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11 February 2021

Women make up half of the world’s population and thus half of its brain power

Scientists, Women, Research
Each year, 11 February is celebrated as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Initiated by the UN, this day recognises the importance of gender equality in science and is a call for women and men to break with stereotypes. See how our Head of Research Gillian Burgess reflects on this day.
Gillian Burgess joined Grünenthal as Head of Research in April 2020 after working for several pharmaceutical companies including Novartis, Pfizer and Vertex. She has made an international career for herself working in various roles in Japan, USA, the United Kingdom and Germany to drive advancements in several therapeutics areas including pain. This journey started with a degree at the university of Glasgow and a PhD in Pharmacology from University College London. Today, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we talked to her about the role of women in science, her experiences and what advice she’d give to people considering a role in science.

“We all need to support and encourage more girls and women getting involved in STEM careers. As a society we cannot afford to lose their contribution.”

Gillian Burgess, Head of Research

Gillian, topics such as diversity, equal opportunities and women in research are very close to your heart. What are your thoughts on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science?

Women make up half of the world’s population and thus half of its brain power. With so many challenges facing our society, from the fragility of our environment, to food poverty and the current global pandemic, it is important for the whole of society that we make use of all our resources. This Awareness Day aims to draw attention to gender disparities that need to be addressed by new policies and initiatives to support women and girls in science.

It is worth noting that while many women have been at the forefront of helping to fight the COVID-19 outbreak, including helping to create vaccines against the virus, the gender gap between men and women has widened during this last year – including in the sciences.

In the course of your career, what experiences have you had as a “woman in science” – did you need to fight stereotypes and how did you overcome them?

There have been moments in my career, particularly at the outset, when gender bias posed challenges. In the long run however, my advice to everyone is to be open-minded and curious, to stay inclusive and assume good intent. Great role models and mentors can be inspiring and helpful. If you need help or want to understand something just ask – people love to help.

We have all heard the phrase “drug discovery and development is a team sport” and the same is true in many other areas of science. The way that women encourage collaboration rather than competition to solve problems can be a huge advantage in multi-disciplinary efforts and leads to innovation which often occurs at the intersection of disciplines.

What advice would you like to pass on to people who are considering a career in science?

Just do it! Follow your passions and your heart and you will not be disappointed.

Finally, is there one “woman in science” that particularly inspired you?

I have always really admired Rita Levi-Montalcini who received the Nobel Prize for her work on Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). She was born in 1909 and was discouraged from going to university by her father. She went anyway and although she did really well, her academic career was cut short by rules preventing Jewish people holding positions in universities. Not deterred, she set up a laboratory in her bedroom. She and her family were then forced to flee after the invasion of Italy in 1943 and again she set up a lab in a corner of their new living space. Her resilience and determination In the face of tremendous adversity is remarkable and eventually lead to a position at the University of Washington where she did the majority of her important work isolating and understanding the role of NGF. She received the Nobel prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1986.

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