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Inspirational women: Prof Sarah Newbury

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Inspirational women: Prof Sarah Newbury

Meet Sarah Newbury, Professor in RNA Biology at BSMS.

I have worked at many universities around the UK during my career. I did my BSc at the University of Edinburgh where I specialised in Zoology and Genetics, before doing a PhD on Drosophila at the University of Leeds.

After that I moved to Scotland to carry out Postdoctoral research at the University of Dundee, where I moved into the field of RNA stability and gene expression. I was then awarded a Royal Society Fellowship, which I started in Dundee, before giving birth to my son. I then transferred my Fellowship to the University of Portsmouth, before becoming a Lecturer at the Universities of Oxford (Biochemistry department) and Newcastle (Cell and Molecular Biosciences). I was commuting to Oxford and Newcastle each week as my family stayed in Portsmouth, meaning I could only see them at the weekend, which was very difficult. I joined BSMS in 2007.

When I was at school in Inverness, the thing to do was to be a medical doctor, but I didn't want to be a doctor. I preferred the idea of being a scientist and thoroughly enjoyed researching things in greater depth. 

One of my biggest influences was a friend of the family who was a chemist. He would often visit when I was young and bring things with him such as a model of atoms or a microscope, and I remember being fascinated by these. Although my parents weren’t scientists, my father was interested in nature, insects, trees and natural history. This, coupled with growing up in Scotland, meant I spent a lot of my childhood outdoors, exploring nature and going on long walks in the countryside. This was also a major influence on the work I do today. 

I always thought it would be easier being a scientist than it has been. Looking back to the time I was doing my PhD, there was a lot more funding available. I’ve learnt to be proactive and pragmatic, especially when it comes to funding. You might get a lucky break or you might miss out on funding, so you need a lot of resilience and the ability to hang in there. My biggest challenges will always be getting funding and getting papers published. 

They say that trying to get a grant can eat the soul, and I’ve found that trying to get a grant can be very soul destroying at times. Really good grant applications can be submitted but never get funding. I think that a lot of it comes down to luck. It often depends on who is on the panel, if they like your research and who your referees are.  

I think it is really important to have an interest in science and how things work. Working in science gives you the opportunity to discover something new about the world and that's what makes it worthwhile. Without the love of science, you wouldn't be able to do it. 

I found it challenging being a woman working in science because I also wanted a family and was often working away from home. When I was doing my Fellowship, I decided I wanted to work part-time, which no one doing a Royal Society Fellowship had done up until that point. They were really good and allowed me to work three days a week and spend two days at home with my son. After this, the Royal Society Fellowship launched its Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship scheme, which had been designed for woman with a young family or those who were caring for other people. They actually interviewed me to find out what challenges I faced and how it worked for me, so I’d like to think I was the catalyst for the scheme! 

Getting my professorship has been a career highlight, but I’d also say the people I’ve worked with over the years are a highlight too. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some amazing people, and it’s both rewarding and exciting when I get to see members of my team realise their potential and go on to do amazing things in science.