I hope I'll inspire my children
Professor Louise Serpell is Co-Director of the University of Sussex’s Dementia Research Group and chairs the Athena SWAN equality initiative in the School of Life Sciences.
I was nine years old when I told my parents I wanted to be a scientist. Then, when I was about 13, I read a book about the double helix structure of DNA. I found it fascinating and decided this was an area I’d like to work in.
I was determined not to fit into any mould just because of my gender. Science was regarded as a boys’ subject, along with woodwork. But we should all have the potential to choose our career path. Mine was to become a biochemist.
When I heard Terry Pratchett was funding my research, I was thrilled. In 2008, we applied for funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK. Terry’s donation of $1 million was used to bring together an international research group to focus our research to understand how one of the proteins involved with Alzheimer’s (Amyloid-beta) interacts with the membranes that surround cells.
Without Terry’s generous donation, we would not be at the stage we’re at. We now know that certain proteins affect memory before causing any damage to brain cells. This work is essential to furthering our understanding of how Alzheimer’s disease develops and eventually to finding effective medicines.
We use snails and spiders in the research, which people always find amusing. Snails may be simpler than us, but they can learn tasks through smell and food, and that allows us to test their memories. We have noticed that certain proteins damage their memory. The way spiders produce protein as a liquid and turn it into silk webs – which are gram for gram stronger and more elastic than steel – is fascinating, and not a process that we yet understand.
I’m a big fan of Bake-Off judge Mary Berry, and was lucky enough to meet her when I was named ‘pioneer of the year’ in Red’s Hot Women Awards 2013. I joined Mary, cookery blogger Jack Monroe and fashion designer Alice Temperley at a glittering awards ceremony. Not a lab coat in sight!
It annoys me that there is such a gender inequality in academia. We know that 90 per cent of professors in the UK are men, and that women don’t go for jobs unless they feel qualified. We need better role models for women.
I hope I’ll be an inspiration to my children. I went back to work when they were less than four months, but it’s almost impossible to take time out without falling behind and needing to work faster and more effectively.
My own inspiration came from Rosalind Franklin, who was instrumental in the discovery of DNA. I was delighted when Nicole Kidman won accolades for her portrayal of Rosalind in a West End play Photograph 51. These are the sort of stories that need to be told.