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On International Women’s Day we’re celebrating female scientists who are taking on mental illness

We’re pleased to support women who are tackling some of the most complex questions to transform the lives of people living with mental health problems.

We know that statistically women are underrepresented in science, and on a day which recognises brilliant women and strives for gender equality, we spoke to MQ-funded scientists’ Dr Claire Gillan and Dr Jennifer Wild – to see what got them into research and the challenges they think are facing female scientists today. 

Recognised in 2014 as one of the top 30 thinkers under 30 by the Pacific Standard, Dr Gillan’s not gone unnoticed for her impressive work studying the brain. She began her career looking at obsessive-compulsive disorder, gaining a PhD from the University of Cambridge and a Postdoctoral Fellowship at New York University.

Her MQ-funded project in Dublin looks at increasing the effectiveness of antidepressants – by creating a tool which could predict which people will best respond to certain treatments. 

So why research? “I loved revealing new things about how the brain works and even more, I loved how that knowledge could potentially make people’s lives better. I’m desperate to generate findings that translate to the clinic. If the brain doesn’t get me there, I’m happy to drop it.”

Dr Wild’s reasons for becoming a researcher are also firmly grounded in the impact it can have on people’s lives. “I decided to take mental illness on so that I could look at ways to prevent it from developing, so that people, particularly young people, could live a life that matches their dreams – rather than their fears.” 

Dr Wild’s career began in the 1980s with a fasciation in memory, questioning: why do we over-remember the very thing we want to forget? This led her to explore post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where, she says: “memory is on overdrive”.

Now an Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, we’re proud to be funding her project creating an intervention which could prevent emergency workers from developing PTSD and depression.

Dr Wild’s own success doesn’t prevent her from recognising factors that could be holding some women back: “I think it’s difficult balancing family and a prolific career, even when employers are incredibly supportive, there’s still the personal battle of feeling guilty either at work or at home.”  With her own team – who are mostly women – she’s particularly conscious of discussing career development and keeping options open.

However, both Dr Gillan and Dr Wild point out that the underrepresentation of women in science is due to issues that occur far earlier than child-bearing age. A recent study by researchers at New York University, the University of Illinois, and Princeton University shows that by the age of 6, girls become less likely than boys to associate brilliance with their own gender and are more likely to avoid activities that require brilliance. 

“It’s so difficult to move away from those gender stereotypes,” Dr Wild says. “Certainly when I was growing up, women weren’t pushed to go into science at all. We really need to make science accessible for little girls – for them to be nurtured into all the different options available to them from a really young age.” 

Dr Gillan also recognises the detrimental impact of stereotypes. “It’s really important to debunk the myth that women are naturally less skilled or interested in maths and science. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“As I went through schooling, I believed that women were on average less proficient in these areas. It’s hard to choose a subject to focus on if you think you can never really excel at it. It was many years later before I realised what a myth this was. Hopefully young girls today have a better mentality than I did – it’s an incredibly destructive idea."

When asked about their female role models, both draw upon women who have actively spoken about gender inequalities. As well as senior female colleagues in her field who run “amazing labs”, Dr Gillan looks up to Yael Niv who started biasneurowatch, to track gender bias in conference speakers, and Anne Churchland who started anneslist, which promotes female scientists in neuroscience. Whilst Dr Wild remarks on the impact that Gloria Steinem, a political activist, has had on her. 

Dr Wild is also inspired by a woman who she met by chance whilst travelling in Thailand, a dermatologist called Dorothy Vollum: “Dorothy really went after her dream – and this was during a very difficult time for women in science, when you had to make a decision to make a career or have a family. She didn’t see any shame in enjoying her career. When she retired she retrained as a therapist and worked with people who had schizophrenia so she was always very driven and supportive – she was a massive role model for me.” 

Clearly, there has been much progress since Dorothy Vollum started out in the 1950’s – but there’s still a long way to go. Dr Wild and Dr Gillan’s careers and their pioneering mental health research makes them role models themselves – seeking answers that could transform lives now and in the future.

Last updated: 26 July 2017

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