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Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer

International Day of Women and Girls in Science recognises the role of women and girls in science.

by Liz Fussey

Ahead of this awareness day, I chatted to a couple of inspiring women researchers working within our Centres of Excellence.

Dr Sylwia Ammoun PhD, MSc, is Senior Research Fellow at our Centre of Excellence within the University of Plymouth, the UK’s leading specialist research centre for low-grade brain tumours. Last year Sylwia worked on the team which published a paper on how a research breakthrough could spare patients surgery and was responsible for a study on how drugs developed to treat Aids and HIV could offer hope to patients diagnosed with the most common form of primary brain tumour. 

Prof Silvia Marino MD, FRCPath, is Professor of Neuropathology and heads up the research team at our Centre of Excellence at Queen Mary University of London (Queen Mary), studying glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) brain tumours, the most aggressive and most common primary high-grade tumour diagnosed in adults, as well as certain primarily childhood tumours such as medulloblastoma and ependymoma. Last year’s successes included a significant breakthrough in glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) research as well as the news that Silvia and her scientists have found a new way to starve cancerous brain tumour cells of energy in order to prevent further growth and that this could see a breakthrough in the way that children with medulloblastoma are treated in future.

I asked: what or who inspired you to go into research and why did you choose the area of brain tumours?

Dr Sylwia: When I was 11 years old, one of my stepbrother’s cousins died of leukaemia and when I was 14, I lost a friend to lung cancer. Both were in their early teenage years. I found science the only way to find a cure for cancer.

My research hero is Marie Sklodowska-Curie. I admire her commitment to science, her brilliance and tenacity. She has been my role model all my life and my inspiration. I even quoted her in my PhD thesis.

I chose to pursue a career in brain tumour research because brain tumours are common. We hear almost on a daily basis it seems about new cases, yet unfortunately, despite decades of worldwide research, there is still no cure. Brain tumours are very difficult to cure due to their location in a very sensitive part of our body and due to multiple mutations causing the disease.

I asked: do you feel you have equality with men and whether women were under represented in their field?

Prof Silvia: It is certainly challenging to be a woman in science. At senior level, equality with men is unfortunately still not a given, and it is at times difficult to be heard and sometimes even to be taken seriously. It is important to believe in oneself and persevere. Seeing the funny side of situations also helps!

Is this a career with longevity for women or is there no difference between the sexes?

Dr Sylwia: For sure it is more difficult for women in science in general, especially when they decide to have family and children. It makes it more difficult to become established in the research world of academia. Scientists usually get postdoctoral positions for two to four years and then have to move to the next destination and look for new positions, but this applies to men as well as women.

I think career progression depends on hard work and commitment, rather than gender. However, for younger women who want a family this can be a drawback in our ‘male-dominated world’ and has been my own experience in the past, although fortunately not here at Plymouth thanks to the university’s policy. But again, it is much harder for women with small children especially if you are a single parent (as in my own past experience).

Prof Silvia: Once at senior level, I do not feel there is much difference in career longevity between the sexes. However, given that there is almost equal representation in junior positions among women and men, but not yet at senior level, the problem seems to be in career progression rather than career longevity.

I believe it is possible for a woman to be successful in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) and there are powerful role models demonstrating this to the younger generation. I think the scientific community and our society in general is on track to level the playing field between the sexes; both women and men need to engage in the process for this to be the reality in the future.

Finally, I met with our new Director of Research, Policy and Innovation, Dr Karen Noble. Karen has recently joined us from the NHS Cancer Programme and prior to this she worked at Cancer Research UK. With 20 years of grants and research management experience working in the life sciences sector she seemed the right person to ask for insight.

I asked: what would your advice be to young women setting out on a science career?

Karen’s advice is to :

  • Find a mentor to help advise and share with you their experiences. They can help with troubleshooting, advocate for you and offer support
  • Build a network and draw on that too for support and advice
  • Take responsibility for your own career development, but also find someone who can support your career ambitions and work for them as you are starting out