Celebrating International Women's Day (IWD) 2021 at Qkine

To celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day on the 8th March, we are highlighting the successes and experiences of our amazing team, collaborators, customers and wider network who have shared Qkine’s journey so far. We asked a number of our fantastic network to answer a few questions about their experiences, achievements and reflections on a memorable year. The theme of this year’s international women’s day is choose to challenge, where we are reminded to focus on the ongoing challenge to improve the representation of women.

We were overwhelmed by the thoughtfulness and honesty of the amazing women and men that helped us celebrate International Women’s Day this year.  One that really resonated with the team and sums up the IWD2021 theme of #ChooseToChallenge for us is from our Senior Scientist, Kerry Price:

I choose to challenge gender stereotypes, to ensure my dinosaur-loving, palaeontologist-wannabe little girl continues to find delight in learning about the wonders of nature and mysteries of science.

Is there an achievement or moment in your career that you are most proud of?

Going back to University and enrolling in a PhD programme after spending four years working in the biopharmaceutical industry. I felt misplaced being a student again at first, but that feeling disappeared quickly, giving rise to a more confident version of myself – certain that I had made the right decision.

Rather than an achievement or specific moment, I’m most proud of how I work collaboratively with other people and how this has led to some really good outcomes with everyone aligned. In the very early stages of one of my current portfolio before the company had even spun out, I worked closely with the founders, TTO and another investor to build up a really robust proposition. This company went on to raise Seed and Series A, and the technology and company is looking really exciting.

Becoming Professor before I was 40; also seeing my University research group and my team at the company thrive, develop and take pride in the work that they do.

Persisting with the project I started as I came to Cambridge, working on activin signalling as that has in the end resulted in some of the nicest papers and also formed the foundation of Qkine.

Lockdown and the last year has been tough for many, but what positives will you take from it, or what do you feel will be the long-term positive impact?

We live in a society where everything is rushed. We rush to go to work, we rush to achieve deadlines, we just rush to stay on top of hundred things. One year ago, we had to stop. I finally had some time to think. Think about what I really want for my career, what goals I want to achieve and what skills I need to acquire/improve to achieve those goals. I finally had some proper time to just think and plan. In peace with no rush.

However, if I’m being totally honest, the most important positive impact this pandemic had on me was… my cat! We adopted him just before lockdown started as we knew we were going to have time to take care of him. He has helped me and my partner to stay sane. We owe him a big deal… and he knows it!

I’ve been thinking for a while that I’d like to do some voluntary work, and because of lockdown and not having to spend so much time travelling I had some time to look into this.  I have recently been appointed as a Trustee for the Leeds Hospitals Charity, a fantastic charity that supports the NHS to deliver the best care to patients and their families. I’m looking forward to supporting the charity, and meeting the team in person once the lockdown ends.

I think a continuation of a more flexible working set up (even for those who are primarily lab-based!) will be a big positive to come out of working through a pandemic. At Qkine, the tools that we have brought in to facilitate working as a geographically separate company will help us communicate, project manage and work together more effectively in the long term too.

A positive for me has been being able to pause and really reflect on things both professionally and personally. I have been able to look at what I’ve achieved and what I want to achieve. I think often we get so caught up in what’s next we don’t appreciate what we’ve already done and what we’ve learnt from it.

Life does not end when air planes are grounded and we can do many things (but not all!) without travelling across the globe

What lesson have you learnt about yourself from living through a pandemic?

Juggling work with looking after small children and helping them with their schoolwork has not been easy, but I’ve been so grateful for the support of my husband and the great team at Qkine. I’ve learnt that it’s OK to say I can’t do it all myself (not easy for a control freak!).

Flexibility and adaptability are key to success in almost any endeavour, and especially in business leadership – I am pleased with the way I have adapted to working under the new conditions. However, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that whilst I don’t relish the thought of getting back on a plane, I really do miss travelling, meeting new clients and exploring the outer edges of our customer base.

I have learnt the importance of being able to see friends and family and how much I rely on the interaction with the people important to me in order for me to feel whole. I will take this away from the pandemic, knowing how much I value the ones I love around me.

That my beard grows at a rate of 0.4 mm/day (40 mm in the first 100 days of lockdown)

If you could speak to your 18-year-old self, what piece of advice you would give yourself?

You don’t have to everything planned out! There are so many opportunities that you don’t even know about yet and things that you thought were the end of the world really aren’t. Enjoy what you are doing right now and keep aiming high.

You can have a family and career (if that’s what you want!)

You can have it all, just maybe not all at the same time!

Look for the positives in any situation.

Don’t change who you are.

