Women in Science: In conversation with Gillian Campling


This article is the first in a series of interviews with women in science that the SciTech section will be running over this year – if you would like to contribute, send your pitch to scitech@palatinate.org.uk.

Why did you go into science?

I was meant to study medicine but I don’t think I was emotionally mature enough to do it; I was scared. Biology was my real passion, and I studied it at Bath Uni before going onto a postgraduate degree in Pharmacology. I ended up being a biomedical biologist, researching psychiatry at Oxford Uni for 11 years. 

I love humans: we are fantastic organisms! At Durham, I now teach mainly physiology.

How did your past career lead to your job now?

I got into teaching in between two research jobs. Like most researchers, we ran out of money, so I then spent two and a half years as a house mistress at an international school in Lebanon. There, I had to teach students whose first language wasn’t English, many of whom were refugees and were isolated from their families. 

We didn’t have a lot of equipment so we would go outside to study. I bought or made tools using my wages. Still, we had a really good time! 

Teaching Biology across a language barrier really impacted me. Now, my two biggest passions are Biology and my students. It really is a privilege to teach you! 

Why did you come to Durham?

Whilst at Oxford, I split from my partner. In the 1980s, it just wasn’t financially viable to stay in Oxford. Our house cost £800 a month, and no council houses were available. All they could offer me was a bed and breakfast for me and my two children, who were one and four. I came to the North to be near my family. A part time lecturer post had opened up at Queens Campus, so I applied, got it, and ended up really enjoying it!

What has been the most important moment in your career?

Perhaps being elected onto the HUCBUMS executive committee. It’s a national biomedical science education group; this means I’ve been an external examiner. 

Otherwise, it’s a long term thing: the most important part of my career is seeing all the things my students go on to do after they have left me. 

Watching a first year student resit one of her A-Levels and then become a doctor was amazing: she taught me about patient dignity and social science; things I’d never really thought about.

I also applied for the Juno mission, which was a space mission to study circadian rhythms. I was shortlisted, but Helen Sharman beat me out! 

How do you think your career, and science in general, will change due to Covid-19?

Teaching, I think, will change in good ways. 

For example, we have a seminar series for which we invite speakers from the far reaches of the globe to talk over Zoom, and we can continue this when we get back to the ‘old normal’. 

The networking opportunities for both teaching and science are endless: before, people collaborated on research mostly people they knew, over dinner with a glass of wine, whereas now we can continue that network all year long.

Has your experience in science differed as a woman, and if so, how?

It is easier, for women to get into academia now. It used to be that getting tenured posts was difficult for women. The only reason I could have children whilst working at Oxford was because they offered maternity leave, so I knew  that there was a permanent position to go back to. 

There have been great improvements with regards to this, but it used to be that  if you chose to take time out between research jobs, it was hard to get back into the field, after not being involved in the networking for a year or so.

As a woman in science, I’ve experienced a few interesting situations. Once, I was at a meeting with the head of public health labs, and there was a tray of coffee on the table. Someone assumed I was doing the minutes, asked me to serve the coffee, and started addressing the director. 

I was actually the chairperson for the meeting. This director, the head of public health, said “I tell you what, I’ll act mother and pour the coffee, while Gillian chairs the meeting, because she’s actually our chairperson.” 

This man was a world famous scientist and I doubt he’d ever poured coffee in a meeting! It was fantastic!

I’ve been in other meetings where people just assume you’re the secretary. My colleagues have often been very supportive, but there will always be differences as a woman. 

When I left the boarding school for Oxford, they actually brought a dancing teacher over from Lebanon, and made him propose to me! They wanted me to stay: it was honestly an honor.

What is the hardest thing about teaching?

With big class sizes, I think it’s difficult to get trust and confidence from the students. You can teach students, but you have to build a rapport with them, get teamwork going. 

I feel sick on the first day of the term, just from nerves, but once I get going, my passion for science just takes over. If everyone in the lecture has that passion, it basically runs itself.

Image: Gillian Campling

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