Professor Rosalind Allen
Soft Matter Physicist & Professor of Biological Physics at the University of Edinburgh
Tell us about your background
I studied Chemistry at Cambridge University and I did so because I was just interested in science, that’s all. I was interested quite broadly and didn’t know whether I wanted to study Physics, Chemistry or Biology. The good thing about Cambridge is that you don’t need to choose! I studied Natural Sciences and just leaned towards the Chemistry lectures, they were really engaging and related very much to the real world.
I had a great time at Cambridge! I was so excited to be in an environment that was full of experts and excited to be around people who themselves were excited about knowledge. The school I’d been to before wasn’t especially academic or high-ranking, although it was very good in other areas. I loved Cambridge because I never put a huge amount of pressure on myself – to become top of the year or something like that. I was just there to learn and was grateful for the opportunities I had. Some people see it is a high-pressure environment, because that’s what they make it. If you come in to it feeling pressurised, then it will be.
I actually had a gap year prior teaching English in the Czech Republic. That made me realise what hard work teaching is! I was just grateful to be on the receiving end rather than the delivering! I had a good attitude in retrospect.
For my final year undergrad project, I had a fantastic supervisor called Professor Jean-Pierre Hansen. It was about theoretical chemistry, that’s what I was good at, the theoretical and quantitative side of things. The project involved computer simulation methods, and I loved it. This Professor then offered me a PhD but I didn’t want to stay in Cambridge, I’d had enough by then.
I ended up going to the USA for a year to do a Masters’ in Pennsylvania. I had a great time, and ended up doing all the modules that the first year PhD students in Physics did so learnt a lot. I also did a research project on computer simulation. At the end of the Masters’, I realised that I actually wanted to do a PhD under the supervision of Professor Hansen so I returned to Cambridge in 2000 – glad I’d had a break from the place, though – and did a PhD. He was such a good supervisor, extremely supportive. I was one of his first female students, and he was towards the end of his career then! There was me and a woman called Natasha, we were the first female PhD students he had. He was a very thoughtful man and in fact, I think he tended to discriminate in favour of us rather than the other way around. He spent a lot of time with us and invested a lot of energy trying to boost our confidence.
I loved my PhD because I had a good supervisor and there was group of theoretical physics people at Cambridge, we used to have fun together and socialise. I felt very supported.
I was always interested in biology, though, and I really wanted to direct my research that way for the first time. I did a Post-Doc in Amsterdam, where I worked in a Physics institute but with a supervisor who was trying to apply computer simulation to biological problems. My PhD supervisor was quite old, and retired actually after my PhD. My Post-Doc supervisor was the other way around: I was his first Post-Doc and he was just starting his independent career, we were more collaborators then boss and employee. That was a contrast.
We were looking at the genetic switch – how biological systems control their genes – and the technique we planned to use turned out to be unsuitable. The problem was that biological systems are non-equilibrium, they’re driven by energy (they eat stuff!) and so they’re burning up energy all the time. The method my supervisor wanted to use was only suitable for equilibrium systems, which don’t burn energy. In the end, we invented a new method which could be use be used to simulate rare events in non-equilibrium systems which we called ‘Flux Sampling’. This was the main achieved of my Post-Doc and people use in all around the world for all sorts, not just gene expression. It turns out I invented something – which wasn’t what we set out to do!
I wasn’t sure what to do next. I didn’t want to carry on in the same field, I wanted to get out there and study more scientific problems, discover something. I also came to the conclusion I wanted to do experiments so that I could get hands-on experience of biology. There’s only so far you can go with computer simulations.
I ended up in Edinburgh because the Physics department has a long history of combining experiments with computer stimulations. There was a Professor Cates who was leading the group and very influential, and he was interacting an experimentalist. They had a great track record of combining computers with experiments, so I was really impressed by that and their work attracted me. At the same time, they were hoping to set up a biological lab so it was a good time to step in. I applied for a fellowship with the Royal Society of Edinburgh and that’s how I ended up in Edinburgh and I also ended up with a University research fellowship, which was a really good thing because it gave me a time and funding to focus on experiments. I also had a promise from the Physics department of a permanent job so I wasn’t stressed about the future. However, I spent a huge amount of time trying to get this experimental programme off the ground and it was much slower than anticipated. I made a lot of mistakes with experiments and it ended up being a marathon. It worked out ok in the end.
