I’ve been catching up with some reading this weekend: a year’s worth of (hard copy) THE issues, picked up now I’m finally able to get back into my department, and Vaxxers – sub-titled The Inside Story of the Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine and the Race against the Virus. These cover the same period, but from rather different viewpoints. Take the period April-June in the THE articles, so many focussing on Covid-related topics: the rapid adoption of online teaching, the ‘Zoomiverse’, the dawning appreciation of the potential damage to careers, particularly for early career researchers and those with caring responsibilities, plus the likelihood that a researcher’s productivity will plummet and the need to be kind to oneself and others when this happens.

With hindsight, perhaps we were too optimistic that this situation wouldn’t last long and that within a few weeks, which then stretched into months, all would return to normal. Of course, it hasn’t. To different degrees around the world, life is still strange, worrying and, for many, Covid-related health issues remain. Carers’ lives are still upended and the lasting impact on careers unclear (but unlikely to be positive). Although for a lot of us, by this point some meetings are now held in person, many are still not conducted remotely. What ‘normal’ will eventually look like is not yet clear.

But long before Covid hit the UK, the Oxford vaccine team were already moving into top gear, as soon as stories of a strange illness began to surface in Wuhan. Sarah Gilbert – the one who has a Barbie doll in her likeness – and Churchill College alumna Cath Green, had read the China tea leaves and realised it was time to direct their existing vaccine platform to target this specific virus to give themselves – and the world – a head start in developing tools to weaken (though not yet neutralise) the virus’ impact. While most of us were adapting to working from home, this pair and their teams were flat out in their labs, working out all the necessary steps to produce the vaccine in record time. As the recipient of two doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine, I can only be immensely grateful for their dedication, intellectual prowess, a firm grip on logistics of an incredibly complex chain of steps plus their ultimate achievements.

Their book is a gripping account, not just of these steps in some detail, explained in simple terms for the non-experts in their field, but also the emotional roller coaster of their work, the sleepless nights and the nerve-wracking interactions with the media as well as funders (there was no guarantee of success; funders are risk-averse and not used to working at the speed this situation demanded, but the money did come through). This all had to be followed by the anxious wait to see if the vaccine succeeded in Phase 3 trials (which, as we now know, it did). Scientists rarely speak up about some of these issues that can lurk under the public face of their work or the written word of journal publications. Rarely do they have such an intense media spotlight shone on them, week after week, as this pair did. Nor are the stakes often quite so high. It will be interesting to see if the BioNTech scientists, with their alternative route for successful vaccine development, choose to write their own story to complement Vaxxers.

As two immensely successful female scientists, I am also interested in what they have to say about the subject of emotional content. Their family lives intrude to some extent (both Green and Gilbert are parents, the latter of triplets, although none of their children are toddlers constantly interrupting zoom calls or needing much help with home schooling), so the huge problems many mothers have had to face while working from home did not beset them. Nevertheless, making time for family in the midst of handling the massive task they faced was by no means trivial. But it is more the commentary on the simple fact that they are female that intrigues me, inserted in passing in their wider narrative. Most of what I learned came from Green referring to Gilbert (they each wrote their own chapters from their own perspectives, more or less alternately throughout the book) rather than a first-hand account by the latter. Maybe this was a deliberate strategy.

For instance, Green quotes Gilbert as saying ‘something like’

“This is 2020. Why are we discussing women scientists? I’m not a woman scientist, I’m a scientist and more than half my colleagues are women and we do the job.”

The frustration at being seen as a woman first and a scientist second is palpable. That feeling will resonate with many, myself included. I have written previously about how the media referred to Dorothy Hodgkin when she won the Nobel Prize (“Oxford housewife wins Nobel“, according to the Daily Mail of the day.) Similar sorts of out-of-date comments were, perhaps unsurprisingly and as quoted by Green, used in describing members of the team: serious redhead mother to triplets (describing Gilbert), not your stereotypical Oxford boffin (Green) and Irish mother of two for Teresa (Tess) Lambe, a third team member. As Green remarks wryly, one of the men on the team has ‘never been described as ‘male scientist Andy Pollard’ nor, presumably, has his parental status been laid bare in the media.

Nevertheless, the balancing act between being annoyed by the gender issue or motherhood constantly being raised and using the opportunity to excite and inspire future generations of young women by being a visible role model is a delicate one. Not many scientists get to feature in Vogue (nor is it likely to have been an aspiration to do so for many).  A decade ago an article in The Lancet stated that

‘It’s impossible to be 100% sure, but Molly Stevens is in all likelihood the only person ever to have graced the hallowed pages of both The Lancet and Vogue.’

Whether or not that was true in 2012, Sarah Gilbert has undoubtedly joined her in appearing in that rare pairing of journals. As Green writes in Vaxxers

‘One of the more surreal moments of this year was Sarah’s high fashion photoshoot in the basement of the Jenner Institute. Sarah had already been to a London studio for a shoot for Vogue’s ’25 Women Shaping 2020’ earlier in the year. She said she thought it would be fun [we don’t get told if it was!] and not something she was likely to be asked to do ever again. But not long after Vogue she was approached by Harper’s Bazaar…she describes their shoot…. as ‘all slightly ridiculous’.’

Nevertheless, as Green makes clear, her view is that this is important and not ridiculous. Again, this resonates with me. When I won the L’Oreal/UNESCO 2009 Laureate for Europe for Women in Science I endured numerous photoshoots and interviews. I never actually saw, I’m relieved to say, the huge blown-up photographs of me that were plastered both on the side of L’Oreal’s Hammersmith headquarters or in Charles de Gaulle Airport, though I have a copy of the issue of Le Monde which had a full page devoted to my photo. However disconcerting for the individual, these photos convey an important message for the casual passer-by. Women do do science. Everyone should feel confident encouraging their daughters and other young women of their acquaintance to pursue science if that is their passion. If girls don’t see the faces of women scientists in their textbooks (and they don’t, as a recent American Chemical Society report made clear), they need to see them elsewhere in their daily lives. However uncomfortable I felt then, as Molly Stevens may have felt appearing in the pages of Vogue and presumably Gilbert did this year in all the publicity, it isn’t a bad – let alone vain – thing to do. It is, unfortunately, still necessary.

2020 was a weird year, as both Vaxxers and all those back issues of the THE make clear. Women do science, they do it at the top of the game, and yet too many are held back by caring responsibilities, by attitudes and by unconscious bias still operating. 2021 is little better as a year, but the battles must continue to ensure both that excellent science gets done and that the opportunity to do so is open to all.

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