Filipa Simões – A Seat at the Table
"I am committed to fostering the interest of underrepresented students in science, to which non-stereotyped role models are so important"
Dr Filipa Simões is an Intermediate Transition Research Fellow, interested in cardiovascular development and regeneration, at the University of Oxford.
In this month's empowering Story, Dr Simões reflects on the challenges faced by female researchers and institutional responsibilities to address them, the value of peer-to-peer mentoring, and tells us why she's determined to diversify the research community and offer more 'seats at the table'...
At what age did you decide that you wanted a career in science?
I remember always being intrigued by animals and plants. As a child, I spent my summers in a small village in Portugal with my grandmother and I fondly remember exploring, playing and capturing animals and the most colourful flowers on the farm. I liked maths and once I got into secondary school, I had good science teachers that exposed me to the scientific method.
But to some degree I became a scientist by chance. I have never met ‘real scientists’ until I started my undergraduate studies at the University of Lisbon. I had the opportunity to do part of my studies in Paris, exposing me to different views on science, music, art, and I loved it! So, after finishing my diploma degree, I got admitted into this super cool PhD programme that funds you to join a lab of your choice anywhere in the world for your postgraduate studies – this is how I ended up in Oxford!
Have you ever felt that there were gender-related obstacles to you pursuing this ambition?
As a woman in science, I always felt appreciated and respected. However, we have to acknowledge that, even with the most supportive partner, women take a hit in their careers when they decide to have children. Pregnancy, maternity leave, sleepless nights, and the time involved in looking after children, particularly if you are thousands of miles away from your family, have an impact on your productivity. I had both our children during my postdoctoral tenure and there are times when I have to make difficult choices between the wellbeing of my family and the scientist I want to be. This dichotomy shouldn’t be that different between men and women, but in reality, it is.
Rather than forcing everyone into the same ‘bracket’, we should acknowledge these differences and welcome the view that there is more than one way to pursue a path in science. I see successful female scientists fall behind their male counterparts who, unfortunately, are unable to progress to independence. Although funding agencies are becoming sensitive to this issue, the funding rate is so low at the moment that it makes it even harder to continue an independent career in science.
Tell us about your research career to date, and your Oxford BHF-funded Fellowship.
By the time I finished my undergraduate studies, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in science but wasn’t sure in which area. I therefore applied to a PhD programme back in Portugal which, for the first year of your studies, required you to attend intensive classes in many different subjects, from crystallography to immunology, neurosciences to biotechnology, taught by experts who were flown in. It was an immense privilege to get exposed to such variety of disciplines and world-class scientists, and it helped me understand which field I wanted to focus on for my PhD.
I came to Oxford to undertake my PhD research in the laboratory of Roger Patient at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. I was keen in developmental biology, with a focus in cardiovascular sciences, and was introduced to the zebrafish embryo in Roger’s lab, looking at different molecular cues and regulatory programmes driving cardiovascular cell identity, specification and differentiation. Roger was a generous supervisor and gave me freedom to explore. He was (and still is!) the best at asking questions and making you be the first critic of your own work, which was key in setting my foundation as a scientist.
For my postdoctoral work, I was interested in understanding more about the regenerative capacity of the adult heart after injury. I knocked on Paul Riley’s door, then based at the UCL-Institute of Child Health, asking if he would be interested in having someone in the lab looking at how the heart regenerates in the zebrafish. Paul has a long-standing interest in the epicardium, and I started to look at these cells and how different epicardial subpopulations undertake distinct roles during both heart development and cardiac regeneration. I was able to expand my knowledge in regenerative medicine and acquire new technical expertise. I also supervised two PhD students and many undergraduates in the lab, which I found incredibly rewarding.
I was later able to secure a transitional fellowship from the Oxford-BHF Centre of Research Excellence, working closely with Tatjana Sauka-Spengler. This fellowship has been instrumental in giving me the time to consolidate my publication record and allowing me to develop and adapt new technologies to address my own questions.
In 2019, you were one of ten women shortlisted for a Knomo Award, which celebrates extraordinary and entrepreneurial women. Can you tell us more about the incredible work that you did with disadvantaged undergraduates, which, in part, earned you this nomination?
