A woman in science, as in any other male-dominated group, is under a certain amount of pressure. It can be as simple as knowing what to wear to work (can I be brainy and look smart?) to playing the ruthless game of juggling work, social life and children. Although the modern world has adapted to our somewhat metro sexual society, certain fields remain male-dominated. The incredibly stuffy world of academia is such a place. Modernised as labs have become, you will still find professors who are a million years old wandering around the corridors with leather briefcases and tweed jackets.
Professor Molly Stevens, from Imperial College London, is of a different kind. Breaking the mould in more ways than one, Stevens has achieved a hugely successful academic life whilst balancing her personal life. Not only is her research pioneering, she leads a multidisciplinary team deemed huge even by her peers standards. She has been awarded a multitude of awards, both from an academic and a media view point. And she is, as of July 2011, the first woman scientist to be featured in the ever so glamorous worldwide magazine Vogue.
Stevens is currently Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine and the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College. Talking recently to Jim al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4’s “The Life Scientific”, Stevens explains how she came to be part of the ever-growing field of tissue engineering.
She initially completed her degree in Pharmacy at Bath University. Although never intending to become a pharmacist, she was drawn to the subject as it encompassed many various fields. She now jokes she would have chosen to study medicine but five years of study at university seemed too long at the time. Now a professor, her whole life has been spent in universities.
She then undertook a PhD in Biophysics at Nottingham University, a huge leap from Pharmacology. This was simply because it “sounded like the most challenging subject” she explains. Using nanotechnology to pull apart small molecules and study the forces between them, she also worked as a part-time pharmacist at the same time, already proving a woman of many talents and huge amounts of energy and multitasking.
Presenting her PhD at a Millennium conference in San Francisco however was the event that lead her to her current field of research. Walking past a random presentation, she was grabbed by a picture of a young boy suffering from liver failure. She immediately decided she wanted to move from studying fundamental science to something more directly applicable to patients. “I thought it was amazing that you could design things to help your body heal and have a direct impact on patients.”
Once again proving her enthusiasm, she simply walked up to famous scientist Robert Langer and asked to work with him as a young researcher. What others describe as brave, she sees as possibly “foolhardy”. Working at MIT with Langer was the start of her ever expanding and successful career. She comments that it was amazing working within a lab with more variety of research and that post-docs were very free to work on their own particular passions.
She now leads a huge team of around 50 scientists at Imperial and can boast one of the most multidisciplinary labs. Many labs claim to be multidisciplinary – Molly’s is. Within her team can be found physicists, surgeons, engineers, molecular biologists and chemists among many more. Some might view this mix as hectic and conflict creating. But Stevens and her colleagues see the potential of such a varied group. Weekly lab meetings turn to innovative group meetings, forming pioneering ideas. Also important, the different people can help each other direct their research better. Someone might have an idea that the specialists can explain is not feasibly possible. “It can save you a lot of years of research time.”
Stevens leads her lab by showing a fabulous ability not only to mix and match different fields and people, but also shows a huge potential in getting grants. In the world today, getting funding for research is extremely hard and competitive. Scientists have to prove the worth of their research and its relevance to the world and the people it in. Stevens’ skill in this domain makes her one of the youngest researchers to achieve this many grants.
Her recent research has been focused on a particular side of tissue engineering: growing bone. The media has grabbed the tagline of her “growing bone in test tubes”, and surprisingly isn’t that far off from the reality. Her team have perfected injectable materials which can regenerate bone tissue in the body to an astounding yield, both from a quantity and quality point of view. She calls this her Eureka moment. Although the process to publication was a long one, she tells how gratifying it is to be working in such a pioneering field.
She is especially proud of her work being both scientifically and medically relevant. Not one to forgot how important basic fundamental science research is, she is keen personally to apply her research to patients lives. Some of her team’s discoveries and hard work has paid off, as she sees them being applied in clinical use in Germany for example. With a few more tricks up her sleeve, she hopes more and more of the research will be applied directly to patient’s lives.
Her goal is not one of great glory and celebrity. Her ultimate aim is to maintain the current momentum herself and her team have achieved. She is also keen for a lot of her innovations to be applied in global health, beyond the Western world to where it is needed even more than in our hospitals.
Talking on her recent appearance in Vogue, she seems shy of the subject. Initially doubtful about the idea, her team pushed her to accept. After all, scientists have practically never been featured in the magazine and it shows a new willing in the modern world to accept scientists in all their shapes and forms. Under the strict instruction that the article be science oriented, she now featured as one of the British Editorial Wonder Women in the magazine’s July issue. She also understands how important it is to communicate science to as wide a variety of people as possible. And adds she also did it for her daughter.
It is becoming increasingly obvious. Molly Stevens is one of a kind. Whether it’s being interested in all topics surrounding her, juggling jobs, home life and a more than extensive lab or simply taking the risks others would not, I cannot blame Vogue for dubbing her a Wonder Woman. As a budding scientist myself, she believe Stevens to be an inspiration to women in science (and other domains) and the hope of a new generation.