Dr Julie Aspden

Dr. Julie Aspden has a Degree in Biochemistry from the University of Oxford and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. She performed her postdoctoral work in the Laboratories of Don Rio – University California, Berkeley (2006 – 2011) and Juan Pablo Couso,- University of Sussex (2012 – 2015). Dr. Aspden is currently a Group Leader at the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of Leeds, UK.





Dr. Julie Aspden, from University of Leeds, visited the CABD the 24th of May (2018) to give a seminar entitled: “Protein synthesis: which RNAs? which ribosomes?”, and we had the chance to talk with her about equality gender issues in science.

Would you like to tell us how did you decide to become a scientist?

I think I got excited about science when I was 16/17 years old. I had a chemistry teacher who had just finished her PhD in Oxford, and she was very inspiring. I think it was her that encouraged me to apply to Oxford and do an undergraduate in Biochemistry. And I also had some work experience at that same time that really inspired me as well. Whilst I was doing my undergraduate, I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to do a PhD. During my summers I got experience of doing research in labs at Cornell (USA)_and the LMB in Cambridge, which really got me excited about doing research.

So other women in science had an important influence on your career?

Definitely. My tutor when I was an undergrad was a huge inspiration to me. I think you can have role models that aren’t of the same gender, like Juan-Pablo Couso. But I think that having a role-model who’s very like you, helps, because you have an example of someone who’s like you who can do it. When I was a postdoc at Sussex I was very fortunate to have a number of female mentors who were instrumental in me getting my first academic position and grant.

Can you tell us a bit more about your path in becoming an academic scientist?

I think I always wanted to have my own group, and when I was a post-doc with Juan-Pablo, I really started focusing on things I needed to achieve to make it happen. I did a little bit of teaching and I also started to get involved with the Athena SWAN. He involved me in grant writing which helped a lot, because I learned some skills that you really have to have to be able to sell yourself, which sometimes can be difficult. For example, you have to be confident, saying why they should hire you, why you’re the best person. And you have to believe that. I think there’s an element of self-confidence that is helpful to develop.

What is your experience with Gender Equality Commissions?

When I was a post-doc at Sussex, I got involved with the Athena Swan Gender Equality Team. We tried to promote women in science, thinking about the problems that existed in our faculty and trying to tackle them. The Athena SWAN network is at the UK level, but within each faculty or department we have a specific team of people.

One of the things we started doing was trying to encourage (women) post-docs to apply for faculty positions and support them. For example, when I started getting interviews for faculty positions, the heads of the faculty gave me a practice interview. Before this, I had had two interviews, and I didn’t get either of the jobs. Then, I did this practice interview, and I found it was really helpful and useful because they encouraged me and gave me advise. After this practice I felt much more confident and believed I could do well in interviews, that I could actually get the job I would like to. After this, I got two offers, and performed better in the interviews.

What about your experience now, at the University of Leeds?

At Leeds, I’m actually the head of the Gender Equality Commission for my faculty. We do lots of work to support and encourage women. Some of it is about childcare, and returning from maternity leave, but also it is about having good role models.

For example, when we have seminar speakers, people who organise the seminars, who are mainly men, tend to invite the people they know, who are often other men, so the gender balance of the seminar speakers was not good. In order to try to improve this, we developed guidelines in which we recommended that people organising the seminars should try to aim for a 50/50 (gender representation) and think about gender – and not just gender but diversity in general of the people who are inviting. And if, sometimes, women say no, maybe because they have other commitments or they get asked to give lots of seminars, they should try to come up with the second option who is also female.

We wrote these guidelines up, with some references about why that can make a difference, and then we gave them to the people organising the seminar series. Now, we are getting much more of a gender balance in invited speakers, and that I think is really good for PhD students and post-docs, because they see women succeeding. I think it is important to explain to those organising seminar series the impact of having a poor gender balance, and that as a female PhD student or postdoc you notice that there are very few females giving seminars. We are not saying “you have to invite a woman” but “think about diversity when you’re inviting people”. I think that it has helped.

Do you know if something similar is being done in the recruiting processes?

One thing that I’ve read was that when you’re recruiting people, if you’ve selected the list of interviews and there’s no women on that list, maybe you could invite the top woman and just interview her. In the interview, if she doesn’t perform, OK, that’s fine; but if she does, you’d have interviewed more broadly, and you still choose the best person, who may end up being a woman that you were about to exclude. It does not consist in lowering the standards, you don’t want to get to a stage where you’re just recruiting women who are less good than the men you are recruiting. This doesn’t help either, because nobody would respect those women if they were less good.

One issue that seems to exist is that in general women will only apply for a position they’re totally ready for, whereas men will tend to apply for a job when they only fulfil 70% of the criteria. Therefore, if you give the woman a chance at interview, she may actually be more qualified than the person you were going to interview.

The moment when women are finishing a post-doc and want to start a family is a difficult one. How does the Athena SWAN support scientist mothers in Leeds?

One of the things we do, which is very new in the faculty, is that if a female academic goes on maternity leave, we try and support her research/teaching by providing funds for a post-doc for a year. We try and be flexible and support people in the way that would be most helpful to them. Two academics have so far benefitted from this, and they both recruited a post-doc to be there while they went on maternity leave. In this way, the post-doc would help them to lead the group, providing an extra layer of management while they’re not there and sort of keeping the group together.

