The Winston Churchill Award Ceremony in 2015. : Rebecca receiving her award from Professor Brian Clarke, world renowned architectural artist and 1974 Churchill Fellow.
This International Day for Women and Girls and Science, we wanted to share a piece by FRSA Rebecca A B Burton - University Research Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford where she reflects on her journey towards an award-winning career in science. A huge thank you to Rebecca for sharing her story.
What is your role, and what work do you do at the moment in science? What was your journey to working in science like?
"I am a University Research Lecturer and Sir Henry Dale Fellow of the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust. This research fellowship is aimed at early career scientists and has allowed me to establish myself as an independent Principal Investigator in the Department of Pharmacology, Oxford. I am also an elected Senior Research Fellow of Linacre College, Oxford. My background training is in Physiology and Pharmacology. I would describe myself as a biomedical scientist with an interest in applying bioengineering methods to answer cardiac biophysical questions about causes and consequences of atrial arrhythmias.
Our heartbeat is the most fundamental rhythm in our lives, signalling the regular pumping of your heart as it propels blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to the rest of your body. We take the regular beating completely for granted, never giving it a second thought until the elegant control process goes wrong, the consequences can be the devastating disability, loss of independence and even death caused by atrial fibrillation-related stroke.
In 2003 I was awarded an MSc in Pharmacology and Biotechnology from Sheffield Hallam University. During this time, I realised my passion for research and decided that I wanted to pursue a career in academia. Soon after my MSc, I was offered the position of Lab manager/Research Assistant in Professor’s Peter Kohl and Denis Nobles’ Oxford Cardiac Mechano-Electric Feedback Group. During my early years in this group, I was given fantastic scientific support and training and encouraged to ‘think outside the box’.
My goal to pursue a DPhil in Cardiac Physiology became a reality when I was awarded one of the coveted Oxford Overseas Research Scholarships (full international scholarship), to support my studies (from which I graduated in 2010). My time in the Kohl lab provided me with opportunities that set the foundations of my career in science. I was encouraged to grow continually, in a professional sense, and this included writing grants, going on research visits in Europe, the USA and Canada and learning new experimental protocols. One of my early scientific achievements that I am very proud of was winning a Pfizer Prize at the annual Physiological Society during my DPhil for studies on the re-discovery of the third coronary artery in the heart.
On a lab visit to MIT (Boston USA), meeting a successful scientist with a business background helped me realise the power, potential and competitive edge a management qualification would provide me in my career (in terms of industry opportunities, funding and management). In parallel with my doctorate, I pursued a part-time MBA and graduated with Merit from Oxford Brookes University (2008), an incredibly challenging yet fulfilling accomplishment in my life. At this point I must mention that whilst doing my DPhil and MBA, I also gave birth to my daughter . Successfully completing these two major degrees and maintaining some sort of work-life balance involved a lot planning, precise time management and an incredible amount of energy and motivation. Above all, I would attribute my success to the fantastic support and encouragement I received from my work colleagues and family and the passion and conviction I had for the research I was doing.
In 2011 I moved to work in the laboratory of Dr Gil Bub and Prof David Paterson supported by the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence Oxford. My postdoctoral work focused primarily on (i) understanding the influence of neural activation on cardiac arrhythmogenesis using in vitro cardiac-neuron co-culture systems (ii) application of novel dye-free optical methods and optogenetics for actuation and sensing of electromechanical function in cardiac cells.
I am also interested in pharmacological therapies for the treatment of idiopathic tachycardia and heart failure by modulating the funny current 'If'. In 2013, working in collaboration with Professors Derek Terrar, Gil Bub and David Paterson, we filed a patent through Oxford University Innovation for re-purposing Hydroxychloroquine as a ‘funny current’ blocker in the heart.
In January 2015 I was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship in Science and Engineering which allowed me to spend time in the Laboratory of Professor Emilia Entcheva at Stony Brook University (New York USA). This was an amazing opportunity to broaden my scientific skills and thinking. Additionally, it allowed me to build new collaborations and to develop an international multidisciplinary approach in my research. In December 2015, I was awarded a Sir Henry Dale Royal Society and Wellcome Trust fellowship to pursue an independent program of research in the Department of Pharmacology. My current and proposed research plans build on my training and research experience over the last 10-12 years at Sheffield and Oxford; basic cardiovascular research at the organ, tissue and cellular levels and translational work in whole animals and patients to investigate the causes of arrhthmogenesis. I was recently awarded a British Heart Foundation project grant, which will allow me to grow the team and build on our research programmes.
Along with my research, I am actively involved in teaching. In the past I have been a retained lecturer in Physiology and Medicine at Exeter College and stipendiary lecturer at Oriel and Corpus Christi Colleges. I am extensively involved in outreach activities at local schools and other public engagement events such as Pint of Science (2014 and 2016), the Royal Society summer science exhibition, Summer science schools and Museum Lates (London). Outside the university, I served as a Trustee and Director for The Physiological Society from 2011-2015 and serve on serve on several committees including outreach, finance, policy. These activities have helped me engage and motivate young, aspiring scientists and have been humbling experiences. To quote Walt Disney, ‘All dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them’."
At Van Cleef and Arpels in Paris
More importantly, you need to pursue a topic that fascinates you. I am happy to go to bed thinking of science and wake up thinking of the next experiment I can do.
What advice would you give women (young or old) who are considering moving into the sciences?
"A career in science can be amazing. No two days are the same, there is always something new (and if you are lucky, exciting) round the corner. You need to choose your subjects carefully based on your future career plans. More importantly, you need to pursue a topic that fascinates you. I am happy to go to bed thinking of science and wake up thinking of the next experiment I can do.
Finding the right environment, support and location can be tricky, especially in these days when funding is hard to come by and everything is ‘super competitive’. However, having been through over a decade of challenging circumstances when funding has run out and jobs are tough to come by, my sincere and honest advice would be to keep persevering. In times of funding shortfalls, I looked everywhere for opportunities, I knocked on every door and kept going even when opportunities failed to come by. I never gave up and believed in myself and my dream. Scientific research, on the whole, requires patience and vision; an ability to handle failure and success gracefully. I say this with great pleasure, I am fortunate that my job is my passion."
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