funding and I worked hard to receive two of these project grants over the last five years. You also have to good with people. I’ve often made mistakes. I take every opportunity to learn how to read situations better.
You should never ‘guilt trip’ people to get what you want — it just doesn’t work. This is a lesson I learnt in a talk given by a negotiating expert who has experience of working in hostage situations. Consider your audience or interview panel very carefully, and show them you can give them what they need, and you’ll have much more success.
Medical science loses too many people, women especially. They experience a lack of support at a critical time. Women tend to underestimate, and certainly undersell, their abilities. I think women are in a difficult place, they don’t want to appear pushy or unlikeable, but at the same time this can cause them to be overlooked or not seriously considered.
You can learn a lot about how to increase your confidence and enhance your status — while still being likeable — by making simple changes to your behaviour. I learnt a lot from working with actors who taught me stage craft skills that enable you to be more aware of your status signals.
It’s important to think independently. Independence was something valued in my family. We enjoyed escaping the crowds on holiday. My father would find remote beaches in Wales and would draw massive dinosaurs in the sand for our entertainment. My sister is an engineer and also a performer, story teller and medieval musician. She rides a horse in full armour.
Sometimes I need to be on my own — although I’m sociable and love dinner with friends and going out on group photography trips. On my 50th year, I walked the Wainwright Way alone. It’s a long distance coast-to-coast footpath from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in north Yorkshire. There was plenty of time to think and absorb nature.
At weekends I go out to photograph the landscape. Recently I was near Prickwillow in the fens and spotted an old petrol pump in a field. I got out of the car with my camera, a retired farmer arrived and we got chatting. The fens have seen vast changes over the centuries and his life is part of that story. Like my exploration of the ageing artery, the fens offer much to be discovered.
This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.