We ask our female members 10 questions about their careers in biomedical science
Sandra Phinbow is a chartered specialist biomedical scientist and an award winning STEM Ambassador. Her science communication work over the past decade organically led to the formation of SAPScience, of which she is CEO. SAPScience is focused on the communication science to lay audiences, scientists, and to children in fun and accessible ways.
Sandra is also National Council member for the IBMS (Public Engagement Lead) and proud recipient of several industry awards including: Science Oxford’s Most Active Ambassador’s (2015), Who’s Who (2014), Chief Scientific Officer’s Healthcare Awards (2014) The Science Council Top 100 Leading UK Scientists Award (2014) and OUH NHS Trust Staff Recognition Award (2013)
1. What made you decide to become a scientist?
My father bought me a microscope and slide set when I was 7. I ended up chopping up my goldfish so I could look inside its body..my first steps into histology. I was hooked immediately!
2. Who has inspired you?
My Father - to be a scientist, he bought me a microscope and slides. Then there was the Julie Walters' character Rita, in Educating Rita. As was an older gal with a family, she went to university to study and overcame the adversity of her working class background and unsupportive husband. She found she wasn't stupid at all and that she was very able. It changed her life and it encouraged me to go to uni at 27, as a single mum, and to work FT in a histology lab. All at the same time! Phewee!
3. What has been the toughest challenge you have had to overcome in your career?
Two things for me: being a mother and having a back/hip disability (and dyslexia). All of those can stack up against you and it's really hard work to "have it all" - a career and some kind of work/life balance, as well as trying to control pain levels and mobility.
4. What was the worst setback you have experienced so far?
Damaging my hip, and lower back about 4 years ago. My pain levels were through the roof and I was crawling along the lab bench trying to prep samples, or help patients in my breast clinics. I had to leave the lab work in the end.
5. What is the best moment of your career to date?
Graduating with my 8yr old standing by my side (he's now 18 and reading for an MA in philosophy and politics with minors in economics at Aberdeen). Then graduating with my MSc in science communication whilst heavily pregnant with my now 6 yr old, with my husband and father by my side.
More recently I was able to work with some practice nurses and change a patient's treatment pathway. With my recommendations and the new management plan, the patient reported how happy they had become with the new regime. I made a positive difference to that patient, and that makes me very content.
I have been so fortunate to have my STEM work recognised too; Most active STEM Ambassador, Top 100 Scientist, CSO's Healthcare award, other awards then being invited to join Who's Who. It's all really nice to know people like what I do.
6. What do you love about your work?
Making people better. The thing about diagnostics is that you get to help someone the same day, or the same week. I can make a positive difference to someone's health very quickly. And I love that.
In my public engagement work I can inspire and encourage kids to look at science in a different way. Learning the applications of science makes it real life for them, they love this. They also love gross and mucky mess!
7. What are the funniest things you have seen in your line of work?
I did full STEM day at a primary school last year (Cuddington Croft Primary school in Cheam, Surrey) and one of our demos was making oobleck (non-Newtonian fluid). Each class came in for 30 minutes, class by class. And at the end of the day, I looked up from our work bench and saw the most incredible mess of cornflour gunk on every bit of the floor in the brand new theatre room! I had no idea it would reach so far.
It was everywhere, all through the school's corridors, and in the playground. I was so shocked, but I laughed like mad, it was so unexpected. The Head said he didn't mind at all, it was so worth it, the 300 kids reported they had an 'epic' and 'sick' day!
8. What are your future career plans?
I have now set up my own company, SAPScience Ltd. For 8 years I have been doing STEM work; giving talks, presentations, lectures, workshops, demos to entire schools, careers coaching, mentoring on various programmes, science parties, and I've always done this for free. I was paid in 'emotions'; happy, laughing, squealing, cheering kids declaring their love for science! I receive incredibly positive feedback and am invited back time and time again. But now, I am setting up for myself, and will carry on doing what I love but I'll be paid in more than emotions I hope!
9. What advice would you give to aspiring female scientists?
When people tell you that you cannot have it all- a career, studies or kids all at the same time. Simply ignore them, they don't know what they are talking about. I won't lie, it is hard work, you will need a good support network around you, but it is doable. Don't choose one or the other; do both, if you wish.
10. Anything else you would like to share?
Biomedicine is a wonderful world, you can help and inspire people every day, this gives you an incredible feeling. You can inspire so many people who (as I did in my younger years) think they are not good enough, or smart enough to be a biomedical scientist. You are good enough, and you are smart enough- all this stuff can be learnt.