Create your own definition of success.

Seek out opportunities and follow your dreams. Never stop learning but also have fun doing it! Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable at times – if it doesn’t work the first time, that’s ok, try again! Trial and error provides valuable lessons.

Stop running

In your career when have you been inspired or positively impacted by a woman? Who are they and what did you learn from them?

The main reason I pursued a career in business rather than remaining as an academic was my maternal Aunt. She was an incredible person, suffering for 40 years with MS, but still managing to rise from accounts clerk to Personnel Director of a mid-sized company. She was relentlessly driven by a desire to both do the right thing and also to instil in others a desire for the same. She ran the company’s training school and helped to create a generation of new recruits who embodied her principles of honesty, rightness and fairness. All done with a ridiculously good sense of humour and a passion for confounding expectations. Although we lost her to the MS 4 years ago, I still check back with her in a ‘WWAD’ (What Would Aunt Do) way when trying to take tough decisions.

I gave some serious thoughts to this question. There are a lot of female scientists that I admire not only for their scientific achievements but for the way they lived their life: Rita Levi-Montalcini, Margherita Hack, Madame Curie, just to name few. But if I had to name a woman that has had an impact of me, I would definitely say my “nonna”. She was not a scientist, she did not even finish elementary school due to the war. She worked most of her life and she was proud of it. She taught me the importance of having a good job and being independent, even if that meant I had to leave my family and my country. Every time I would go to say goodbye to her before going back to the UK she would simply say: stay strong! So now, that is what I tried to do… be strong.

Lisa Patel who is CSO of Istesso and one of the Partners at IP Group has had a very positive impact on me. She’s a brilliant scientist and gets right to the key point with her questions. Her advice to me has always been clear, well thought out, and with no agenda.

When I was just finished with my undergraduate, I went to a meeting “Understanding protein folding”. One of the speakers was Prof Jane Richardson from Duke University. She is a pioneer of protein structural biology and protein engineering (she also was the first one to draw, by hand, the now familiar ribbon diagrams of proteins). She gave a talk on the small protein they had designed and started the lecture by citing the complete sequence of the 100 or so residues from memory. That was a level of immersion in your project I had never envisaged before.

Do you have a personal motto/manta that you can share?

Patience (no overnight success)

Persistence (make mistakes and learn)

Passion (have a drive to succeed)

Perspective (remember what’s important to you)

‘Do or do not. There is no try’

There is something I found myself saying more and more often: It is what it is.

I quite like the sound of it. I think it sums up life quite accurately. At the end of the day s**t happens all the time-that’s life- and sometimes you just need to embrace it and move on. No drama, no fighting against the mill wind. Just acceptance. I find that very calming.

Read the manual, even if life is too short for it

The theme for IWD this year is #choosetochallenge – what would you choose to challenge in personal, global, scientific or professional life?

I choose to challenge gender stereotypes, to ensure my dinosaur-loving, palaeontologist-wannabe little girl continues to find delight in learning about the wonders of nature and mysteries of science.

I think we still have to challenge the assumption that senior leadership, in science or business, is a male preserve and also that having a continuous employment record is necessary in order for someone to be the best candidate for a leadership role – we need to be collectively better at assessing everyone fairly and on a level playing field, based on capability and talents rather than on gender or previous life-/career-balance choices.

I chose to challenge the gender rules and stereotypic assumptions that most of us have grown up around, normalising comments and remarks. Even though this may be an unconscious decision, our habits, ways of socialising and interacting are profoundly impacted. As a result, women are often called out if they are acting out of the ‘gender norm’, shutting down career progression or leadership.

I want to challenge this and to squash pre-manufactured assumptions that have been solely based around gender.

A comment to men: Flip questions around, would you ask the same question to a man? Would you advise men in the same way? Do you offer unwarranted advice to men when it is not relevant in the conversation?

Stop running

Some of our fantastic network and supporters of IWD @Qkine

Aline Miller, CEO and Founder Manchester Biogel (collaborator)
Filipa Soares, VP of R&D, Tissue Engineering Start-up (customer and mentor)
Cassie Doherty, Investment Director, Parkwalk Advisors (valued NED and investor representative)
Luana Ferrera, Senior Protein Scientist, Qkine (employee number one!)

Monique Liddar, Enterprise and Innovation Manager, St Georges, University of London (and valued ex-Qkine employee two!)
Kerry Price, Senior scientist, Qkine
Alice Taylor, Scientist/Account manager, Qkine
Rob Scoffin, CEO Cresset , (valued Qkine NED and commercial whizz)
Catherine Elton, CEO and Founder, Qkine