Working life: stem cell scientist Professor Fiona Watt
by Guest Author on 6 Mar 2019
Professor Fiona Watt is Director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London and last year became Executive Chair of the MRC. Here she explains the excitement of studying stem cells, her vision for a healthier nation and why there’s no shame in failing.
Career in brief
- PhD in cell biology, University of Oxford
- Postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, USA
- Set up first lab at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, London
- Laboratory Head at Imperial Cancer Research London, now part of the Francis Crick Institute
- Deputy Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute and the Wellcome-MRC Centre for Stem Cell Research, University of Cambridge
- Established the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine at King’s College London
Listen to Fiona’s career inspirations in our MRC talks podcast interview:
I always wanted to be a scientist. As a small child my bedroom was full of tanks of newts and frogs and toads. I had goldfish, we had dogs, guinea pigs and a rabbit. In our family there was a strong feeling that your work should benefit other people and I volunteered as a child in a home for people with disabilities. So I’ve always wanted to combine my love of science with practical benefit.
I remember when I first discovered a simple method to purify stem cells from the skin. That was certainly very exciting. Other discoveries that have been exciting include realising that cells in the body, called fibroblasts – which most scientists think are rather boring – actually have very interesting characteristics that could be harnessed to treat scar formation.
My appointment to the MRC coincided with the creation of an umbrella organisation called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). So while I’ve been trying to get to know the MRC, I’ve been helping shape UKRI, at a time when there are new ways of funding science, for example through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. I sometimes feel like a polar bear trying to leap from ice floe to ice floe. The short answer is there’s no typical working day at the moment, but it’s never boring.
I’m excited by finding the answers to research questions. I’m not doing experiments myself any more, but I love it when my lab gets together as a team and we go through the data. People tend to think of science as being quite precise, but really searching for the truth is an iterative process. I always say there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. We can design the experiment, we can do it properly – if it doesn’t give us the result we expected, it’s still informative.
The landscape for women in science has a changed a lot. When I was doing my PhD in Oxford I was the only female PhD student in the department for a while. Now in our area of science more than 50% of PhD students are women. If you look at the other end of the academic pipeline, the proportion of female professors in the UK has gone up from about 15% 20 years ago to about 24% now, so this is all hugely positive. But there’s still much more to be done.
It’s no longer the case that you choose an academic career, or do something else in a binary fashion. We’re seeing so much flexibility within science careers. A PhD could equip you to work in government, for example. Or you might decide to work in a large pharmaceutical company or in a biotech company. You can flip backwards and forwards in a way that wasn’t possible when I was starting out.
There’s no shame in failing. If you want to do science you can think of lots of reasons why it’s hard. Perhaps it doesn’t pay very well, it’s uncertain. But if you had the choice of backing out of a career in science because of all the uncertainty, or doing it and failing, I would try it and fail. I have never trained a scientist who failed to embark on the research career that they wanted.
In my research field the major challenge is to see the practical benefits of stem cell research. So I would like to see cell therapies rolled out into patient care. In my field this would involve transplanting fibroblasts to resolve scars which have caused people to be disfigured and lack joint mobility.
I have this huge ambition for Britain, which is that we stop seeing our NHS as something that we access only when we’re ill, and start thinking about how everybody can altruistically donate their data to the NHS in exchange for information which allows them to manage their own health better. I think that ultimately this would lead to a healthier nation and would reduce the burden on the NHS.
As told to Isabel Harding