Episode 33 of the Tuesday Feature highlights Natalie: someone who is doing fantastic research and making a real difference for gender equality here in FLS.
Please explain your research to the general public in about ten sentences or less.
I work on diabetic neuropathy a disorder that can affect the nervous system in diabetes. It is associated with a die-back of the nerve endings that supply skin, muscles and internal organs. This can lead to a whole host of symptoms – from unpleasant gastrointestinal and bladder problems to increased skin sensitivity and pain, often even the pressure of clothes or bed sheets can cause discomfort. A loss of sensation can coincide with the die-back of the nerves, and this increases the chance of tissue damage and ulceration – which sadly often necessitates amputation of toes, feet or lower limbs. In my lab we are characterising key changes that occur in gene, protein and metabolite levels in the peripheral nervous system in diabetes. We are interested in finding out what causes the nerve problems and are looking for ways to promote regeneration of damaged nerves and protect nerve function.
A Minute lecture on diabetic neuropathy by Olly Freeman, see recent paper in Diabetes.
How does this research benefit the general public?
The World Health Organisation estimated that almost 1 in 10 adults worldwide have diabetes, and the incidence of diabetes is ever-increasing. Approximately half of all patients with diabetes will develop some form of diabetic neuropathy, from mild to more chronic. This can have a huge impact on health, happiness and quality of life. There is currently no treatment. Basic research is therefore needed to better understand diabetic neuropathy and ultimately develop an effective treatment that prevents or limits the progression of the disorder.
What are your other roles here in the Faculty?
I am currently the coordinator for the Women in Life Sciences (WiLS) group here in the faculty and also a member of the Equality and Diversity Leadership team and ATHENA SWAN self-assessment team. I first started going to the WiLS meetings when they were organised by Kathryn Else. At this time, I had just returned to work after my first maternity leave and started my RCUK fellowship, so I had a lot to learn – how to manage a lab, how to get lab work done in time for nursery pick-up time, and how to cope with very little sleep! I found the WiLS meeting really helpful – learning new management skills and strategies, making new contacts and friends and forging new research collaborations. Since taking over as coordinator I have organised several bespoke training programmes and workshops based on demand identified through suggestions and surveys (such as a 6-month Coaching and Leadership Program) and talks from internal/external speakers (such as Prof. Dame Athene Donald). I would particularly like to get more students and postdocs involved. Last year I worked with a number of very talented and enthusiastic undergraduates to arrange talks and create a great WiLS photoproject around the time of International Women’s Day. I am always looking for more ideas for workshop/meeting/International Women’s Day events– so if anyone has any suggestions please do email me.
How important is it for Women to be represented in life sciences?
Very! Life sciences does have a better gender balance than some other STEM areas, if you look at the profile of FLS from our ATHENA SWAN Silver renewal application you will see that women are generally well-represented (61% of our undergraduates, 50% of postgraduates and 51% of research staff are female). The proportions do decrease in academic positions and with seniority (32% of all academic staff in FLS are female; 17% of the professors are female), but there are signs that this gap is narrowing (for example, an increase in the proportion of female senior lecturers/readers over the last 5 year from 18% to 37%) hopefully this will continue.
Do you have any science heroes? who inspired you to do science?
Not sure I particularly have a hero – I was always interested in life sciences and was strongly encouraged by my teachers to study Biology at University. I caught the research bug during my final year project and decided to do a PhD. I greatly enjoyed the Royal Institutional Christmas lectures given by Nancy Rothwell, and this helped convince me to pursue a career in neuroscience. After some time doing postdoc positions in London, I moved to Manchester and Nancy became my mentor during my RCUK fellowship! I try to mention the work of Rita Levi-Montalcini in undergraduate lectures – a key woman in neuroscience! During World War II, her academic career was halted by Mussolini’s ‘Manifesto of Race’ so she responded by setting up a research lab in a bedroom in her parents’ house to study nerve development. She moved to a lab in the US in 1946 and six years later isolated Nerve Growth Factor – a factor which promotes nerve development, survival and regeneration. She shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for her role in this discovery.
How has working in Manchester helped you?
Manchester has a great research environment and people are willing to collaborate, so I have got to do work that I would not have been able to do elsewhere. The support facilities, and most importantly the people who run these facilities, are fantastic – a great source of advice.
Finally, what do you do outside of work?
I have two young sons which means that home life is loud and busy. We try and burn off energy at the weekends going walking, kicking/throwing/hitting balls around and recently by digging – as we have just taken on the challenge of an overgrown allotment.