Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a Professor of Neuroscience at University College London. She was the recipient of the Royal Society’s 2013 Rosalind Franklin Medal, which is awarded to an individual in recognition of their outstanding contribution to any area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). She was also recently awarded the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for scientific work of high social relevance to the development of children and young people.
In our final blog in the series for International Women’s Day 2016, we caught up with her to discuss her life, research, and outreach.
What was your childhood like?
I can’t say that I always wanted to be a scientist – I studied a mixture of science and arts subjects at school because I enjoyed them both equally. My dad’s a scientist too (Sir Colin Blakemore) so I guess there was some influence there. It also meant that science also didn’t seem like an alien job to me. Something that had a huge impact was my work experience with Professor Uta Frith when I was 15. She was working on autism and dyslexia at the time, and that got me interested in psychology.
How did you get to where you are today?
My psychology degree at Oxford had a strong biology focus, and we learned a lot about the brain. I became particularly interested in those psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia. That’s what I ended up doing my PhD in (under Prof Chris Frith and Prof Daniel Wolpert), and I moved into neuroscience then. Schizophrenia normally starts at the end of adolescence, and in my post-doc in France, I started to wonder about the changes in the brain at that time. That led me to the work I do today on the adolescent brain, here at University College London.
Can you tell us more about your work?
When I started working in this field, the attitude was that no major neurodevelopmental changes occur after early childhood. Nowadays we know that the brain changes very considerably across the whole of adolescence. So, in my lab, we’re studying many aspects of adolescent development. A main focus is how the social brain develops; for example, how adolescents learn about other people and how peer influence becomes acute, and what’s developing in the social brain. We investigate this in terms of measuring behaviour and through neuroimaging, which we use to look at how the structure and the function of the brain change throughout adolescence.
What impact has the Royal Society support had on your career?
Where do I start? I was awarded the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship after my post-doc. I wanted to change fields – from working on adult patients with schizophrenia to typical brain development. Many funding bodies were concerned about supporting that big a leap, but the Royal Society took the risk. At the time, there wasn’t really a field of adolescent brain development. The Fellowship allowed me to switch fields. Now adolescent brain development is a thriving area, and the small part I’ve played in that is thanks to the support I received. The nature of the Fellowship also meant that I could focus on my research while having children. So from my point of view, the risk the Royal Society took has paid off. Since then, I’ve also had a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, which has been renewed, so all in all, I’ve had my research supported by the Society for thirteen years.
Do you enjoy doing public engagement?
This year, I’m trying not to do too much of it, because I’m in the midst of writing a book. But, yes, getting out and talking about our research is a passion of mine. I see it as a two-way thing – it’s not about me going out and telling people about the brain. It’s so much more rewarding (for everyone) to be involved in a dialogue.
Over the last three years, I’ve worked with the Islington Community Youth Theatre. They’ve written and are performing a play on the teenage brain called Brainstorm – it is their interpretation of our science. And it is amazing! These young people are unbelievably talented, and their work has been well received – two runs at the National Theatre and countless 5-star reviews. As well as that, they’ve helped us to design experiments, they’ve given us feedback and helped with our interpretation of the results… It’s been a very fruitful relationship.
You were awarded the Rosalind Franklin prize in 2013 – what did it mean to you?
It was a big deal for me, partly because it’s a very prestigious prize, but also because it enabled me to carry out a project that I’d been wanting to do for a while. In my work with teenagers, I’ve found that the “old man scientist” stereotype is alive and well. I wanted to try to widen teenagers’ views of what scientists are really like, so with the award, I set up a website. It’s called the Scientific23 and it features interviews with a series of people working in science. We asked everyone the same 23 questions which had all been submitted by teenagers. It is growing all the time and it’s been really interesting to see the responses to it.
Do you think things have changed for women in science in recent years?
Yes, definitely, and for the better. I’ve never personally noticed anything explicit that has held me back as a woman in science. On the other hand, there’s a whole lot of research to suggest that we all (men and women alike) have this subconscious bias. The growing awareness of this bias has been a very good thing. It’s now not unusual for a man to refuse to speak on an all-male panel – it’s great that people can now point things like that out and enact the change.
Do you have any advice for young women who want to enter the world of science?
Don’t be put off a career in science just because you’re a woman! Maybe you want to have a family – know that this is not incompatible with a research career. Science actually offers a level of flexibility that is still pretty rare in the world of work. It’s not easy and there’s a lot of juggling, but it’s absolutely doable. And, if you can make it work, it’s incredibly rewarding.