Spotlight on women in science and vision research 2022
Meet four inspiring role-models for women in science
4 February 2022
We’ve interviewed four exceptional researchers, scientists and clinicians about what it’s like being women in science. They talk about how ensuring equality, diversity and inclusion is what will ultimately shape the future of science and technology as we know it.
Women are more likely to start an academic career in science now than they were 20 years ago, but gender inequality in research is still prevalent with men currently accounting for two-thirds of researchers worldwide.
Despite a high level of participation by women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in higher education, women are less likely than men to continue onto a career in these fields, and in general, men progress into more senior roles and publish more papers than women.
In ophthalmology, the picture is more hopeful as, in Europe, women represent more than 50% of ophthalmologists. Despite this, women remain underrepresented in leadership positions in ophthalmology.
of researchers worldwide are women
of ophthalmic consultants in the UK are women
Women’s contribution to cultivating knowledge and scientific developments have led to significant discoveries and advancements. But long working hours and gender bias in funding and peer-reviewing possibly contribute to gender disparity in research.
Addressing this inequality is vital to achieve equal access and participation for women and to enrich research itself through greater diversity.
Hear from four women connected to the charity, Moorfields and UCL, about their journeys, experiences and hopes as women in science:
Professor Dame Carrie MacEwen, Trustee of Moorfields Eye Charity
Professor Dame Carrie MacEwen is a consultant ophthalmologist at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, and Honorary Professor at the University of Dundee. She is a member of Moorfields Eye Charity’s board of trustees.
Carrie is also acting chair of the General Medical Council, the organisation that regulates doctors in the UK, and ophthalmology advisor to the Scottish government. In 2021, she was appointed Dame Commander in the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for services to ophthalmology and healthcare leadership during the Covid-19 response.
After achieving her “main ambition” of becoming a clinician, early on in her career she recognised the importance of the “scientific aspect of medical practice”, and has now published more than 170 papers. For Carrie, the practice of research is “stimulating” and “full of surprises.”
The objectivity gained by having a background in science has been enormously beneficial in rationalising the subjective bias that commonly accompanied negative views on women scientists – there is no evidence on which to base these assumptions.
Carrie hopes that traditional discouragement of women and girls from STEM careers will continue to be challenged and that the numbers of women achieving exceptional careers in the field will expand even further. “All who want to become involved in science should be able to do so”, she argues, “irrespective of anything other than ability.”
Dr Jennifer Sun, Lecturer and principal investigator, Visual Plasticity Lab, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology
Dr Jennifer Sun is a lecturer and principal investigator of the Visual Plasticity Lab at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, studying neuroplasticity in visual systems. The lab is interested in the neural basis of how the visual system adapts to visual input from the eye, artificial stimulation, and pathological insults.
Jennifer was born and raised in Beijing before moving to California to complete a PhD at the University of Southern California (USC) and postdoc training at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Following this, she relocated to London where she joined the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology. She has hugely valued the opportunities that living in a variety of countries has given her.
Travelling around the world to interact with scientists with diverse backgrounds and similar interests is extremely exciting.
Growing up, Jennifer recalls a large disparity between boys’ and girls’ engagement and inclusion in science. There were only 3 girls in comparison to 19 boys in her high school class for example.
She explains that she feels “extremely fortunate” that her early enthusiasm for science and maths was wholeheartedly supported by her family and her surrounding environment. She acknowledges that this was “not common”.
Looking at the present situation, Jennifer believes it’s important to encourage women and girls to follow their ambitions in these fields, and to “dream big… the same way boys and men are told to.”
Amrit Sehmi, Advanced orthoptist and Darzi Fellow, Moorfields Eye Hospital
Amrit Sehmi is an advanced orthoptist at Moorfields and has worked at the Trust for almost 12 years.
She is also currently the Darzi Fellow for the hospital. This is a 12-month post that requires the appointed clinician to solve a complex challenge. Amrit is working on understanding digital exclusion in patients and staff at Moorfields, to build inclusivity in digital medicine.
From a young age, Amrit was keen to go into a career in ophthalmology. After becoming a clinician, her career path has been multi-directional, comprising roles in education, leadership and clinical work.
Amrit’s leadership positions have encompassed heading paediatric services at the Moorfields Community Eye Clinic at Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health and Wellbeing Centre and the Moorfields Eye Unit at Darent Valley Hospital, and now in her Darzi fellowship.
Clinical leadership gives you the ability to influence change that will directly benefit patients. As a sole clinician, you sometimes do not get this opportunity.
Growing up, Amrit’s parents both encouraged her progression and discouraged gender biases. She describes her mother as the “biggest role model” in her life. Amrit’s mother also worked in science, and pursued her career whilst raising four children. “She taught me to work hard and always encouraged me to keep up my career”, Amrit explains.
Amrit is also appreciative of the encouragement and opportunities that others in the industry have given her.
As women, we are capable of so much and take on many challenging roles in life. Often, we have to work harder to get to our goal in life due to other responsibilities such as motherhood and so, as an advocate of feminism, I am pleased to see so many women rising in science.
Ms Rashmi Mathew, Consultant ophthalmic surgeon, Moorfields Eye Hospital and associate professor, UCL Institute of Ophthalmology
Ms Rashmi Mathew is a glaucoma consultant at Moorfields and associate professor in education at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology.
She also researches about improving the teaching of ophthalmology and women in leadership roles. A recent paper Rashmi produced with colleagues, funded by our Research Enhancement Award scheme, explored the impact of socioeconomic factors, gender and ethnicity on career success in ophthalmology.
The roots of Rashmi’s career were formed at school when she developed a love for chemistry and maths and her interests and ability were nurtured by “inspirational teachers”.
She credits growing up in a family where her gender was “never considered a barrier” and she felt she was always encouraged to pursue the things she enjoyed.
A “portfolio” career was never something Rashmi had considered, but since becoming a consultant, she began to branch into areas of education, as well as her field of glaucoma. She finds the combination of education and clinical work enriching – giving her opportunities to collaborate with a wide variety of people within and outside ophthalmology and to be able to inspire the next generation of ophthalmic healthcare professionals.
Being a woman in science has given me an amazing platform to be a role model for other women in science. For me, it is also about nurturing talent when I see it and giving opportunities for others to excel.
Rashmi hopes to be recognised less for “titles” and more for how she has pursued her work without compromising her time with her two children, how she’s dealt with failure and had “the courage to carve a unique career path”.
For the future of women in science, Rashmi wants women to be able to define their own version of success. She explains, “We all need to recognise that there is not a single right way.”
The future for women in science
In order to drive change, it is important to foster positive environments and supportive networks which empower women and inspire the next generation of innovators and leaders. Ensuring equality, diversity and inclusion is what will ultimately shape the future of science and technology as we know it.