Now we have a research programme and we’re mainly focused on antibiotics, how bacteria responds to them and create resistance. We have an experimental side to this but we also measure it using theoretical calculations and computer simulations. We’ve achieved what I hope: to integrate theoretical data and data coming out of experiments.
What an incredibly journey! So what does a typical day look like for you?
I’m based at Kings Buildings. What I mainly do is manage people – I secured a large grant from the European Research Council, which means I have a team of 11 that I supervise or co-supervise. So I don’t have as much time to do research myself. I meet with them and learn about what they do, I make suggestions, read manuscripts.
I manage the lab, which involves making decisions around what equipment we should buy and managing the money. Recently, I’ve been teaching a course called Biological Physics. I’m also a personal tutor, so I have 32 undergraduate students who come to me for advice. I sit in my office a lot!
We have something called the Edinburgh Complex Fluid Partnership, ran by Tiffany Woods, and that links academia and industrial partners. I manage a Post-Doc who works with them, who focuses on biological topics. I spend time visiting industrial partners to find out what sort of projects would be useful for them and their products. I also visit collaborators around the world and find out what they’re doing!
Is there anything you wish you could do more of?
More practical science. On the other hand, I really enjoy interacting with all these people.
Do you find your work supportive of women?
I had mixed feelings about the whole women in science thing because growing up, I never experienced discrimination. Maybe I was lucky, but everyone was extremely supportive and I always saw myself as a scientist, not a woman in science.
In 2015 however, I had a baby. She’s nearly four now. That completely changed by view and I realised that the whole issue is very important. Juggling childcare and work, the politics of maternity leave, the impacts on the body, it’s all very different from a man being in science. I don’t think it should be but it is.
The department is very pro-active in promoting equality and diversity, they’re at the forefront of sort of, intervention measures. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s no disadvantage in being a woman. For example, I think we could do better in hiring more women, I haven’t seen many during my time here. In general, our department is really trying but the situation is not as it should be. In terms of individual people, I’ve never experienced misogyny.
What would you recommend to women and girls who’d like to be in your position?
I wish I’d been more confident. There’s no reason why you can’t make it. Be confident in your abilities and just get on with it.
What is the best opportunity you’ve had in your career thus far?
The Royal Society fellowship – that is up to 8 years of time to do research. The Royal Society itself is very supportive. They put on lots of courses and make sure you’re ok! Their programme is one thing that really makes the UK stand out. I recommend applying for that.
Having the European grant consolidated is fantastic as well. They really focus on basic science, you know? They just things on the quality of the science instead of other things, which can be an issue with other funding programmes.
What data sets do you work with?
My research involves so many different kinds of data and techniques, and combining them together! We work with simulation data, which is collections of coordinates of where atoms are. We work with experimental data, such as microscopic images or bacteria populations (spreadsheets) or sequencing data, to show mutations of bacteria on enormous spreadsheets. We have to be adaptable and good at managing all the different kinds of data. Overall, we deal with large amounts of it!
What do you look forward to?
I’m excited about the papers we’re writing – and hopefully publishing them – on the work we’ve done under the European fund!
What are you proud of?
I am most proud of the students and Post-Docs who have been educated by me somehow (laughs) going about their lives and being successful.
Do you have a hero or heroine?
All the people who influenced my career who believed in science and wanted to discover the truth over promoting yourself or getting more money.
My PhD supervisor, I really respect his attitude to science. He really enjoyed it and he was committed to integrity and quality. He was very community-focused in the ways he did science. My Post-Doc supervisor was similar, in terms of his collaborative focus.
What do you do when the working day is over?
My four year-old! Before she was born, I used to do a lot of singing in choirs. Now, I go to the zoo a lot.
I always saw myself as a scientist, not a woman in science