Dr. Bethany Elora Higgins, Research Fellow at University College London, City, University of London and Anglia Ruskin University, speaks about her scientific career.
What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature, etc.)?
I loved science from a very young age and was always asking questions. I wanted to know the ins and outs of everything! I was specifically interested in the brain. My mother was a mental health nurse and I found her stories so interesting, I wanted to find out more. It was ultimately that interest that pushed me to study Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Nottingham. There I developed my love for neuroimaging and vision sciences, which is how I came to be where I am today.
What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
I’ve recently finished my PhD in Optometry and Vision Sciences at City, University of London. My thesis focused on measuring dark adaptation in people with Age-related Macular Degeneration. I now work in a wide array of vision-related topics at University College London, City, University of London and Anglia Ruskin University, including research into Charles Bonnet Syndrome, the genotype-phenotype relationship in CRB1-related inherited retinal diseases and digital phenotyping using smartphone data.
This research allows me to directly interact with people and not only understand their visual impairment, but how it individually impacts their everyday lives. Assessment of vision-related quality of life is imperative to understand how disease, treatment and healthcare management interact with a patient’s outlook on life.
What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of? ? Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
Passing my PhD viva was a great source of pride for me. I completed my PhD through the COVID-19 pandemic which was incredibly trying. To get to the end of that journey and pass felt amazing. I’m incredibly proud of myself. I also won the Master’s Medal 2021 for my first first-author paper, that was a highlight!
In which country/countries have you been doing research?
My research is currently based in London and Cambridge in the United Kingdom (UK), but I shall soon be working with colleagues in Portland, Oregon in the United States.
What is your agenda for the coming months?
I was fortunate to recently secure a grant from Fight for Sight, a UK-based charity, to continue my research into Charles Bonnet Syndrome. I will be working on the second stage of our study looking at how a podcast can be used as a medium for health-related information for a visually impaired cohort. I will also continue my research into CRB1 and will begin collecting functional data from this group.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have two amazing supervisors and a mentor who guided me through the beginning of my academic career. I’m lucky to have not met any barriers during my career, apart from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. I consider my research lab to be a safe space where I was able to grow and be my authentic self in. My supervisors also encouraged me to join Women in Vision UK (WVUK), a network for all women working in and around vision. We have over 350 members so far, and we foster new collaborations, establish mentoring connections, and raises the profile of women working in vision across the UK. We actively campaign for gender equality across the UK and I’ve been the Training Lead on the Executive Committee for four years.
What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects?
The vision sciences have not been immune to the gender inequality in the UK. For example, in 2016, the Royal College of Ophthalmologists reported that 74% of Ophthalmology consultants in the UK were male. We are moving in the right direction with the implementation of networks such as WVUK and the Athena Swan Charter, a framework that recognises commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employed in higher education and research. Yet, there is still a way to go.
What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
I believe attitudes towards gender equality in science are changing due to leaders in their respective fields being determined to change the status quo. Gender imbalances are not being accepted nor tolerated in the workplace as readily as they once were. While it will take time to reconstruct thinking, habits and tradition, I believe the creation of networks such as WVUK that encourage young women to enter a profession striving for gender equality acts as an influential springboard for change on a national and international level.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
Through my work with WVUK, I’ve been surrounded by influential women scientists and clinicians who have inspired me everyday to live my authentic self and to strive further for gender equality in our field. I’ve been lucky enough to coordinate the WVUK annual meetings and webinars that have featured prominent leaders and experts giving advice on topics from research to leadership to teaching. Throughout my PhD and work at University College London, City, University of London and Anglia Ruskin University, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some fantastic women scientists whose help and support has made me the researcher I am today.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
I would of course choose to be a scientist all over again. I’m incredibly happy where I’ve ended up and wouldn’t change a thing!
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
Dear Early Career European Women Scientists, whatever you’re doing, is enough. You are enough. Don’t let anyone, ever, take your light away from you. Support the people around you, as they may have barriers in their way that you cannot see. Remember to drink lots of water and that rest is a necessity, not a luxury. Always be kind and remember all you can do is your best. I wish you all a brilliant year ahead. Keep going!