Meet the Researcher: Fiona Watt

Fiona Watt at Hydra
Fiona Watt at Hydra Summer School 2016

This year in celebration of Women in STEM Day, we want to share with you an interview we conducted at Hydra Summer School 2016 with one of our favourite collaborators. Fiona Watt is the Director of the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine in King's College London. Here, she talks to us about how she got into science and stem cell research and offers her advice for aspiring researchers and women in science today.

Can you give us a brief background of your career?

I grew up in Edinburgh, I thought there must be more to life than Scotland, so I applied to Cambridge, and to everyone’s surprise, I got in! After that I did my PhD in Oxford - cell biology became my ‘thing’, I think about everything at the level of the cell. I decided I wanted to work on a model system to study tissue differentiation and ended up working with Howard Green. At that stage, he had a model of differentiation of fat cells and one of epidermal cells and I started working on the epidermis. I’d not been there for more than 2 years when my former boss in Oxford recommended that I apply for a job at the Kennedy Institute in London, so at the age of 25 I became a group leader. Actually, the day I got tenure there was the day I decided I needed to leave. So I moved to a cancer institute which is now part of the Francis Crick Institute and I was there for 20 years. But, at some point, your needs don’t necessarily match your institution. So 10 years ago I moved to Cambridge and I set up two labs in two new institutes, one in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and the other at the CRUK Cancer Institute. I learnt a lot there, but it gave me the tools to define what I really wanted to do at this, the final stage of my career. So four years ago, I moved to Kings College London to set up the Centre for Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine.

What are you working on now?

My own research interests remain primarily focused on the skin, but I am involved in a big human IPS (Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell) project. I passionately want to test the idea of using quantitative cell-based assays to identify variants in normal genes that control cell behaviour. It has been hard, partly because of the difficulty in explaining to the computational biologists what the cell biology data looked like. But, I am very optimistic at the moment that we are going to have success in this area. Although most of my effort is still on skin, which I am excited about, I think the IPS project is very bold and I want to see if it is going to work.

How did you get into stem cell research?

Well, as a young PhD student, I wanted to study differentiation. Working in the epidermal model studying differentiation, I kept thinking “well what is the starting cell?” Then I started reading the old literature about stem cells. I thought well, if I want to understand differentiation then I have to go after stem cells. So it was really a move in that direction.

I went back to England from Boston at an interesting time. I met up with a lot of the key figures in the field. In particular Nick Wright, an epithelial pathologist, who is still very active and Chris Potten. Stem cell research was not very respectable at the time. We would have our meetings and people would be really quite rude to us. But many of the concepts that they were discussing, were laid out in the early 70s. So they were very interesting people to talk to.

When you were younger, what drew you to science?

Well, I was born a scientist, I loved science from an early age. We used to spend a lot of summers on the West coast of Scotland. I spent a lot of time looking in rock pools, cataloguing types of seaweed and other plants. I kept loads of pets in my bedroom, I had tree frogs and things like that. Probably, at that time I thought I would be a marine biologist, but then I really started discovering cell biology, and that is level I think of in science.

In your current research, what are your three main aspirations?

One aspiration is to find out whether or not we can use these in vitro assays of cell behaviour to find important genetic variants. I am very keen to see a project into the clinic. That might seem a very unrealistic goal, but I think that the work that we are doing on fibroblasts does have potential, and I have all the clinical partners that I need to see that to fruition.

Then in terms of the epithelium itself. I have done a lot of work on cancer over the years. I would really like to do some work in integrating different types of data to improve the stratification of patients with oral squamous cell carcinoma. Of course, I do have real interest goals around the epidermis stem cells, but I wouldn’t put that in the top three at the moment.

What advice would you give to early career researchers?

I think there is no point doing research if you don’t really love it. You have to take control of your career, and not do things because somebody told you to do it. It is often said, and I would emphasise, you shouldn’t be put off by failure. I think men and women handle failure differently. I worry sometimes. Young women will say well this grant was turned down therefore, I’m no good, so I should do something different. I think those would be the main things

Do you have any specific advice for women who are coming into the field, or do you think there is anything you have seen that has changed in recent years in terms of gender in the lab?

I think things have improved a lot. I was the only female PhD student in my department in Oxford, so things have improved there. I think there is a lot of covert sexism. Which I do not think is such a problem at the early stages of a career. But I really and truly, complain vociferously when I am yet again the only woman in the room in a high-level meeting. Maybe it might just be a feature of Britain, but I really don’t like the way that men arrange things offline, over dinners or where women are excluded. Not necessarily because men actively don’t want women there, but there is this clubby mentality. It makes me really sad and angry that if a high power job advertised, chances are that it has already been worked out who will get the job. Even before it was advertised. I think that is very disrespectful to women. So at the moment, my campaigning is really around shedding light on this. But progress has been made, although it has been slow.

What are the main qualities someone needs to make it as a researcher?

I think research has room for many different kinds of personalities. There really are people who would fail to function in other walks of life, who are successful scientists.  The qualities I look for in scientists would be that they have that scientific mentality. They should be positive and outgoing. They have to take ownership of important problems but also be pragmatic. Being able to manage the realities of their career but not giving way to their big goals is also important.

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