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  • Katy Pallister

Maths and Computing Awardee 2020: Professor Bianca De Stavola

“My initial motivation was politics”

Professor Bianca De Stavola is a medical statistician at University College London’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (UCL GOS ICH). De Stavola interrogates medical data from long-term studies to attempt to find answers and evidence for the causes of disease development. One particular area of research which De Stavola collaborated in for many years was the aetiology (causes) of breast cancer.

“The questions posed concerned the understanding of what events or periods of life most impact on cell division in one’s breasts: from utero to early life, the speed in which a girl grows, her BMI composition, and the timing of menarche (first menstrual cycle),” De Stavola said. “We put together these chains of events and tried to identify where from a public health perspective, you could intervene, for example the best time to organize mammography.”

A ‘translator of data’, De Stavola has always had a passion for numbers, but her upbringing in Italy shaped her broader interests and dreams. “My initial motivation was politics. I studied in Italy in the early 80s and the political situation was very interesting. I thought it was very important to offer evidence in discussions and wanted to contribute to a better discourse in politics. The Italian academic environment in the 80s however was stiff, and very hierarchical. In contrast, the Anglo-Saxon academic environment was so exciting and the people were so friendly when I met them at the end of my first degree. So that was my dream, to study abroad.”

“I think having women collaborators and colleagues is a great help”

Following an undergraduate degree in Statistical and Economic Sciences at the University of Padua in Italy, De Stavola moved to the UK. “I studied statistics and econometrics at the London School of Economics, which was interesting, but I realized that I wasn't really cut out to apply statistics to economic research. So, I moved into applications in medicine and I felt more comfortable applying statistical methods to science as opposed to social sciences.”

De Stavola continued in academia in London and Cambridge, but had to overcome the challenges of her coming from abroad. “When I was younger, I didn't have the same command of the language, I was slower at articulating my thoughts and then expressing them. Besides, the mathematical training I had in Italy also held me back. I studied for a baccalaureate, so I had been exposed to philosophy, history, biology, mathematics, but my mathematics was at a very low level compared to someone else in the UK who had started concentrating on mathematics at age 16. I did feel a deep sense of inferiority because of that.”

Despite this, De Stavola has always felt inspired in every place she’s worked, and found support in inquisitive collaborators. “I think having women collaborators and colleagues is a great help. I had a fiery relationship with Isabel dos Santos Silva, a Portuguese cancer epidemiologist - we often disagreed on how to approach the analyses, but we both learnt a lot from each other - it was really an excellent partnership. And Rhian Daniel (a fellow Suffrage Science Maths and Computing 2020 Awardee), is like a daughter, or maybe a much younger sister, to me. She did a PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), where I was for more than 20 years. Coinciding with the end of her PhD, I had a grant on causal inference with another colleague. We selected her as our postdoc and she produced the most amazing work. During that time, my husband became ill (he died two years ago), and Rhian was an incredible support for those nine years. We became friends both on the human side and scientifically.”

“I really enjoy teaching, because you’re sharing what you have understood with the next generations”

In 2017, De Stavola left the LSHTM, where she was co-Director of the Centre for Statistical Methodology, to join UCL GOS ICH. “I really love working in child health. There are so many interesting questions about eating disorders, growth, mental health, and now COVID-19, so it's really clinically relevant questions.”

As Deputy Head of UCL’s Population, Policy & Practice Department, De Stavola is also helping to create a more collaborative academic environment. “When I first joined the 150-person department, it was quite disjointed. Together with the new female head of department, we have improved things greatly. We are supporting lots of discussion groups on different topics, which are question driven not discipline driven, like inequalities in health. There is a lot of interest in sharing understanding and improving everybody's research methods.”

Alongside her research, De Stavola is a committed teacher and mentor, driven by her passionate belief in the younger generation. “I really enjoy teaching, because you’re sharing what you know and have understood with the next generations. When I joined the LSHTM, the late Michael Hills took me under his wing and taught me how to teach. He was quite critical of some of my presentations, but I knew where he was coming from. Once, after one lecture of mine he simply said that it was a dog's dinner, and I had no idea what that meant at the time! He was quite direct but he taught me how to be as clear as possible and share the essentials, because you can't teach everything.”

“Don't be afraid to ask for help, because people generally want to give it”

For De Stavola, increasing the visibility of women in science and establishing good mentoring schemes in PhD programs are important ways to support minorities in research. “There should be greater visibility of women everywhere, and I think we're achieving that. This prize also plays that role - people start noticing you because in the bulletin it says you've won a prize, for example. I also think that most women in academia are driven, otherwise they wouldn't do a job that is so demanding. We should transfer this drive into believing in what we're capable of. Having other people telling you that you are good helps, especially early on in your career. PhD programs where there are good mentoring schemes, can be incredibly supportive. The next generation can hear that you don't have to know the answer to everything, and see how other people have survived through the stresses of academia.”

Speaking from her own experience as a working mother, De Stavola shared her reflections and advice to the next generation. “I had two children, and it was very hard when they were young but you just do it – you spend the night working to catch up the hours you've lost in the day. That's how I think it still is for many, indeed it is worse now, and it's been apparent that it makes a dent in your career progress. But I want to say to new mothers, don't worry because your career will last for years and years. I'm 66 now, and I plan to work for another four years, so you’ve got time to catch up from the time lost because of motherhood. Many men of my generation are now running out of steam, whilst we are not!” De Stavola said. “And finally believe in yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for help, because people generally want to give it.”

The Suffrage Science Maths and Computing Awards 2020 were held on Friday 6th November, 2020. You can find out more, and watch a recording of the event, here.

Hear more about previous Suffrage Science Awardees on the Suffrage Science Podcast. You can subscribe on Podbean, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts

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