Interview with Laura Taylor

What is your job?

My role is as a Medical Laboratory Assistant in a Histopathology Lab in the NHS. In histopathology we get tissue from across the hospital such as breast samples from mastectomies, moles that have been removed, tumour cores etc, which then get dissected or transferred to cassettes and processed, then embedded in wax and thin slices cut for staining.

In my role I accept samples, write notes during dissection about the tissue and any special stains, pick up the thin sections of tissue and maintain machinery. I also file blocks and slides, book in samples, and dispose of old tissue samples.

What was your STEM journey?

I loved science at school, but also loved history, and it wasn’t until my first year of A-Levels that I finally decided to apply for medicine over history at University, choosing to take Human Biology, History and Chemistry to full A-Level, and dropping Government and Politics at AS Level. I accepted my conditional offers from the University of Manchester for Medicine and also Biomedical Sciences. On A-Level results day, I didn’t meet the grades for medicine, so ended up at the University of Lincoln on Biomedical Sciences through Clearing. I ended up absolutely falling in love with my course, and lab work, and through myself into everything. I did some summer projects with a biotechnology company, and did a week long overseas field course incPeniche, Portugal as part of my course. During my second year of my undergraduate degree, my tutor approached me with an MSc project, so after graduation I stayed at Lincoln to do my MSc Molecular Biology and Biochemistry by Research looking at cancer metastasis and using a molecular chaperone as a biomarker of disease. After a year, I switched to doing my Masters part time to take on a 1 year internship as a Life Sciences technician at the University of Lincoln.

Throughout my 2 years of my MSc, I applied for numerous PhD positions, but was unable to obtain an offer. I realised that not doing a PhD was not the end of the world, and that I had a lot of time to do one one day, if I still wanted to. After my internship I started my current role in the NHS in Harrogate, where I plan on staying to complete my IBMS portfolio and to train as a biomedical scientist.

When did you first realize you wanted to do STEM?

I don’t think there was one defining moment. I enjoyed science at school so knew that I really enjoyed science, but I think I realised properly what STEM was at university, and realised in my first year undergraduate labs how much I loved science and being in the lab. How much I enjoyed the undergraduate practicals made me realize that I wanted a career in STEM and that I wanted to be in a lab.

Who were your role models growing up?

My parents have always been my role models with their guidance through life. In science my role model was also Elsie Inglis who I found out about in the later years of school. She was doctor, surgeon, teacher, suffragist, and founder of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. During the first world war she offered her medical services but was told by the War Office to “go home and sit still”, then she set up her own medical corps and lent her services to France. I’d really recommend looking her up to see how amazing her journey is!

Did you ever want to do anything else?

When I was growing up as a child I wanted to be a lawyer! When I was making my decisions about University I was really stuck between medicine and history, as I wanted to be either a doctor or a museum curator, but the job options that lead from studying history were fewer that those leading from medicine, which heavily influenced my decision.

Have you ever had any major setbacks (in STEM or otherwise)?

I feel that during my MSc I faced set backs in the form of money. I claimed the full student loan for Postgrad students but still had to work 3 part time jobs to be able to afford things like my rent and food. This sometimes impacted my work as I couldn’t be in lab doing my research as much as I wanted to. I also tried applying for PhDs for 2 years, but was unsuccessful. I may try again in the future but at the minute I’m really happy where I am! My diversion from medicine to Biomedical Sciences was also at the time a big setback for me, but it’s made me realise how much I love science, and would have hated medicine. I think it’s really important for everyone to know that it’s ok for paths to change and for you to develop and change your mind on what you want. There is no shame in your path changing, and setbacks are not failures.

What’s one thing you’d like to change about the STEM community?

I’d love to change how accessible it is. STEM should be accessible for everyone but it really isn’t. Things like summer placements, lab accessibility and the like aren’t always accessible for people from different backgrounds, many institutions don’t take into account things such as lack of funding, disabilities, childcare, and it stops STEM being open to everyone. The subjects in STEM are so diverse, but the cohorts often don’t reflect this at all, so institutions, workplaces, universities, they all need to put the effort in into making the workforce reflect society, and not just at grassroots levels, I want to see representation all the way to the top, in all areas.

Is there a problem with sexism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination in general in the STEM community?

Yes absolutely. If there’s one thing that the events of the past year has shown us, it’s that institutions like to say that they have plans and like to say that they are making change, but that change doesn’t actually come, and that’s something that we need to hold people accountable for. Not all courses are accessible for everyone, most labs don’t even have adjustable benches for wheelchair uses. The design of STEM can almost feel like discrimination is built in as it can be so inaccessible. It feels like in STEM that the higher up the ranks you go in places such as universities etc, the less diverse it is, and that’s something that really needs changing. Even with visibility and publicity in STEM, there is not the diversity present that is needed. Too often women in STEM don’t have their titles displayed when being interviewed, but a man has. We need these problems to stop, so that the next generation of STEM enthusiasts can have role models that look like them so that they know that they can achieve anything without the setbacks that those who came before them have faced.

What’s your message for young teens wanting to do STEM?

I’d say there is so much choice in STEM, so many careers, so many subjects, go and find what you love and your options with it, don’t feel like you need to fit into a box. Talk about what you love too!

What is your favorite science joke?

I make bad science puns, but only periodically.

What is your most embarrassing moment in your life?

I once went to the supermarket as a kid and had a line of toilet roll hanging out my jeans which wasn’t great.

What is your favourite food?

I love literally any form of pasta, give me a big bowl of carbs and I am a very happy person.

What can be done to make STEM more diverse?

Having representation all the way up the ranks in STEM can definitely make things more diverse. Ensuring that there are policies in place to be able to advertise to all demographics and promote representatively to make sure that diversity is seen at all levels in STEM. Having universities and workplaces go into schools with high level of diversity and low levels of further education progression to give talks and run workshops to encourage the idea that careers in STEM are for everyone will also be beneficial. Speaking to students and workers about what discrimination they face, what they want to happen to change it, and actually changing it will also help, rather than just making statements. Also, making sure that everyone is credited on papers or awards will also be beneficial. More adaptivity in workplaces, for example, having alternate workstations for those who have disabilities or having alternate hours or support for those who require child care or have caring responsibilities. Having funding available for summer research projects so that people from a disadvantaged background have the ability to afford to gain experience in research. Ensure that cultural differences are understood and accounted for in job descriptions and work schedules and having mentors available from different backgrounds would also help. Also, at a very basic level, ensuring that people who are diverse are visible, whether that is diversifying your feed on Instagram, making a conference line up more diverse, or shouting about the work of different people!

How has your identity impacted your career in STEM?

I feel like being a woman has made me feel like I’ve had to work harder to get the same level of respect as a male in STEM. However, I am white, cis-gendered and able-bodied, so I am privileged in this respect and have not experienced the same kind or amount of disadvantages in my career as other people have, which I think is important to recognise.

huge thank you to Laura for joining us today! Be sure to subscribe to receive more STEM-related content coming to your inbox.

Anna Barsham