Teatime with…Briony

In my second in my series of Teatime Chats, I spoke with Briony Yorke, a Wellcome Trust PostDoc Fellow at the University of Hamburg based on the DESY campus in Hamburg.

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Briony does some fascinating science. She studies the structures and dynamics of proteins to understand things like how cataracts form in our eyes, why our eyes seem so immune to the amount of radiation they get exposed to every day, and how tardigrades can survive for ridiculously long periods of time under extreme conditions. Briony tells me that when she first heard about these tiny cute creatures, she just had to study them, or rather their proteins. Tardigrades can survive severe drought, intense radiation, extreme temperatures, anything, by turning themselves to a type of glass with the help of special proteins. When it’s safe to do so, they’ll spring back to life and run around as if nothing happened. If we could work out how these proteins protect the tardigrades, maybe we could use them to protect ourselves, our food or our medicines against various stress conditions. Such as being able to protect patients against the side effects of radiation therapy, or freezing vaccines safely for long periods. During her PhD, Briony developed a new method to enable scientists to watch the precise changes proteins go through during reactions like these, and she is also helping to design and set-up a new experimental station using this technique of so-called time-resolved crystallography on the PETRA III synchrotron in Hamburg. But despite her fascinating research and numerous achievements, she never thought she would get to where she is. Here she tells me about self-doubt, the importance of mentors and being a mum.

“I think I’ve always had a knack for science – it suits the way my mind works – but in school I tried to avoid it. It was too geeky, I definitely didn’t want to join science club or anything like that. When I was in high school I decided I wanted to be a forensic scientist – that was the time the TV series CSI started getting popular! I was doing all the right subjects, but someone told me to concentrate on chemistry, and I could always go into forensic science later if I still wanted to. So I did chemistry at university, and then someone suggested I do a PhD which I did – but I never thought I would be a scientist. I always doubted I would succeed in finishing my degree, and then my PhD, but somehow I managed to carry on. No-one in my family had been to university before my sister, and I was the first to do a PhD so I just assumed it would be incredibly difficult and I wouldn’t be able to do it.

I had my daughter in the 3rd year of my PhD. When she was still a baby I moved to Germany on my own to finish my thesis. For three months all I did was take her to daycare, come to the office to write for seven hours before picking her up again. Once she was fed and in bed, I would carry on writing again for a few hours. Everyone feels the stress of finishing their PhD, but that was really awful! But I’m lucky I had a lot of support. My PhD supervisor encouraged me to come back and to finish my PhD – I think many others might have been written off at that stage. It was a tremendous relief when it was all over.

After my PhD I secured a four year Wellcome Trust fellowship which has allowed me to stay here in Hamburg and things feel a lot more stable. Doing my PhD I knew that contracts in academia are short term, but the reality of it really hit me when I became a PostDoc. I’m relieved I don’t have to convince my family to move again right now, but what if we have to move again in a few years? What comes next? I’d love to be a group leader, but you have to be flexible and although I think I’m in a competitive position, there is still that nagging doubt that it won’t work out.

Briony at the new experimental station she is designing and building at DESY in Hamburg

My mum was a strong feminist, and growing up it was normal for me to assume I could do anything I wanted to. When I went from a small village primary school to secondary school where only boys played football and girls weren’t good at maths, I found it really frustrating to then realise that not everyone thought I could do anything I wanted to. I do hope my daughter won’t feel that frustration. My sister is a primary school teacher and I’ve visited her class a few times to show that not all scientists have crazy white hair and wear lab coats all day!

As a scientist I do loads of stuff I didn’t think I would do. I get to travel and meet people from across the world, and even chat with Nobel Prize winners over dinner! It’s pretty cool really! I can work flexibly which is great for my daughter. I felt the pressure at first, but I put that on myself, and it’s a guilt that I’m sure a lot of mums feel! I feel guilty for putting her in daycare, and guilty for not being in the office more. And of course it really depends on the lab work culture. I’m really proud to be a member of our group – my supervisor is great and we’ve doubled the number of women in the building and having that diversity makes a huge difference to the support culture. It’s never been a specific aim, it’s just sort of happened. I’m also realizing how important having good mentors is in science. Within the framework of the Wellcome Trust fellowship we have had workshops on how to build up a mentor network and how to be a good mentor as you progress in your career. That experience has been really valuable. I consider four people my mentors, and they all have given me amazing advice – in terms of my science, but also on personal topics such as juggling childcare and work. They all give me different perspectives and that has been really important.”

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