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International Women's Day: Overcoming sexism to forge a career in science

Chemist Raysa Khan has overcome sexism to establish a successful career as a researcher

Chemist Raysa Khan has surpassed the expectations of her conservative Bangladeshi upbringing to forge a career as a cancer researcher.

Raysa is a Research Fellow in Medicinal Chemistry, working with Professor John Spencer at the University of Sussex.

She joined the Spencer Lab for her PhD in 2014 after graduating top of her class in Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry from Nottingham Trent University. She received the PhD presentation first prize at the Sussex annual research colloquium in 2017, where she talked about her work on finding highly efficient methods for generating series of drug-like compounds. Alongside her PhD, Raysa was involved in helping an international manufacturing start-up and gained experience in industrial scale-up and commercial viability in drug design at Tocris, as part of her CASE placement.

Combining scientific curiosity with her dedication and hard work, she wants to make a true impact in the research to fight against cancer. However, being a woman researcher, her scientific pursuit has not always been easy. 

What drove you to a career in science?

I have always been interested in science and maths, but time and again I have been told that a career in science is not where a woman might fit in - but the rebel inside me told that yes, I can and I must.

I decided to pursue chemistry after my high school, where I had a great chemistry teacher who taught us that chemistry is nothing but solving problems by asking the right questions. And the good thing is that the question does not have to be always right. It’s a process of trial and error where perseverance and dedication often pay off.

The reason I came to medicinal chemistry and pursuing a career in drug discovery is that I have always wanted to make an impact and help others. This is also the reason I chose my current research project which, if successful, will help treat up to 100,000 cancer patients each year.

What are you working on now?

With funding from Worldwide Cancer Research, here at the Spencer Lab we are trying to develop new drugs that re-stabilise the ‘tumour suppressor’ p53, colloquially termed as the guardian of the genome.

P53 is a protein that plays key roles in preventing cancer formation. In most human cancers p53 becomes inactive. One of the causes for its inactivation is a particular mutation, where an amino acid tyrosine is changed to one called cysteine. This creates a hole in the protein which causes it to be less stable and break down easily.

We are working towards making molecules that will fit in the gap of the faulty protein, rescue it from breaking down and reactivate its tumour suppressing functions.

Our work is a bit like designing a missing bit in a puzzle - we’re trying to synthesise molecules that will fit in the ‘gap’ of the faulty protein and restore its functions. Although currently, we have taken very specific and defined targets, ultimately, our research could lay the groundwork for the promising development of brand new drugs capable of targeting a wide range of cancers.

As a female researcher working in cancer research, what do you think are the main challenges faced by young women scientists? And what would you tell the young people who are thinking of pursuing a career in cancer research? 

Born in a conservative Bangladeshi family and subsequently relocating to Sweden and the UK, I have had some mixed exposures to some of the challenges faced by young women in academia.

While in Bangladesh, it has been hard to ignore the prevalent misogyny and social expectation which indicates that women are not good enough to be out there in the world and make a difference like their male counterparts. The place that I come from, being a woman scientist is certainly not a common thing, whereas the domain of the low-paid and exploited factory hand is mostly subscribed by the female gender.

When my family migrated to Sweden, I felt the instant difference and am grateful for all the opportunities that followed.

However, somehow the thinly disguised misogyny prevails across the borders. Women pursuing higher professional occupations are far less common than men across the globe. When it comes to our field and particularly in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine), one can’t help but notice that even in this day and age, women are highly under-represented. 

For me, in today’s world, more than social stigma, I believe to some extent, our most potent threat comes from the lack of confidence in ourselves. I know we have a long way to go but I have always believed that the fundamental lack of belief in ourselves and in our self-worth, is what tampers our ability and puts us back.

What advice would you give to those hoping to follow in your footsetps?

There are tons of opportunities out there to thrive in scientific career. I believe we should embrace every opportunity to engage and showcase our capabilities. I know that we girls often lack professional female role models both in our family and in our work life. However, we got to change that.

I am grateful that slowly but surely things are changing. For instance, in the Spencer Lab, we value, respect and actively uphold gender and racial diversity. My current workplace, Sussex School of Life Sciences, holds an Athena SWAN Silver Award and I believe the faculty is trying to actively improve on its commitment to advancing women's careers in STEMM employment in academia.


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By: Neil Vowles
Last updated: Thursday, 8 March 2018