From bench to boardroom, and beyond

We are very fortunate in Ireland to have a rich talent pool of emerging leaders in the area of vision loss. To celebrate International Women’s Day 2020, we hosted a breakfast event on Friday, 6 March, celebrating trailblazing women working across science, research and innovation.

Our theme, ‘From bench to boardroom, and beyond’, explored the different career paths our speakers have embarked upon and their on-going efforts to promote and facilitate research and innovation in Ireland.

Our fantastic panel featured:

The event was chaired by Priscilla Lynch, Clinical Editor at the Medical Independent. The panel discussed their careers to date, obstacles they have faced and advice they would give to young female researchers.

Five speakers and our chair smiling at the camera
L-R: Priscilla Lynch, Eibhlin Mulroe, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Dr Victoria Brownlee, Dr Audrey Derveloy, Dr Abigail Ruth Freeman

Eibhlin Mulroe’s opening piece praised the patient advocates she has met throughout her career; “Some of the greatest leaders I’ve met are our patient advocates; they’re not only leaders in their families but in their communities. Being a great leader is not just about what’s on your CV and that applies to both men and women.”

Dr Audrey Derveloy spoke of the benefits of working in foreign countries and also the support structure within Novartis; “I am lucky to have met fantastic male leaders throughout my career who see the great value women bring to the boardroom. I encourage all women to push themselves, be curious and get out of your comfort zone.”

For Dr Abigail Ruth Freeman of Science Foundation Ireland, creating your own opportunities was an important message, “Don’t be afraid to put your hand up and put yourself forward. If you see an opportunity you want – pursue it. No one is going to give you a career on a plate.”

The first question Priscilla put to the panel was about the term STEM – do they feel it is inclusive of all careers that may fall under research and innovation, particularly as society is becoming more focused on how to engage and involve the public?

“The magic happens when the disciplines collide” said Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Chair, Irish Research Council. “There are great challenges the world faces, it is an interdisciplinary approach that will solve it.”

The panel also discussed the gender imbalance across the science and research industries – fewer than 30% of researchers internationally are women. Professor Ohlmeyer has unfortunately faced a lot of sexism throughout her career in higher education. She has some solid advice for younger women, “It’s a structural, cultural and systemic issue. I encourage women to think like a man. Build yourself up, not down. Mentor and help other women. Call out bad behaviour when you see it.”

Dr Victoria Brownlee, Programme Manager (Ireland), Athena SWAN, agreed and highlighted the problem that there is a shortage of women in senior research roles. “For every two men doing physics at the Leaving Cert, there’s just one woman. After children come along, there’s another drop off for women in STEM. There’s a leak in the pipeline to the top, we need to fix it.”

The panel all agreed that female mentorship was and still is an important part of their careers, having a great mentor can help you navigate the underlying sexism that still exists. Don’t be afraid to approach the women you admire and ask them out for coffee.

To wrap up the discussion, our chair Priscilla Lynch explained that she often met resistance from female researchers to speak to the media about their work. Press releases regularly featured male spokespeople and not the female members of the team. She encouraged everyone present to seek out media training if possible, always use your title (Dr, Prof, etc) and speak up about your research.

Before closing the event we announced the winner of our new Young Female Researcher Bursary – a €1000 career development award for a promising female researcher working in the area of sight loss in Ireland. The Bursary is proudly supported by its4women.ie.

To launch the Bursary, we asked researchers to summarise their research in the format of a tabloid headline. The winner was Rebecca Ward, a PhD researcher in UCD with her entry – “Plenty more fish in the SEE…and UCD researchers are using them to REEL IN a cure for childhood blindness!”

We would like to extend a warm thank you to all of our panellists, our chair, attendees, AIB Ireland for hosting and its4women.ie for their support.

Happy International Women’s Day 2020 from all in Fighting Blindness!

Illustration of panel members
Illustration of panel by Laura K Finnegan @laurakfinnegan

Dr Victoria Brownlee talking at the event

Dr Abigail Ruth Freeman speaking at the event

Audience photograph

Shot of panel

Prof Jane Ohlmeyer speaking at event

Rebecca Ward, Bursary winner and UCD researcher
Rebecca Ward, Bursary winner and UCD researcher
L-R Eibhlin Mulroe, Dr Victoria Brownlee, Priscilla Lynch, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Dr Audrey Derveloy, Dr Abigail Ruth Freeman