Life as a Female Pharmacologist in Academia – Prof. Amrita Ahluwalia

The first WISE@QMUL event of 2016 saw vascular pharmacologist and WISE Award holder, Prof. Amrita Ahluwalia, take to the stage at the Charterhouse Square campus. Well-known as an engaging and entertaining speaker, even the change from the usual location at the Mile End campus didn’t deter the crowd.

The tone of the talk was set early on: although Amrita had no doubt that the enjoyment of science experienced by men and women was the same, women, she said, had a trickier time navigating the career progression than men. Addressing this problem is something she has dedicated a lot of her life to.

After a BSc in Pharmacology at The University of Bath, including a year out at Glaxo, Amrita decided that research was what she wanted to do and went to on to complete her PhD at Bart’s Medical College. What followed on her ‘career path’ slide was an impressive list of awards and grants won. These early achievement, both winning the competitive British Pharmacological Society AJ Clark award to fund her PhD and being a co-applicant on several Wellcome Trust Grants during her short post-doc time, she said were key for getting her name out there. It was her stay in the Menarini lab in Florence, Italy, however, that really shaped her opinions on how she wanted to run her own lab. During this time, the collaborative atmosphere gave rise to 3 full papers in less than a year. She then moved on to be head of her own, productive lab at UCL, part of the new and exciting ‘Cruciform project’ which went on to become the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, before she was asked if she would like to return to Bart’s.

Now deputy director of the WHRI, it was for Amrita’s research in the discovery of a novel Nitric Oxide synthesis pathway (a vasodilator that plays a large role in cardiovascular disease when depleted) and the finding that common foods like beetroot can lower hypertension[1] that led to her winning the WISE Award in 2015. But as well as research, throughout her scientific career she has been very involved with the British Pharmacological Society (BPS). One of her key pieces of advice was that we should volunteer and support our scientific societies – they play a big role in lobbying the government and if we do not, she said, we will be “contributing towards the demise of our profession”. To her surprise, in 2004, she was made a member of the BPS executive committee and a member of the council at the same time. Amrita then took on a series of roles for which she was the first women to be appointed in the job’s history: senior editor then editor in chief of the British Pharmacological Journal, which she described as a “challenging role” but one she was going to enjoy. She finally won the coveted, and up until then exclusively male, BPS Award. It was these pioneering steps as a woman and her role as chair of Women in Pharmacology (WIP) that made her take a closer look at the issue of women in science.

At a meeting about how women in science could be supported, she saw for the first time the statistics that give rise to the ‘leaky pipeline’ graph that is all too familiar to us. The numbers horrified her and on discovering the same trend in her own field of pharmacology, Amrita was “massively disappointed”. Her presentation listed the usual reasons cited (family, lack of support after a career break, unconscious bias and imposter syndrome) but she commented that the change from the RAE to the REF which now allows for significant career breaks for researchers, such as going on maternity leave, was “progress”.

More interestingly though, she went on to talk about how things could be improved, although she admitted that gender equality wouldn’t be achieved in her life time or in the life times of her two sons. One recurring idea is that of mentors and role models. She quoted Baroness Susan Greenfield, who wrote a report on women in science: “somewhere along the line, someone should have given you some confidence…in your own abilities to be a good scientist”. Amrita said that her three mentors, Prof. Rob Flowers (her PhD supervisor), Prof. Patrick Vallance (post-doc supervisor) and Prof. Mark Caulfield (who nominated her for the WISE award) did just this and are always positive about her work. With this in mind, Amrita set up a mentoring scheme within the BPS, whereby junior female members were matched with more senior members from different institutes so that they could give them frank and honest advice about their careers. Not only that, but she also established an award solely for senior women in Pharmacology, funded by Astra Zeneca. In the final minutes of her talk, she discussed the steps forward that have been made in the SMD which led to a Silver Athena Swan award in 2014.

My overriding impression of Amrita was that of a woman with strength and determination, as well as an obvious dose of natural talent, not only for science but also for interacting with the people she works with. She dedicates time and effort to all of the causes she cares about, which is certainly a lesson I took away with me.

 


Amy Danson (1st year PhD student at The Blizard Institute)

[1] Kapil V, Khambata RS, Robertson A et al. (2015) . Dietary nitrate provides sustained blood pressure lowering in hypertensive patients: A randomized, phase 2, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Hypertension vol. 65, (2) 320-327. http://qmro.qmul.ac.uk/xmlui/handle/123456789/6639

 

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