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  • Katy Pallister

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Professor Elspeth Garman

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

“I don't want a job because I'm a woman, I want a job because I'm the best person for the job.”

Professor Garman is a renowned molecular biophysicist who for the last two decades has travelled around the world teaching her pioneering crystal cryo-cooling techniques. Her work has enabled fellow scientists to determine the structures of countless proteins, which in turn has contributed to drug discovery and the understanding of mechanisms in the body, such as the regulation of glucose. Cryo-cooling involves cooling protein crystals to temperatures of around 100K (-173°C). This reduces the radiation damage to their structure from the probing X-ray beams used to help determine the protein’s structure. Indeed, the “Garman Limit” - the maximum dose of X-ray radiation that can be absorbed by the crystal, beyond which the results can be compromised - is named after her.

Despite Garman’s crystal clear passion for her field now, crystallography wasn’t always on her radar. “I wanted to be an astronaut when I was four and go to the moon,” Garman said. “When I was about eleven, I made myself a telescope with some old lenses my dad gave me. He was about 0.01% sighted - he lost his sight a few weeks before I was born - and he had all these lenses to try and help him see things. He gave me some old ones and I made balsa wood holders for them and put them in an old cardboard tube to try and make a telescope. In fact, it was better to look at the moon without the telescope than with it, the aberrations were horrible, but it was still a fun project.”

Her interest in the stars coupled with an inspirational teacher meant that Garman found her subject in physics which she pursued in her undergraduate degree at Durham University, and later in her PhD in nuclear structure physics at the University of Oxford. Whilst working in a postdoctoral position at the university, Garman recalls a particularly pertinent experience.

“The first meeting I ever went to was in Berkeley in 1980…because of the equal rights amendment, each nuclear physics department had a quota of women that they were supposed to recruit. At this meeting there were around 990 men and 10 women, and we were basically all chased around the entire week being offered jobs by people we'd never met before, because they wanted to fulfil their quotas. I found this the most degrading thing. I got 12 job offers in five days, and only one of those was genuine…I don't want a job because I'm a woman. I want a job because I'm the best person for the job.”

“You'll have part of my time, but all of my brain”

During her early years in Oxford, Garman met several figures involved in crystallography, but continued her work in experimental nuclear physics until the age of 34. It was at this time that Garman received an unexpected opportunity that ultimately led to her transition into molecular biophysics.

“I was teaching physics round the university when I met Dame Professor Louise Johnson [a previous Suffrage Science Awardee] who was a famous crystallographer. She said to me at lunch in Somerville [College] one day, ‘What are you going to do when your three-year contract at Somerville runs out.’ I just didn't want to engage with this question at the time, and I sort of said, ‘I don't know, I expect I'll have to change fields,’ because nuclear physics wasn't being funded anymore in Oxford, and she sort of lit up. She [Johnson] said, ‘Oh, well, we're looking for someone just like you in our lab at the moment. We want them to look after our newly acquired electronic multi-wire X-ray detector.’”

Encouraged by Johnson’s recommendation, Garman visited the unfamiliar and “smelly” biophysics lab. She met with the laboratory head, Professor Sir David Phillips, who found the structure of lysozyme - the antibacterial agent in tears. It was in this meeting that Garman believes she uttered the best sentence of her life.

“He [Phillips] said, ‘Oh, I hear you only want to work part time’ - which was true because I had a two-year-old child and a resident mother-in-law to look after. And I said, ‘Yes, I do only want to work part time - you'll have part of my time, but all of my brain.’ It's my best sentence ever I think…because it's true, you think about it all the time, even if you're only working part time.”

“I realised then…that I was sort of born to teach”

From this moment on, Garman’s whole career shifted towards proteins, crystals and X-rays. Rising up the ranks, Garman founded her own research group in 1999, which has worked to establish techniques to improve the methods that people use for structural biology. However, a large part of her work has been in teaching her techniques to others - a pursuit which Garman has always maintained an interest in. Between finishing her school studies and starting at Durham University, Garman taught at a school in Swaziland, which proved to be a particularly impactful experience.

“I filled in for all the teachers (except the person who taught Zulu!) who were indisposed or busy or something, but mainly I taught science to the first years. I love to see people understanding things for the first time and you can see it in their eyes when the pennies drop. I realised then, in those nine months in Swaziland, that I was sort of born to teach.

“I just learned so much from them. It changed my attitudes about things, about possessions, about generosity, about what matters in life… Years later, one of my ex-pupils died and left a letter leaving her daughter Precious in my care. So my husband, John Barnett, and I fostered her when she was 15. She’s now 40 and has got two little boys of her own… it's just fantastic to have another daughter.”

“You've got to shed the guilt”

Garman’s experiences looking after her other daughters whilst maintaining her job has also played into her outlook on life. “I worked part time for 12 years: from 9am till 3pm, school hours, then, after I put the kids to bed, travelled back to work at 8:30pm, because it was before the time where you could do it remotely over the computer, and worked till 11pm or midnight. So I did full time hours, but when it was convenient for me.

“I found that women who worked full time made me feel I was a part timer and I wasn't taking it seriously, and women who didn't work at all liked to implicate that my children were being harmed by this. I said, no, I've got to do what's right for me. So I think you've got to shed the guilt and not let other people's opinions make you not enjoy your work or your kids.”

In addition to shedding the guilt, Garman also believes that tackling unconscious bias should be brought to the forefront of diversity discussions. “There's a lot of subtle ways that you can discriminate. So I think waking everybody up to unconscious bias is really important.”

Professor Garman was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Jenny Martin. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates who they want to pass their award onto to create a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event later this year. More details to follow.

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