‘You belong here and we need you’: celebrating women and girls in science

For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, women at World Cancer Research Fund talk about their careers, their inspirations – and the barriers and discrimination they’ve experienced along the way.

Every year, 11 February is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, to recognise the significant gender gap that persists at all levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The day, which was set up by the United Nations, celebrates women and girls in the field of science, and promotes full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.

This International Day of Women and Girls in Science, World Cancer Research Fund is shining a light on the experiences of our female scientists and finding out what led them to a career in science.

Who’s who

  • Dr Kate Allen is Science and Policy Adviser at World Cancer Research Fund.
  • Becky Camenzuli is our Research Officer (Impact).
  • Kendra Chow is our Policy and Public Affairs Manager.
  • Dr Jana Sremanakova is our Research Funding Manager.
  • Dr Ioana Vlad is our Senior Policy Research Manager.

Why did you choose a career in science?

Jana SremanakovaJana: “I come from an academic family with a university education spanning 3 generations. My grandfather was a professor in physics and mathematics; my grandma studied linguistics and languages; and my father was an electronics engineer with a love for chemistry. They all exposed me to science throughout my childhood. Despite this, my dream was to be a fashion designer.

Nevertheless, I decided to pursue science following my grandmother’s passing. This was prompted by my grandmother’s diagnosis of advanced-stage colorectal cancer. Witnessing her rapid deterioration and intense suffering made me focus my interest on cancer as a disease. I wanted to understand more about its nature and contribute towards finding a cure and preventive measures, driven by the hope that others wouldn’t suffer like my grandmother.”

Dr Kate AllenKate: “I was interested in both arts and sciences but, when I was at school, you had to choose. I chose science because I was (and still am) interested in how things work, both in animals and plants. I enjoyed finding out about anatomy, biochemistry and physiology. In later years that developed into more of a medical and health interest, which ultimately led me to work at World Cancer Research Fund.”

Ioana VladIoana: “I like to say this career chose me. I’ve always had an inner drive to understand how things (life, nature, people) work. This led me to focus on how research and science can improve people’s lives – this is what we sometimes call being evidence-based. I am lucky to now be working for World Cancer Research Fund, where every day our work focuses on how we can change people’s environments so they can live a healthier and longer life.”

Becky CamenzuliBecky: “From a young age, I was naturally more inclined towards science. The fascinating world of nutrition, and understanding how our dietary choices influence health outcomes, intrigued me. Enjoying studying biology and chemistry (for the most part) during my teenage years facilitated my decision to enrol into a nutrition course, leading me to my current role.

What excites me most about a career in science is the opportunity to be at the forefront of innovative research. Contributing to groundbreaking discoveries that can positively impact numerous lives is a driving force behind my commitment to this field. It’s the thrill of being part of something larger than myself and the tangible possibility of making a meaningful difference that keeps me motivated in my scientific endeavours.”

Kendra ChowKendra: “I’ve always had a naturally curious disposition, even when I was little. Matched with strong observational and analytical skills, I’ve always found myself wanting to learn more. I’ve often approached it as a mystery that needs to be solved—I very much enjoy being a scientific detective!

“I started my scientific career in university doing more core science, lab/bench work in biochemistry, and then moving into medical and health sciences through nutrition and becoming a registered dietitian (RD). From there, I found my true passion in public health: where the intersection of health, science and society meet.”

Have you, as a woman, experienced any barriers to success, or discrimination on the way?

Kendra: “Absolutely. At one institution, I experienced harassment and intimidation from supervisors and individuals who were in leadership positions. This behaviour was also enabled and supported by a great number of people who made excuses for it. I’ve also had other classic ‘women-in-science experiences’ with others taking credit for my work, being talked over, not having my ideas or suggestions being taken seriously… the works.

“But, more recently, I’ve had much more positive experiences: benefiting from guidance, leadership and mentorship that has been encouraging, empowering and has fostered my growth as a scientist. I’m hopeful that this is a sign of change and improvement for women and girls in science.”

Ioana: “Looking back, I really didn’t know this career was open to me until I was an adult. I’d have liked to know it was an option earlier. I think I would have then had more practice with confidently asking my million questions, and perhaps been a bit less afraid to ask the wrong question or failing. I sometimes compare it with girls of my generation and sports. Girls now may find it very strange, but when I was a kid girls were not allowed to play football in schools. So now I’ll never know if I could have become a pro footballer (probably not). Of course, I have tried it as an adult (alongside other sports) – but I’m terrible at first because I don’t know any of the rules. Science is a bit like that – you can probably start late (and do if you want to!), but having a bit of practice, as a kid, gives you a head start.”

Kate: “I haven’t experienced discrimination as a woman – but I did experience barriers. When working as a research technician I wanted to do a PhD at the same time (part-time), but the rules were that as a technician you could only do technical type degrees like a BTEC or HND. So I had to make the case for doing a PhD, which involved meeting with senior scientists and having the whole thing discussed by the senior management group. They approved me doing the PhD and after that changed the rules, so anyone in a technical role could pursue a PhD if they wanted to.”

Jana: “I was fortunate on my journey and had excellent supervisors and mentors who helped me. Even before achieving my PhD, I conducted research and published papers as a research assistant. Generally, I would say that women in science still face challenges, particularly if they want to become mothers. The limited support with funding and the break from research during maternity leave can be challenging, but it is still possible to overcome these hurdles. This illustrates women’s strength, organisation, and capability in research, effectively managing both motherhood and science.”

Becky: “The nutrition field is predominantly led by women, so fortunately I have never felt that being a woman has hindered my opportunities. Nevertheless, I recognise and appreciate the challenges faced by many women who came before me, overcoming adversity to pave the way for individuals like me to comfortably navigate the scientific space.”

What would you say to girls to inspire them to follow a career in science?

Kendra: “Stay curious. If someone tells you to stop asking questions … keep asking them! Take charge, be ‘bossy’. Don’t worry about getting yourself or your clothes dirty if the experiment calls for it. Explore, see new worlds – big or small! And always know you belong here, and we need you – your intelligence and strength will advance science for everyone’s benefit.”

Jana: “I recommend girls pursue what they have a genuine passion for. This is particularly true in science, where the journey can be a rollercoaster, ranging from easy to challenging. Undertaking something with a deeper meaning can aid in overcoming challenges and motivate you to persevere. A career in science is rewarding and satisfying in numerous ways.

“Moreover, it’s crucial to recognise that working in science extends beyond academia or the lab. There are diverse clinical research opportunities, collaboration with people, industry positions, or positions in charitable organisations, and the funding sector. These avenues offer significant opportunities for growth and progress.”

Ioana: “This is one of the best jobs in the world. You’ll know it may suit you if you’re always curious about how things work and always asking questions, from yourself and others. What’s more, the answers science gives us can be used to make people’s lives better! But also be prepared to deal with not finding answers immediately, and keep in mind that dwelling in the unknown can be challenging, but also fun and rewarding!”

Kate: “Science gives you the freedom to pursue your own ideas and find out more about the world around you – and gives you the opportunity to discover something that no one else has. Science can be very creative and open doors to a whole range of career paths. I started out as a scientist, then became a medical writer, then set up a new Interactive Education Unit, then moved into science administration at World Cancer Research Fund, and most recently developed policy as a new programme area here. All of that has been built on the foundations of what I learned as a scientist and the skills I developed in a science environment.”