Dr Joanna Sadler

Back story: Dr Joanna Sadler, ‘We need to stay driven by what motivates us’

Image credit: Dr Joanna Sadler

TV presenter Dr Shini Somara talks to Dr Joanna Sadler, a BBSRC Discovery Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

Shini Somara: You are working to develop biological methods to recycle plastic sustainably into higher value chemicals. Tell us more.

Joanna Sadler: Most of the research done so far focuses on breaking down or melting down the plastic and reforming it into more forms of plastic – many of which are of a lower grade than the first-generation polymer. Instead, I’d like to turn plastic into a resource by using it as a feedstock for making industrial chemicals. I’m a chemist by training, so I have always been fascinated by the ways in which we can make the chemical industry more sustainable. The chemical industry is responsible for vast amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, so I think finding ways to tackle this while addressing the plastic waste crisis is really interesting.

SS: How did your career develop?

JS: Sustainability drives me and I’m trying to do something to ensure a slightly more sustainable planet for future generations. After my undergraduate degree, I did an industrial PhD at Glaxo­SmithKline in collaboration with Strathclyde University. This gave me the opportunity to work at the interface between industry and academia to see academic breakthroughs have a real-world impact.

SS: What is it like for you being a woman in STEM?

JS: The gender ratio is about 50:50 at undergraduate level in my field, which is very encouraging. But, unfortunately, as you move up the career stages, it drops off. As soon as you get to group leader and professor level, it’s very much still weighted towards male dominance.

For me, however, these statistics have been a driver and not a disincentive; it makes me want to help drive change. I want to be a role model to other young women and say, ‘look, this is possible. You can do this. You can still have a life. You can still do and have many other things.’ But we just need enough of us to lead by example.

SS: What makes women turn away from a career in STEM?

JS: Quite honestly, I think one of the biggest disincentives is the myth that you can’t have a family and be an academic. And that’s something which I was told when I was doing my PhD and undergraduate degree – people saying that they left academia to have a family and you can’t do both. I found the whole thing so worrying for such a long time.

I think there has also been a real lack of role models and a lack of females in high positions in universities. It is changing, in fact, I’ve recently been appointed as a Chancellor’s Fellow at Edinburgh University. In these positions, they specifically want to see a 50:50 gender ratio, which I believe is a positive step forward in trying to change this kind of culture for the future. The universities are certainly doing things to address this, but we need to just do more of it.

SS: As a mentor, what advice do you have for your mentees?

JS: The overarching thing is to really follow your gut instinct. We always have a feeling of what the right and wrong thing is. In the end, it’s your career, it’s your life and you’ve got ownership over that. We need to stay driven by what motivates us, not by what motivates other people.

SS: What has been the most useful advice you have been given from mentors?

JS: It’s the little comments such as ‘don’t give up’ or ‘you can do this’, that have stuck in my mind or clinched it for me. Although they will not have realised it at the time, those little comments really made the difference and convinced me to follow my dream of becoming an academic.

SS: What makes a good mentor?

JS: Not telling people what to do but being a sounding board and facilitator. Everybody is different and I don’t think you can impose your experiences on somebody else’s life. Everybody has their own ambitions but working out what that is for each individual and then helping them to facilitate this is key.

SS: What are your views on equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I)?

JS: Equality and diversity are beneficial for innovation in both academic and industrial environments. There have been long-term studies to prove this. It’s important not just on a personal level for the careers and quality of lives of a diverse group of people; it’s important for science. The biggest break­throughs come through diverse teams working on a problem because they bring a wider range of experiences and the collective thinking is more creative. So, I think ED& I is crucial – we don’t have a choice, it is something we have to do.

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