Changing landscapes in academia: an interview with Susan Wray#

Marking International Women’s Day 2023, Professor Susan Wray shares her passion for physiology, and the people who have had the greatest impact on her work and career. She discusses gender equality in academia as well as her hopes for the next generation of scientists.

Susan Wray

About Professor Susan Wray MAE#

Professor Susan Wray MAE is professor of cellular and molecular physiology at the University of Liverpool. She is the University’s director of Athena SWAN and team leader for the Institute of Translational Medicine. Her primary research interests are in smooth muscle physiology, reproductive medicine and cell signalling. Professor Wray is a member of the Physiology and Neuroscience section of Academia Europaea since 2008.

Professor Wray serves as President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS) and President of the Federation of European Physiological Societies (FEPS). She is Director of the Centre of Better Births in Liverpool Women’s Hospital, where scientists work together with clinicians on problems during pregnancy. She also co-leads the Harris-Wellbeing Preterm Birth Research Centre. She was the founding editor-in-chief of Physiological Reports and is the first editor-in-chief of Current Research in Physiology.

The interview#

Could you tell us about your work and your research?

“My academic career path was very simple. I did physiology at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels at University College London. I did some fellowship work there before moving to the University of Liverpool, where I stayed. I’m now an emeritus professor.

I’m a smooth muscle physiologist. My favourite smooth muscle is that of the uterus (the myometrium) and I’ve been really fascinated by how it works, and why sometimes it doesn’t work properly – in childbirth, for example.

Currently I have the pleasure of being President of FEPS, (Federation of European Physiological Societies), and also IUPS (International Union of Physiological Societies). FEPS is an overarching organisation of around 30 national physiological societies across Europe. We’re trying to strengthen the impact of physiology by making it more visible, by helping national societies work more closely together, and by sharing practice and ideas around science and teaching.”

How did you first become interested in studying physiology?

I was always drawn to sciences at school, and knew I wanted to go to university because it sounded so exciting. I was more drawn to biology, so I spoke with my biology teacher, and she asked “Which part of what you’re studying do you like?” I responded with, “how the body works,” to which she replied that I wanted to be a physiologist.

In those days, we had a really thick compendium of universities and the courses they offered in the UK, so I looked up physiology and went to University College London (UCL). I loved that UCL was the first to not just admit women to study their undergraduate courses, but also allow them to graduate.

Who would you say were the people who had the greatest impact on your work and career?

I was the first in my family to go to university. My family had what we would call a classical working-class background but one where there were aspirations. My parents both recognised the importance of education, and didn’t think that being a female should hold me back in any way. Indeed, my mother had been thwarted in musical ambitions and wanted to study music but had to leave school around the age of 14 to start earning money for the family. She sorely remembered that throughout her life and did not want me to have to suffer that as well. So in a way, she was a role model.

I also want to acknowledge the influences of other people on my career. One of the first people I would credit is Ole Petersen (who’s very well known to the Academy and the Cardiff Hub), as he gave me my first permanent job. Nothing is more heavenly than not being on the treadmill of postdocs and fellowships and to get your first job. He was a great head of department because he wanted you to succeed. It didn’t matter who you were, where you’d come from, gender wasn’t a factor. He gave you opportunities, and I was itching to have a go at running my own lab.

I think another influence that has helped is my partner of 40 years. If you’re not working in harmony with someone else who is very important in your life and who doesn’t get it, that’s really stressful. We can’t have a tick list when we are choosing life partners but to get somebody who you feel understands you and will listen is clearly important.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the talented PhD students and postdocs who’ve been in my lab generating the data. As you rise up the academic career path, you’re in the lab less and less, so if it wasn’t for those fabulous people getting the data, my career would not have flourished, so thanks to all of them as well.

You’ve been a strong advocate of gender equality throughout your career. What are the notable changes that you’ve seen during your career in terms of gender equality, and what your hopes for the next generation of female scientists?

I’ve always felt passionate about equality, openness, and transparency of opportunities. For me, women, and men should be able to speak up about the needs of looking after family, be that children or elderly relatives. Back in the day, I remember meetings that would be held in school holidays, with the difficulties of organising childcare, or sitting in a meeting and trying to edge closer and closer to the door, worrying that the nursery was going to close and tie your kids to the railings! Not feeling able to say, “This meeting is due to finish at four o’clock, I have to go now to get my children.” I hope now that it’s much easier for those with such responsibilities to speak up.

I think the current visibility of women in senior positions is a real celebration of the positive effect of building the case for equality. There are more role models now. We also have to go beyond that, and think about grant awarding bodies, fellowship applications, etc.

I think the landscape has changed and very much in a positive direction.

What piece of advice would you give to yourself as a young academic or to other people who are just beginning their academic careers now?

To myself I would say, “Susan, you should be less afraid, feel that fear and do it anyway.” Speaking up – I still remember going to some meetings and thinking it was a success if I managed to sit through it and wasn’t put on the spot about anything. You’re on those committees to say things and to contribute, that’s why you’ve been chosen, but it took a while for that penny to drop for me.

Networking – there are more women, more networks, more resources, so use them. They won’t all be for you but find what works. Join a network, a society, an organisation or something that’s focused on issues that you’re also having.

Take a breath and realise that science is fun, it’s interesting – it might drive us mad, but it also captivates us. Try not to get the balance wrong – remember there are lots of opportunities that academic life in STEM presents you with.

What more do you think can be done to encourage more young women into STEM careers?

We really must start early. There are studies that show even at the age of five or six, girls start thinking that they won’t be good at maths, or they won’t be able to tinker with bits of equipment like their bicycles. If we really want to go at this full speed, it has to start young in schools, by having appropriate role models. Where are the science role models that we can point them to? And say, “You can be a scientist too”.

If you have a way of knowing what they might be interested in, rather than just saying, “Science is great, I’ve done really well at science and it’s fun.” You need to engage them and that’s a hard ask, because we’re not necessarily successful in science because we have those particular skills. Perhaps it’s about using professional help through universities who want to recruit the very best students into their STEM subjects. It has to be what works for the girls. Getting good career advice into schools so that girls don’t think that science has to be all about solving equations or getting greasy with bicycle chains – although that’s part of it and that’s great fun – but there’s also a whole other area of science careers that don’t involve that. We need good career advice for all young people, so that there are ‘round pegs in round holes’

Watch the interview video#

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