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International Women’s Day: Encouraging Women and Girls Into STEM


Sunday 8th March was International Women’s Day, and the Pulse shared stories from around the world about women making a difference in healthcare. But by no means are we leaving it at that. For the rest of this week and beyond, The Pulse will continue telling the stories of the women who are #MakingItHappen.

Professor Fiona Gilbert leads imaging research programs for Cambridge’s School of Clinical Medicine, and her regular duties include reading breast X-rays and mammograms, helping the university to diagnose around five hundred breast cancer cases a year, but also to reassure those women who have the all-clear. 

“International Women’s Day is a great celebration and recognition of women’s achievements across a variety of fields and disciplines,” she said. “It’s also a useful platform from which we can promote women’s issues and equality from a diverse group.”

In the UK in 2011, close to 50,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2012, nearly 12,000 women died of the disease. 78% of adult female invasive breast cancer patients diagnosed between 2010 and 2011 in England and Wales are predicted to survive ten or more years.

According to Prof Gilbert, the future lies in gene therapy. But there is also a need for increased awareness about what exactly that entails. “There’s a need for greater awareness and acceptance of the potential of advances in genetics to accelerate our progress,” she said. “We need more information and a better understanding of external genetic factors to really hone our skills.”

When it comes to genetics, the picture is complex. Cancer is not usually inherited, but some types – like breast cancer – can be influenced by genes and can run in families. The two main genes scientists currently think play an important role in breast cancer are called BRCA1 and BRCA2. The key to better treating the disease could lie in our ability to manipulate these genes.

“I’m optimistic about our advances in genetics,” continued Prof Gilbert. “There’s massive effort being put into understanding and discovering the sequencing of [cancer-causing genes] and trying to identify different combinations of mutations and external factors.”

“I see a future focused on the prevention of cancer versus the treatment of it.”

It would seem the future lies in a more personalized approach to medicine. The technology is not quite there yet, but one day it is entirely feasible that clinicians will be able to predict who will develop breast cancer, and even when. With this preemptive knowledge, doctors could tailor the advice they give to each patient, and modify their approach accordingly. “I’m hopeful that countries and governments will move away from mass screening programs and towards more personalized care pathways and screening plans,” said Prof Gilbert.

Such talk of predictive gene testing and personalized medicine may have sounded like science fiction just a few years ago. Over the course of her career,Prof Gilbert has witnessed many breakthroughs that have helped give new hope to millions of women. “In the field of imaging there have truly been some tremendous advances. CT, MR, and the fact that PET is now being used in combination with MR technology is amazing… these are amazing tools that have been improved exponentially in the past 20 years.” 

Another facet of International Women’s Day is to encourage young women to get involved in STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). With hard work and the right outlook, Prof Gilbert believes that all schoolchildren can be equipped with the right tools to build a successful career.

“I went to an all girls’ school and had several inspiring female teachers,” she said. “One person who sticks out for me was my headmistress. She taught us to believe that we could do anything. That the world was and is your oyster if you work hard. There are no limits.”

Fiona Gilbert

“We have to be extremely careful not to stereotype girls early on. I remember a childhood friend, a male, receiving a chemistry set for his birthday one year. I was so jealous and would go round his house every opportunity I had to play with it myself! Awareness is needed from a very early age, primary school age. Children should be exposed to the possibilities of a career in STEM. Perhaps we should to develop further awareness amongst primary school teachers around this.”

Stay tuned to The Pulse this week, where we will be talking to Krista Baty, a Chief Nursing Officer in Texas, about the most pertinent issues in women’s health today.


More Information

International Women’s Day 2015
Cancer Research UK: Breast Cancer Statistics
International Women’s Day: The Fight for Better Healthcare for Women Everywhere