Diversity in science; If you can see it, you can be it

10th February 2023

Dr Emma Waters is a Postdoctoral Researcher working on bacterial niche adaptation and grew up locally in Norwich.

Emma has organised an exhibition for Norwich Science Festival 2023 to celebrate diversity and show the local community that a science career can be for them, whatever their background. We spoke to Emma to find out more.

Emma as a teenager in the JIC labs

Emma at the John Innes Centre on a Nuffield Placement as a teenager

“When I look around at the Quadram Institute and the wider Norwich Research Park I see so much wonderful diversity of the people that work here. Anyone can be a scientist no matter their background, race, age, sex or disability. A scientist is rarely the traditional stereotypical version of an old, eccentric, white man who is messing around with chemicals.

I am passionate about this because I am only a scientist due to public engagement and outreach. If people cannot see visible role models, they can dismiss the possibility of becoming something they potentially want to be.

I’ve always lived in Norfolk. We say in our family that it’s taken 500 years for us to move from Great Yarmouth to Norwich. The last few generations we’ve been in Norwich, on my mum’s side we were part of the famous historical event of Kett’s rebellion.

I went to the Blyth-Jex School (now the Sewell Park Academy) on the north side of Norwich and my school was repeatedly in and out of special measures at the time. Even though the teachers were trying their best, you could see the challenges.

A group of four young people smiling, behind them school displays

Emma with school friends during sixth form learning they are going to study Chemistry at university

I was quite a boffin at school. I liked hanging out with adults, so often I would stay behind class and help a teacher tidy up or set up for the next class. My little group of friends used to hang out in the science prep room in breaks and chat to the technicians and teachers. The staff would always take the time to help us out if we were struggling.

When I went to sixth form, I chose to study Maths, Further Maths, IT, Biology and Geography.

But a couple of months in, I realised I really wasn’t enjoying Geography. There’s a lot of pressure at that age to know exactly what you want to do. At GCSE I really loved Maths, but I didn’t know what careers opportunities there were from studying Maths. I had no visible role models for what studying Maths could lead to other than being a teacher.

I told the teachers and technicians in the prep room about my feelings about Geography. One day a chemistry teacher said to me, “You can join my chemistry class instead if you like. We’ll make sure that you can catch up.”

In GCSEs I found chemistry boring because at that point it was all about things like balancing equations. But I decided to give it another go.

The first thing the chemistry teacher, Dr Chris Jennings (now Prinicipal of the Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form) taught me was the trends in the periodic table. That was really exciting and I realised there was a lot more to chemistry.

A teacher and role model can make a big difference in someone’s life.

The most inspirational role model for me at the time was Michelle Richardson, a technician at school. She came from a background like mine. She later did an Open University course to become a teacher. These outstanding  A-level science teachers changed my university path completely. They helped me develop a ridiculous passion for mass spectroscopy.

Because I had so much support from my teachers, I heard about the opportunity of Nuffield placements. The placements are engaging, hands-on research projects for Year 12 students. My teacher saw this opportunity and put me forward for it.

I got a placement at the John Innes Centre, on the Norwich Research Park. I joined Professor Dave Evans group and worked with Elaine Barclay, a technician, on trying to link folic acid to another chemical group the surface of cowpea mosaic virus. The project was part of research to use these safe viruses as targeted drug to delivery systems drugs to treat cancer cells.

The one thing I said I really wanted to do during my placement was mass spectroscopy, where you analyse the mass of molecules. For my seventeenth birthday I got to do mass spectroscopy on folic acid; that was my birthday present from the John Innes Centre.

I don’t think I would have thought of having a job in science before the research placement at the John Innes Centre. Before that I only knew jobs like retail and teaching. It opened my eyes to a career in science.

I saw that you work hard in science but also it is very supportive. I learnt that you put down your pipettes at tea breaks and get to know people outside science. I saw the diversity of people and the different activities and interests’ people had.

I decided I wanted to study science at university. But with one thing and another, it looked like I wouldn’t have the funds to go. My mum’s health also dipped at this time, so I was caring for her.

Emma wearing a graduation cap and gown smiling with relative next to her

Together with my mum, we found local charities where you could apply for financial support. It took a lot of hard work, particularly from my mum. In the end, we got a range of grants and bursaries which covered most of my maintenance costs.

I studied a four-year Chemistry degree at the University of East Anglia and loved it. In my final year I became interested in biochemistry. The nice thing about biochemistry is you’ve got an interface that can help each other. On the chemistry side you’ve got a perspective of looking at the chemical reaction side but also understanding the bigger picture too, with the biological side.

In my fourth year I did a biochemistry masters project looking at iron in inorganic metal metalloproteins.

When I was coming towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I started to look around for PhD opportunities. I thought about moving somewhere else, but I still felt like I had some care responsibilities. Plus, UEA is the fourth most cited university, after London, Cambridge and Oxford, so I thought why leave here when there’s fantastic research and I’ve got my family here?

I applied for several PhD opportunities and chose a project in the biochemistry department at UEA, looking at making solar hydrogen energy from bacteria which sounded really cool. The supervisor was Professor Julea Butt and I thought it would be good to have a female role model too.

I really enjoyed my PhD and learnt lots of skills. The research group were nice and supportive. It turned out that a lot of us were LGBTQ+, though the first year none of us realised this about each other. When we found out about each other, it was nice to have each other’s support. One of my colleagues from that group is Dr Sam Rowe, who now works as Public Engagement Officer at the Earlham Institute, also on the research park. It’s nice to have those networks across the park to go back to with new ideas.

After my PhD, I looked for a job. I was offered an opportunity in America from a placement I did in Los Angeles during my PhD but I wanted to stay on the Norwich Research Park because as well as the fantastic science and family ties, I had just met my future wife.

I worked on a few different short term research projects, alongside returning to a retail job for financial stability, before. I got the opportunity to work with Professor John Wain and Dr Gemma Langridge on a project looking at biofilms in prosthetic limbs. Later, Gemma started her own research group and I joined. I’ve been there ever since studying the molecular mechanisms of Salmonella Typhi evolution.

A science career has its challenges but it’s worth it. This is the job I love. I always wanted to work on puzzles and solve them. I feel like I do that every day in science, and the puzzle is always different. I also enjoy that I can do outreach work as part of my role.

We’re so fortunate to have such a diversity of people on the Norwich Research Park. Everyone has a different background and brings something different to our research.

I think the local community needs to see this, so they know it’s not just white people and men that work in science. Having that message that everyone is accepted is important.

I have dyslexia, which was picked up early on but forgotten about when I moved schools growing up. When I was at UEA, in my final year a friend suggested I get support and it gave me the chance to get any support I needed. It shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone, the same with anything.

That’s why I wanted the exhibition at the Norwich Science Festival to be about everything and not just one aspect of someone’s life. Because all these little things shouldn’t be a barrier to someone, but they may well be. It can affect your confidence but knowing there are other people like you can help you feel more confident.

At the last Norwich Science Festival, there was a little girl and her mum. They were going round the science festival, with the girl saying, “I’m looking to talk to someone who is LGBTQ+”. Someone brought her over to me and I said, “My name’s Emma” and she excitedly said, “My name’s Emma too!”. As I talked about me and my science there were other similarities, she was dyslexic too. You could see her face light up because she was actively looking for a role model, and you could see her confidence grow on finding one.

In Norwich there are lots of disadvantaged kids. I hope the exhibition will inspire them and show them that they can be whatever they want to be.”

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Gemma Langridge