What support is available for PhD students and postdocs going on maternity leave?

For post-docs, technicians and PhD students, we have a pot of money to try to support and help them. If you’re coming back from maternity leave – or paternity leave, or shared parental, or sick leave – these funds could pay for a conference that you need to go to quickly get back into science, but it’s difficult for your PI to pay for that because you are not presenting. This fund is for anyone in the faculty who’s returning to work. People have also used it for childcare to go on a course, so their PI can pay for the course, but to go to the course on a Sunday, for example, they would need childcare, so the pot of money could pay for this.  It’s not a fund, but it’s very flexible, and can be adapted to the needs of each person. So far, I think we’ve helped six or seven people. We’d like more people to apply, but I think we need to adverise it more effectively

The other thing we’ve done recently is provide a room for breastfeeding or changing nappies. We call it the wellbeing room and people can book it. It can also be used for medical needs including supporting mental health. In the room, there’s a fridge, so you can pump and put the milk in the fridge if you wanted to. We have tried to make it as flexible as we can.

We are trying to make a room like this one at the CABD, a lot of mothers are telling us that they miss a space like this, which is very important.

Of course. It’s fine if you’re an academic, because you can just close the door and pump. But you cannot do that when you’re a post-doc in a shared office. If a room like this doesn’t exist, you are obligated to go to the toilet to pump, and that’s not OK. When we set up this room, we actually won an award from the Faculty. People appreciated it so much and it’s already making a difference.

It also helps the mums and dads. For example, someone might be picking up their kid from day care on campus, and then, suddenly they’re walking to the car and they need changing. Having somewhere they can go and change is very helpful. Lots of colleagues have children who attend the day care on campus.

In terms of job positions, what is the situation of women in science in your faculty?

Looking at the academic path and the gender balance, in our faculty we observe the “leaky pipeline” of young females leaving the scientific career. 60% of undergraduates are female, whilst 50% of PhD students are with this decreasing to ~45% at post-doc. Then, we have the first academic position, which is what I am – we call it Grade 8 – then Grade 9, which is associate professor, and Grade 10, professor. In these academic positions, the percentage of women is ~33% at junior academic and dropping to 27% at Professor level. So, the big drop is between Post-doc and academic junior, so that is where we focus much of our activity.

We have the same problem at the CABD, for example, less than 15% of the PIs are women. What kind of actions are you carrying out in your faculty in order to support women in science?

Every year we look at the numbers, within Athena Swan. In the application, you have to look at your numbers and see where you are, and then, make actions based on what are your specific issues. As the drop of women in our faculty is after post-doc, we are doing a couple of things to trying to do something about that.

One of the things is that we have a mentorship scheme for postdocs specifically. So, we organise circles of two academics and four postdocs, who would get together and talk about career development, interviews, fellowships, work life balance. Each time they meet, they focus on one different thing. And we try to make the circles gender balanced, so two male postdocs, two female postdocs, one male PI, one female PI. That’s been really successful. People really found it helpful.

Then, the other thing we’ve started doing, which is organised entirely by postdocs is a “Coffee and Careers” series. Once a month, on a Friday afternoon, they invite somebody to come and talk about career in science. It can be an academic, but also it can be people who went into publishing, into grant and funding bodies, people who could do public engagement or people who work in industry. So, people who have done their PhD in the faculty, and then they’ve done something else. I think this is really important for people that don’t want to do the academic track, so they can have a good understanding of what options are available, rather than leave science completely. One month, they had someone from the Career Service coming to talk about CVs: how to prepare your CV, and practical help for applying for fellowships, etc. This got really positive feedback. And the postdocs organise everything, we provide coffee and donuts, and we pay for the travel of the person who comes to speak.

We are doing all of this because we think that having mentors is a really important help for developing your career.  All the way through, I’ve had mentors, and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have known what to do. When I was in Sussex with Juan Pablo Couso, he showed me grants and explained to me how he did to write them. And also, had other mentors who gave me their successful grants, which I could read and learn a lot from them, how they communicated their science, how they made it clear. This helped me a lot for writing my own grants. If you don’t have those mentors, I think you’ve got less chance of success.

In the context of grants and fellowships, we also have a database of successful fellowships and grants, which you can check to see positive examples of the grant that you are applying for, that also has been really helpful, especially for people that are writing their first fellowship or grant.

We think these actions are very helpful for women but also for all the people in general, so it has been very positive to implement them.

At the CABD, we mainly organise activities for PhD students, as they are the majority of people, we are not too many post-docs. Are you doing something at this level, too?

Yes, another thing that we do in the faculty is what we call “Unconscious Bias, Equality and Inclusion Training”, and its purpose is to understand how our language and behaviour can be biased. Generally, we judge people, whether is by race, by religion or gender, and we shouldn’t assume how people are going to be only because of their appearance. With this training, we want to try to improve people’s language, making it less biased, or more conscious of that bias. So, we have external expert who comes and gives this training. This year for the first time, she did training for all the new PhD students, so all of them had an understanding of what unconscious bias is.

For example, frequently, I hear people saying “that girl who gave the talk today”, referring to a female young female academic, such as myself. They used the word “girl” for an adult, who is an academic giving a talk. However, they never say “boy”, if it was a man giving the talk. There is no parity here, and it suggests one is superior to the other. So, it is about making people think about that language.