- Katy Pallister
Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Dr Veronique Miron
Updated: Sep 10, 2020
“[Growing up] I certainly wasn't aware that there were any female scientists at all”
Dr Veronique Miron is a senior lecturer and principal investigator (PI) in neuroscience. Her research group is looking to harness the beneficial effects of inflammation to repair the brain and treat a variety of neurological diseases. In particular, Miron’s group is focused on cerebral palsy, a disorder characterised by problems with movement brought about by an injury to a baby’s brain during pregnancy or birth, and multiple sclerosis, the most common neurological disorder in young adults. By identifying new intervention strategies, Miron’s work seeks to support the normal development of the brain and develop ways to repair it if an injury occurs.
Understanding the brain is something which has been on Miron’s mind since her childhood. “I first had the idea of having a career in research when I was in high school and I saw a really interesting article about the plasticity of the brain, basically how the brain can change its function. That completely blew my mind because I didn't know that about the brain at all, I always thought it was a static thing. It really piqued my interest in research and I really wanted to carry out a career in research and in neuroscience.”
Indeed, Miron’s early exposure to science was guided by her own curiosity. “To be completely honest, when I was younger there really wasn't anything available that was encouraging to me, or to girls in general, to enter research. I didn't see anything on television or in the media. I certainly wasn't aware that there were any female scientists at all. But I was always very curious, always asking questions and I really just did my own research. I played with my brother’s insect microscopy set and flipped through my mother’s medical encyclopaedias.”
“I really wanted to have the freedom to explore this new area of research”
Following her innate draw to neuroscience, Miron went on to complete a PhD at McGill University in Canada, before moving overseas to the UK to pursue a postdoctoral position. However, this was not always Miron’s plan. “Originally, when I got into my PhD, my goal was to move into industry at the end of that. But I realised when I was offered a position that I didn't want the job - I really wanted to have the freedom to explore this new area of research, which was how inflammation could promote repair in the brain. At the time, the best labs investigating this specific kind of brain repair were based in the UK.
“I thought that afterwards I could end up moving into industry, but about halfway through my postdoc I realised that the academic route was something that I would really enjoy.”
Continuing her route through academia, Miron set up her own lab five years ago, but this was not without its difficulties. “My first year and a half as an independent group leader was very challenging, because I had so many grant and fellowship rejections. It was just one after the other. I was doing everything I thought I could do: I was getting feedback, I was going for as many opportunities as I could, and it just wasn't coming through.
“The more junior group leaders I spoke to, the more I realised this was a common occurrence. Nobody writes a perfect grant application the first time around, but eventually you learn little tricks that help. So it was a bit of a painful experience, but it's one that I share with as many people as I can when I find out that they had grant rejections, because it doesn't mean that it's the end, it's just part of the learning process.”
“Mentors have been absolutely critical in supporting me to get to where I am today”
Throughout this experience, and the rest of her career journey, Miron has sought advice and support from a network of mentors and sponsors, and is encouraging of others to do the same. “Looking back, mentors have been absolutely critical in supporting me to get to where I am today. A lot of my mentors don't even know that they're my mentors, but I think the key was to seek advice from as many people as possible. I've also got mentors for different types of issues: there's one person who's excellent at coming up with ways to have difficult conversations with trainees, I've got mentors for helping with peer reviews of my grant applications and papers, and I've got mentors for work life balance.
“Another thing I learnt is that there are people called sponsors who are different from mentors. Sponsors are people who put you forward for and give you opportunities. Building your network so that you are interacting with not only mentors but also sponsors provides a really strong framework to support your career development.”
“You can be a successful scientist and make an impact on the research culture at the same time”
As well as having her own group of inspiring mentors, Miron herself has had the opportunity to take on this role for the trainees in her lab - an experience which she says has been one of the highlights of her career. “Before I started my lab, I didn’t anticipate that overseeing other researchers would have a huge impact on me. But now, having mentored people in the group, I find it so rewarding to watch people come in at a junior level and see their confidence, critical-thinking skills and contributions to the field grow over time. Just seeing that progression over a pretty short period, and seeing how I contributed to that, it's difficult for me to put into words how rewarding it is.”
Miron’s influence has also extended beyond her own lab. She has taken an active role in her university’s Athena SWAN program (which works to implement strategies to overcome the barriers that women face in research), set up free childcare for researchers attending an international conference, and also put in place an initiative to provide free menstrual products at her institute to help alleviate period poverty amongst students. For Miron, engaging in these activities, as well as raising the profile of female researchers, is an important step towards improving the scientific sphere.
“I think that it's really inspiring for all researchers, regardless of gender, to see that you can take even very small steps to improve the system so that it works better for everyone. Sometimes, I think that we feel there's very little we can do to influence the system so that it's more supportive of women in science. But I think there are small things you can do to improve your local working environment, your institute, your university, or even maybe on a broader scale.
“This award is important not only in highlighting the research achievements of female researchers, but also how they're able to change the culture, and that you can be a successful scientist and make an impact on the research culture at the same time.”
Dr Miron was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Elizabeth Bradley. 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.