BBSRC leader celebrates balance on International Women's Day
On International Women’s Day, Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair for the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation shares her passion for family, bioscience and a balanced life.
“In any professional role, conflicts can develop in your mind between what you are delivering for that role and the responsibilities you have to your family – it’s about trying to find a balance that works for you,” says Professor Welham.
Professor Welham leads BBSRC, the largest public funding body for non-medical biological research in the UK, dedicated to advancing knowledge of fundamental biological processes and addressing global challenges in food security, clean energy and healthy ageing. Like many women she also balances her demanding role with being a wife and a mother to two daughters, which means she can’t be present for everything.
“In the back of your mind, you wonder if you miss this event or activity, will this have a lasting effect on your children, but it’s essential to remember to do what you can - be there for the important things, make time and know it’s going to be fine,” says Professor Welham.
Growing up in rural East-Anglia, she was surrounded by the natural world and soon developed a keen interest in understanding how living systems worked. While attending comprehensive school, her biology and chemistry teachers nurtured her scientific interest and even allowed her to take home spare sample specimens to practice dissection skills on.
“Yes, it’s true! I did take home a large formalin fixed rodent to practice dissecting it,” says Professor Welham. “However, my mother banished me to the bottom of the garden, but having practised it really helped during my practical exam.”
Professor Welham pursued her passion for science at university, studying Biochemistry at Imperial College London. She moved on to Imperial Cancer Research Fund, London, for her PhD, which focused on cancer cell biology. After several years of post-doctoral research at The Biomedical Research Centre, University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada, she was appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, University of Bath. Continuing her career at Bath, she was promoted to Professor of Molecular Signalling and was the first woman to be appointed a professor in her department.
“I followed a very traditional academic career path,” says Professor Welham. “The move into my current role had some altruistic motivation - it provided me the opportunity to influence bioscience much more broadly, nationally and internationally.”
Though she was inspired by many colleagues during her professional journey, she highlights two specific individuals who made a lasting impression. Both Professor Doreen Cantrell, from the University of Dundee, and Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell supported her ambition to balance life as a researcher and a mother.
“They demonstrated to me that you could combine the elements of being a researcher, mother and partner while still being at the top of your field and balance bringing up a family,” said Professor Welham.
Yet not everyone she has encountered during her career has been so supportive. She recalls one male superior having what she refers to as an “outdated attitude”. She explains how he refused to take her advice on one occasion, saying “even if you cried it wouldn’t make me change my mind”– an attitude which left her “gobsmacked” at the time. The incident occurred well over twenty years ago, but she remembers it to this day.
“Things are changing and will continue to do so through increased awareness, dialogue, equality, diversity and inclusion - especially with initiatives like 'International Women’s Day' which celebrates the many achievements in this space and makes us all think about how we can achieve better balance in a number of areas,” says Professor Welham.
Looking back on her career she is proud of the scientific discoveries and contributions she has made to further knowledge. Since taking up her leadership role at BBSRC, she is particularly proud of publishing the ‘Forward Look’ in 2018, a roadmap setting the direction of travel for the next generation of UK bioscience. From a wider-UKRI context, she is extremely proud of her involvement in helping UKRI to deliver the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. She was there from the early stages, promoting collaboration and partnership and continues to work with Innovate UK colleagues in particular to ensure the programme delivers on its objectives.
“At the end of the day, it’s rewarding and enriching to have a fulfilling job and good relationships with your family and children and it takes time,” says Professor Welham. “Figure out where you get your sense of satisfaction from, whether through career or personal elements and find the balance which works best for you.”
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
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