Biotechnology & PharmaceuticalsView profile
We appreciate Eva Steele for taking the time to chat with us for our series ‘Women In Science’. Eva is the Co-founder of Amytis, a computational biology company developing digital infrastructure for this new era of biological sciences
The purpose of article series ‘Women In Science’ is to feature, showcase and share the reality of being someone that identifies as a woman in science. We gather and showcase stories, career journeys, as well as advice and wisdom.
Eva: I’m Eva Steele, I am a fourth year PhD student in the area of biotechnology, specifically, biorefinery technology. We are trying to replace oil refineries – which have a net movement of carbon into the atmosphere – with biorefineries, a more carbon neutral solution. I focus on plant biomass, specifically a component called lignin, which has huge potential to be an incredibly useful and valuable material, but it is a very unique kind of material that is especially difficult to process. So my PhD focuses on developing a biochemical process that can valorise lignin.
My background is in biology, and I got into biotechnology though competing as an undergrad in iGEM – a big, international synthetic biology competition.
I have an early stage start up that I am working on with my co-founder, Freddie. We are working on trying to develop this all-encompassing workspace software for bioscientists. One that gives them access to powerful computational tools to assist them in all aspects of their research, without needing them to be able to code. We were inspired to start this through problems we had faced within our own research, and just a general passion for science and scientific communication.
Eva: I would say that the main barrier that I have faced personally was just the late/missed diagnoses of my ADHD. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was about 22, which I think is the case for a lot of women. Men generally get diagnosed a lot younger because diagnosis models are based on young boys whilst ADHD can present quite differently in girls and women. So the fact that myself, and potentially other neurodiverse women, have to go through school, college, uni, jobs etc without any support means that the task is just that extra bit difficult.
Overall I believe the landscape is getting better. I personally haven’t faced any actual discrimination with people telling me what I can and can’t do as a woman. I am perhaps quite lucky and work in a really positive environment here in our lab. But yes, I would say the main barrier was getting into science in the first place being neurodiverse and not getting that support that I really could have used. It is especially frustrating when thinking back to A levels, and I remember seeing neurodiverse boys in the same exam as me getting support and extra time. Support which I should also have been getting but didn’t. I imagine a lot of girls and women today are facing, and may have previously faced, that problem. At the time I overcame my ADHD-related struggles with what would probably be classed as some bad coping mechanisms. Now, after diagnosis and a fair bit of my own research, I would say I’m a lot better at knowing how my own brain works and adapting my work approach to suit it.
Eva: Obviously there is the fact that the higher up the chain you go, the less women there are – I’m quite lucky in that my supervisor is a woman so I have her to look up to, but there is a huge disparity in the numbers of women vs men being PI’s and Supervisors in academia as well as being CEOs in science or tech based startups. If there aren’t women in these positions it becomes a less obvious path for upcoming scientists which can discourage their upwards pathway.
Eva: This answer is basically a mix of the last two answers really; the more knowledge we gain about recognising neurodiversity in women and supporting neurodiverse women would be helpful. And alongside that, the more women that are in higher up positions the more attainable that seems to young women.
There is also a personality pressure for women where you have to be viewed as a leader if you want to be a leader, but those personality traits in women are often discouraged – we shouldn’t be bossy, or authoritative or firm. So I think perhaps this could be addressed in schools, showing kids diverse examples of leaders and challenging certain perceptions. It would probably also be worth reinforcing this with adults somehow. I certainly have come across, putting it politely, some ‘negative perceptions of female leaders’ in previous workplaces. I think we should expect adults to continually learn and grow in the way we expect children to.
Eva: Linking into the last question the best piece of advice I received was actually during a start-up funding competition I took part in; during one of the associated tutorials the speaker suggested that the best way to be a successful leader is to bring your own personality to it. We have these images about what a leader looks like, or even what a scientist looks like, but we can all challenge this by bringing our own full-self and true personality so that there isn’t just this one mould that all leaders/women/scientists must fit in, but we diversity that image.
Eva: Just that don’t get put off what you’re passionate about or interested in when people say silly things that they probably don’t mean, especially in school. An anecdote: when I was in my A level physics classes there was just me and one other girl, and one of the favourite class conversations from the boys was about how physics was more suited to a male brain than a female brain. We just had to sit there and ignore it so as to not initiate a cascade of comments about how we were being too sensitive. But in the end, I got a higher grade than all of them. I know that if some of those boys (now men), were to read this and be reminded of that time they would be really quite embarrassed that they ever said those things, so it would be such a shame if I had let those meaningless words put me off. Luckily I had thick skin, so it didn’t put me off, but my advice for females, especially girls or young women, who may find themselves in a similar situation is to just ignore the stupidity and try not let it affect you. If you have a passion or interest for something, go for it. Openly show the passion you have, work hard, and you’ll get to where you want to be.