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  • Writer's pictureMikayla Shelton

Celebrating women's contributions in STEM at PeptiMatrix™ on International Women's Day

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a global holiday celebrated on March 8th each year and commemorates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. The aim of UNESCO’s IWD is to give focus to actions that accelerate women’s equality and recognise their contributions to society, and has done so now for over a century. Despite making significant strides in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), challenges still persist for women that impede complete involvement, including underrepresentation, a lack of role models, work-life balance responsibilities and pay/opportunity disparities. This IWD, we want to shine a spotlight on the incredible women that work at PeptiMatrix™ and focus on their journey and achievements in science, in the hopes it can inspire other women to pursue a career in STEM and navigate any obstacles it may bring.

Dr Viola Erdelyi, Product Development Technologist

Viola is a cancer research scientist who has been working as a Product Development Technologist for PeptiMatrix™ since the company was launched in July 2023. She completed her PhD in Molecular Biology at the University of Nottingham, where her project focused on testing and optimising new small molecule inhibitors for the treatment of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, as well as building a 3D cell model to better understand the absorption, distribution, metabolism and excretion (ADME) properties of said inhibitors. She has an interdisciplinary background, having studied psychology, cognitive neuroscience and biomedical imaging before her PhD, and has a wide range of in-depth skills in biology research and cell based assays that all support her attributes as a talented, multifaceted scientist.

When asked about why she decided to have a career in science, Viola said, “From a very early age, I’ve been fascinated by how the mind works and what makes us ‘us’. Then I got into cell biology and found a never-ending curiosity for cell behaviour”. Her role model that influenced her decision to pursue a scientific career was her mother:

“My mum worked as a community pharmacist for over 30 years, sometimes in very difficult circumstances, but she always had a scientific answer to everything and always found a way to make things happen”.

Viola has also had her fair share of obstacles to overcome in STEM, ranging from unaccommodating supervisors to working as a full-time mum with a 1 year old. “Thankfully, I managed to overcome this when I joined the Tumour Vascular Biology Lab (University of Nottingham), led by Professor David Bates. I owe a great debt to Dave who always believed in me and to Dr Kiren Yacub-Usman who took me under her wings”. When asked what changes are needed in the scientific system to be more accommodating to women in STEM for the future, Viola believes in the need to dismantle barriers and create inclusive environments:

“I think that STEM, as a field has come a long way but there are still improvements to be made. I’ve experienced first-hand the gender-disparity that affects women when they decide to start a family and the financial burdens that they have to take on. I hope that one day we’ll have a truly level playing field, which also accounts for disabilities, disadvantaged backgrounds as well as young families”.

Professor Cathy Merry, Co-Founder & Chief Scientific Officer

Cathy is a Professor of Stem Cell Glycobiology at the Biodiscovery Institute (BDI), University of Nottingham and has led multiple projects on optimising hydrogel technology since moving to Nottingham in 2015, becoming a founder member of PeptiMatrix™ in July 2023. She studied Biochemistry at the University of Manchester, working for a year abroad in California studying glycosylation of erythropoietin (EPO) before starting her PhD at the Paterson Institute in Manchester. During her PhD, she developed a novel method for the sequence analysis of heparan sulphate and an ongoing passion for glycobiology led her to stay with her PhD lab group, where she studied embryonic stem cells. In 2006, she took up a lectureship role in Materials Science and established her own independent research group, and moved to Nottingham in 2015 to join the Stem Cells, Tissue Engineering and Modelling Centre at the University.

At the University of Nottingham, Cathy is currently Deputy Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences. She leads a lively, dynamic interdisciplinary research group that works on the role of glycans, and more broadly the pericellular matrix, in mechanistic regulation of cell behaviour in health and disease using stem cell-based tools and novel 3D culture environments. Cathy also currently sits on the board of the National Centre for the Refinement, Replacement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) in the UK, and has a long-standing interest in the promotion of non-animal methodologies in research.

Cathy has always wanted to be a scientist since she was a child. "I have always been nosey and inquisitive and I am also quite a show off and like being the centre of attention. I had the BEST chemistry set as a kid.  My dad is a scientist and he built a fantastic set from bits and pieces at his work (before the days of health and safety) which I used to fill my bedroom with acrid smoke, burn holes in the carpet and melt my sister’s dolls etc. Great fun". Support from her dad and hearing him talk about his work as a glycoscientist was a major inspiration to her, as well as meeting many incredible women early on in her career that captivated her with their stories:

"Women like Anne Dell (Imperial), Ten Feizi (Imperial) and Frances Platt (Oxford) were generous with their time and their discussion, sharing their enthusiasm with me and really encouraging me, not just at the start of my career, but throughout it as well.  Last year, I was fortunate to introduce Frances for her award lecture for the The Thudichum Medal from the Biochemical Society at our major meeting. That was incredible."

