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"We should expose girls to careers in science early on"

It’s International Women’s Day – a time to celebrate the fantastic achievements of women worldwide.

Today, we’re taking this opportunity to applaud female scientists smashing glass ceilings around the world and making history. Three of these scientists are Professor Ann John, Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen and Dr Valeria Mondelli who are all dedicated to transforming mental health in young people.  In this three-part blog series we speak to each of them about being a woman in science and how we can break down barriers holding women back. 

In the final blog of the series we speak to Valeria who heads up our IDEA project – a groundbreaking study advancing our understanding of what puts someone at risk of depression. For the first time, teams all over the world will be working together to develop a tool that can predict which adolescents are most at risk of depression so we can intervene early and prevent its debilitating impact. On International Women’s Day we hear about why she thinks getting women in science should start in schools, the patients that have made her feel proud and why young people’s mental health is so important to her.

Why did you get into mental health research?

One of the main drivers of being a doctor is to try helping people; however, already as a junior doctor I had to face the reality that there are times when we lack instruments or knowledge to support improvement or recovery of some patients. This is what led me initially to research, the interest and motivation to look for answers and solutions that could help more people. Since I was young, I wanted to know more about how our brain and mind works. It’s really fascinating to understand what is behind the way we feel and behave and what happens when we start to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. There’s still a lot to discover in the mental health field, and this is also why I believe that it’s one of the most fascinating fields of research in medicine.

Why is young people’s mental health your area of interest?

I’m an adult psychiatrist – and so I mainly see adults, but talking to them you realise that lots of their problems start in adolescence. It’s so important that we identify these issues early on so we can help people in the long-term. 

What is your biggest achievement in your career so far?

Being a clinician, it’s the experience of having helped people feel better and enabling people to take their life back in their hands. I remember one woman who came into my clinic had been staying at home because of severe anxiety and depression and her relationship with husband was breaking down. Over a few months with treatment she was able to go to part time work and then later full-time. Her relationship with her husband improved and she got her life back to how it was before she developed depression.

As a teacher, my biggest achievement is to see students achieve their goals. As a researcher, my contribution to research which discovered that traumatic experiences in childhood change biological response to stress and influences mental illness, makes me most proud. 

Do you think female scientists face any unique challenges compared to their male colleagues because of their gender? 

Yes there are still a lot of challenges, there are more challenges for women in science to get to higher positions and to achieve more in their career. We need to continue to support women in science.

Only 13% of the overall UK STEM workforce is female, why do you think this is?

I think women may feel at times unwelcome in STEM, and this is I think partly related to some of the stereotypes attached to these disciplines. There’s perhaps also a belief that it’ll be easier to progress in other types work, which stops women from engaging in science and technology.

What do you think we can do to ensure more women are developing careers in science? 

We need more opportunities in schools to make girls understand more about what a career in science means. We should expose children to how exciting science can be early on.  

We also need to understand a lot more about how to create a personal life and work life balance. Having more role models, mentorship, and giving opportunities for women to see other women in high profile positions, will make people understand that it is possible, that women can make it to the top.

There is still sexism, it’s shifting progressively and I think thankfully there is beginning to be less concern about highlighting when these things happen.

Who are your female role models?

My main female role model was my mum. She taught me to be independent, that I can do whatever I wish to do and always said that it’s important that women are independent and that what they do in life shouldn’t depend on men. I had a fear of failure, but she taught me to learn from my mistakes.

My main professional role model is Rita Levi-Montalcini, who was an Italian Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist. She’d gone through a difficult life and was born in the same city I grew up in so I’ve always looked up to her as a successful scientist and doctor.  

What would you say to young women considering a career in mental health research?

Don’t be afraid to do something that’s different, mental health research is pioneering science. There’s still a lot of opportunities and other things that can be done to improve people’s lives, if you’re imaginative, mental health research offers a great way to ignite a passion for science.

Dr Valeria Mondelli, is an MQ-funded researcher and Senior Clinical Lecturer at The Maurice Wohl Clinical Neuroscience Institute at King’s College London and NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre Research Champion

Last updated: 8 March 2018

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