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Professor Polly Roy

Sarah Cleaveland

Professor Polly Roy

This year’s annual ‘Women in Health’ lecture at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) featured Professor Polly Roy with a talk on 'How a Virus Works’.

The lecture was part of International Women’s Day and featured Professor Roy’s career story, with an emphasis on how being a woman has influenced her decisions and direction, and the obstacles she has encountered and overcome.

Professor Polly Roy is a leading virologist. Brought up in Calcutta, Professor Roy moved to the USA to pursue her postgraduate study. She stayed in the US during her early professional career before accompanying her family to the UK. She previously worked at the University of Oxford before joining the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Professor Roy received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014, was elected Fellow of the Society of Biology in 2014, and received a Senior Investigator Award from the Wellcome Trust in 2012. The Indian Prime Minister presented Prof Roy with one of India's most prestigious academic awards in 2012, the Indian Science Congress General President's Gold Medal (see: London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine: Polly Roy awarded gold medal for science). She was also an Innovator of the Year' Finalist for BBSRC in 2012.

As part of our feature on BBSRC women in research and innovation we asked Polly a number of questions reflecting on her career so far.

How important is it that women are given an opportunity to flourish in research?

I think it’s very important as women can contribute as much as men in science if they are given the right opportunities.

The experience in my own lab, from working with men and women, is that women are generally more organised, which enables them to achieve more in research.

Has the research environment changed during your career?

Considerably, in many ways. In Europe the lab is still a male dominated environment more than it is in America, for instance.

All through my working life I have worked alongside male colleagues. I think this is because traditionally men have worked whilst women have brought up families. But this isn’t true anymore and today women have the flexibility to take long periods of maternity leave and then come back and they also now have more support from their partners than previously. It was never like that when I was in my formative years.

There is a definite shift in the western world to address the gender balance, more so than in other countries.

“In my work I use physics, chemistry and mathematics to address biological questions. I find the right kind of collaborators, wherever they are in the world. That’s an opportunity that we did not have so easily before.”

How difficult has it been being both a mother and scientist at the same time?

It takes a lot of careful balancing, prioritising work and your private life - you have to have your family time. When you have family time you can’t think about science and when you are being a scientist or mentoring then you have to concentrate on that and not get distracted by small things.

In the early days, I used to do many lab-based experiments and it was common for me to come home, be a mother and prepare dinner and then head back to the lab late at night. I could do several experiments all at the same. In my experience most men can only do one thing at a time! I am proud and content that I have been a wife, mother and scientist.

What advice would you give to young women starting out in science and research?

No matter if it is a women or a man, I always tell them the same thing - always be focused on your science, do not get distracted, and be put off by any hurdles. Be persistent, have tenacity and be patient. These are attributes that will allow you to achieve your goal. Do not be put off, keep going.

Is science and research more exciting today as it changes and evolves?

This is difficult, it is exciting in that there are many tools and much information in biological science. In my work I use physics, chemistry and mathematics to address biological questions. I find the right kind of collaborators, wherever they are in the world. That’s an opportunity that we did not have so easily before.

On the other hand, in my field in the early days of molecular biology there was also excitement around having to create everything yourself. We didn’t have kits that you could use in the lab, you had to make everything. Being so hands-on makes you realise how difficult the job is but always leads to a great feeling of satisfaction when you get the job done. It’s a bit like furniture, you don’t get the same satisfaction assembling pre-made furniture in the same way as if you built furniture from scratch. Much less effort is needed these days to create something.

Sarah Cleaveland

Professor Polly Roy & colleague

Who has been an important inspiration?

My mother. I lost my father at quite a young age and my mother had only a basic education but she always used to tell all her daughters that one way to make your way in life is to be independent, and that we all needed to be educated and become someone.

She had tremendous confidence in me, always. I was always keen and open-eyed. But, no one handed anything to me on a platter. It was certainly not easy for an Indian woman to become a prominent scientist.

A few final thoughts?

I learnt from day one that you have to compete for everything, including research grant funding if you want to keep your research going. Disappointment does not discourage me, you have to keep going and try again and again. It is easy to give up and I see that in people around me. People don’t always feel appreciated, but is that so important? As long as you are content, keep going. It doesn’t matter if you win awards or prizes the important thing is to remember what you have achieved.