I grew up in Portugal, where accessing a good education system didn’t depend on which school you went to or how wealthy your family was – if you were a good student that worked hard you could have a successful educational path. But in the UK things are different and, had I been born here, most probably I would have not ended up at Oxford. Therefore, I am committed to fostering the interest of underrepresented students in science, to which non-stereotyped role models are so important.
I have secured funding in the past to host undergraduates over the summer, who can experience biomedical research first-hand in a world-class setting, encouraging them to embrace a career in science. This experience is financially supported, so students don’t have to choose between improving their CVs and having to find a paid job over the summer. You are therefore increasing the diversity of students that apply to these internships, avoiding early disparities based on social or financial background.
I believe that by sharing my passion for science, I can increase diversity, change perceptions and help to inspire a new, more inclusive, generation of scientists. I will try and include such type of costs when applying for my own funding. If funding bodies are open to this approach, I will be able to keep encouraging a more diverse range of students to join us in the lab.
What does the research world (including funding bodies, researchers, and research alumni) need to do to ensure greater diversity in the research community?
Scientists come in all different shapes and forms; however, I think we can all agree that academia still seems to be a very uniform world. Gender, sexual preference, disability or social background shouldn’t matter when funding the best science.
When you have a question in science that your team are trying to address, but all of you see the problem from the same angle, often, it isn’t until someone from a different field asks: ‘have you thought of it from this perspective?’ that you crack the problem! Similarly, people can bring so much to the table, based on their own experiences and perspectives, but most are not yet allowed to have a seat at said table, leading to a loss of talent and limited perspectives. This is a complex subject that luckily is gaining momentum in the UK. I hope that ‘allies’ that sit at those tables can share their privilege and position of power with others.
Being a woman in science makes me particularly aware of the issues affecting this group of scientists. One challenging period in a woman’s career are the first years after a baby is born. That said, there are practical solutions available. At the University of Oxford, for example, we have the Returning Carers' Fund, which provides opportunity for carers returning from a career break to mitigate gaps on training, establish new collaborations, attend conferences to raise their profile, etc. The Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Foundation financially aids female graduate students and postdocs with children to get help around the house. These initiatives put forward the important message that it is OK to ask for help from outside so you can focus your time on science and your young family.
Above all, it is important that major institutions are made accountable for the number of women they recruit and retain. Perhaps funding bodies should start taking this into account when allocating funding to institutions? We can already see that the effects of the Covid pandemic are disproportionately affecting women - if there aren’t positive reinforcements to increase the prospects for women researchers, we might end up having even fewer women in academic leadership positions in the coming years.
You have talked about feeling lucky to be surrounded by ‘enthusiastic and inspiring mentors’; what’s the value of having a mentor, and what makes a good mentor?
Having the right people around has been key in helping me overcome the pressures of navigating a career in science. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have both Paul and Tatjana as my mentors - they gave me the freedom to pursue what I wanted and always believed in me. Importantly, they gave me the opportunity to work in a flexible environment, respecting and supporting my career. This has allowed me to focus on my science and to get through tough times with confidence. A good mentor is someone that can push the best out of their mentees, promoting their growth and helping them along the right path, understanding that the right path for their mentee is not necessarily the same as their own.
I also truly value peer mentoring - having people in my life that are at a similar career stage with whom I can share my wins, doubts, aspirations, frustrations, that root for me no matter what and share their own experiences. All these people, more senior or not, have common features that inspire me: they are enthusiastic, creative, bold and fearless in their approaches, summing up one of the reasons why having a career in science is so exciting - you meet the most incredible people along the way!
What does the future hold?
I am very excited about the next questions I want to ask and the experiments I want to perform. This is a wonderful time to be doing science, as many technologies allow us to address important questions that we couldn’t have tackled a few years ago. I hope I can start my independent research group soon, looking at how macrophages interact with the injured heart and contribute to its regenerative response. I have spent most of the Covid pandemic months home schooling our children and applying for fellowships, which made for an incredibly stressful and challenging time. There is much uncertainty in terms of career prospects, in big part due to funding cuts and hire freezes following the pandemic. This makes it all even more competitive for early career researchers, so fingers crossed things work out in the near future and I am able to jump into the next level.
Dr Filipa Simões on Twitter
Find out more about BHF Professor Paul Riley's lab
Learn more about the work of Professor Tatjana Sauka-Spengler's lab