Cathy unfortunately has faced quite a few prejudices and obstacles working as a woman in STEM, and believes this was most challenging when working in an Engineering department where there were far fewer women in senior positions. Where she works now, many more senior positions are held by women, which she believes has helped normalise decision making involving a more diverse set of voices. "Once I was in a leadership role, I took positive action to build more diverse decision making committees. I also try to normalise the action of calling out and naming sexism and intolerant behaviour.  It's important to support people when they have experienced this and take immediate action to address the issue – even if that’s uncomfortable. Often these behaviours are based on ignorance, so we have a counter that with information and care". In addition to a diversity of voices, Cathy makes a conscious effort as a research leader to keep that inclusivity at the forefront of her mind when making plans for recruitment, progression and support within the University.

"Whilst I do feel positive about how things are going, I worry about the cost and availability of care provision (for children or older family members) and how that disproportionately impacts on women in the workplace, but I’m confident that we are (finally) making progress."

Dr Jennifer Ashworth, Co-Founder & Academic Partner

Jenny is an Anne McLaren research fellow at the University of Nottingham, a fellowship aimed at outstanding female postdoctoral researchers in science, technology, engineering and medicine, and currently works jointly between the Vet School and School of Medicine. She completed her PhD in Medical Materials at the University of Cambridge in 2015, creating collagen materials to characterise the link between the extracellular matrix and cell invasion, in collaboration with Geistlich Pharma AG, Switzerland. She moved to Nottingham in 2016 as a postdoctoral researcher, where she applied her materials science background to develop advanced materials for in vitro disease models. Her current research focus as a research fellow is the design of patient-realistic biomaterial models of fibrotic diseases, using 3D imaging of healthy and diseased tissue to understand the changes, and recreate this in a 3D biomaterial to help understand how to treat diseases like cancer. Her work developing the peptide hydrogel technology for 3D cell culture, providing an animal-free alternative to basement membrane extract, has been recognised by a highly commended award from the International 3Rs Prize in 2020.

When asked about why she wanted to follow a scientific career path, Jenny was actually torn between science and the performing arts growing up, and at one stage almost tried to become an opera singer instead! "In the end I decided that the intellectual challenge of solving problems in science is what really drives me, particularly using inspiration from nature to design new and exciting materials for medical applications. The turning point was learning about spiders’ silk in my first year at University, and how cleverly it’s designed, and I knew then that studying biomaterials was what I wanted to do". In terms of obstacles Jenny has faced in her scientific career, she said she has sometimes felt underestimated due to her height:

"Being fairly petite at 5ft2 has been a bit of a challenge, as quite often at conferences I feel like all the important conversations are taking place half a metre above my head! This is tricky to overcome but I have learnt ways of carrying myself and projecting my confidence and knowledge, particularly through courses in communication, and my background in theatre has really helped too. A pair of high heels can also come in handy!"

Dr Mikayla Shelton, Product Development Technologist

Mikayla is a cancer research scientist who is currently the newest member of the team at PeptiMatrix™, starting in January 2024 as a Product Development Technologist alongside Viola. She completed her PhD at Leeds Beckett University, focusing on the bidirectional crosstalk between melanoma and cancer associated fibroblasts via secretion of extracellular vesicles called exosomes. In addition, she has gained extensive interdisciplinary lab experience throughout her undergraduate degree in Medical Biochemistry and masters degree in Multidisciplinary Research in Experimental Science. As well as academic experience, she also has work experience as a Bioassay Scientist in industry, working on a variety of client in vitro projects.

When asked about why she wanted to pursue a career in science, Mikayla said, “I was always interested in biology when I was young, encouraged vehemently by my dad, and enjoyed problem solving and constantly learning new things, so scientific research seemed like the perfect career for me! Like so many others, having members of my family having to suffer with cancer spurred me onto the path of cancer biology research”. In terms of her role models, she admitted there were too many strong female scientists in her life to pick only one:

“I have worked alongside so many amazing women who have made a massive impact on my scientific journey due to their talents, kindness and encouragement. It is always inspiring to be around those who lift each other up and push you to be the best you can be”.

When queried about what changes are needed in the system to be more accommodating for women to study and work in science, Mikayla thinks that more representation and mentors for young girls to look up to growing up are needed. “Despite a large proportion of STEM workers being women, the representation of women as leaders and innovators is still lacking, which can create an unconscious bias that women are less capable and discourage women pursuing STEM interests”. In addition, whilst she doesn’t have first-hand experience with managing family responsibilities alongside her career, she acknowledges that this is an issue other women she knows have faced that she thinks needs to change:

“Scientific research can be a demanding profession, with long, inconsistent work hours, tough competition and frequent travel, making it hard to establish a healthy work-like balance with a family. Traditional gender roles and societal expectations of women can place pressure on them to interrupt, delay or leave their career”.

As we celebrate IWD, it is crucial for all individuals, regardless of gender, to recognise and address the multifaceted challenges women encounter in STEM to allow them equal opportunities to contribute to scientific progress. This push for gender equity requires a collective effort to dismantle barriers and challenge stereotypes faced by women entering the field of science, creating a more inclusive environment that women of the present and future can thrive in. By advocating for equal opportunities, gender diversity in STEM can help to foster innovation by bringing diverse perspectives, experiences and ideas to the table, resulting in more impactful advancements in the scientific fields for generations to come.

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