Margaret Cunningham

STEM Equals Profiles - Margaret Cunningham

Tell us a little bit about you:

I’m 38, a mother of three, rugby enthusiast, who likes to dabble with art in my spare time (Facebook page @SipbsScienceRocks). I have a crazy spaniel called Poppy and a cat called Loki.

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

I’m a molecular pharmacologist looking at understanding how cell membrane proteins in the cardiovascular system work to identify new ways to target them. I have recently identified a novel region within a protein involved in regulating cells in the blood. My group are currently screening new small molecules to identify if they can target the protein as a strategy to prevent blood clotting.

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

I was inspired into STEM during my modern apprenticeship as a laboratory technician (1999-2004). I was working with an academic at that time who was investigating new gene therapy approaches to combat cardiovascular dysfunction. I got to learn so many exciting techniques and was surrounded by so many supportive researchers who encouraged me to take my studies further.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

The postdoctoral researchers I worked with during my time as a technician gave me the support network that I needed to bite the bullet and leave my position to continue my studies at university. I realised that I would struggle to progress in my technical role, and I would eventually hit a glass ceiling without having formal qualifications. In 2004, I decided to go to university full time and follow my ambitions.

What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?

I still think that the guidelines and paperwork related to maternity leave during Fellowships need to be more straightforward and consistent across funders and universities. I would like to see a better framework of support available for PhD students who are pregnant or have parental responsibilities.

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

My greatest moment was when I told my parents that I had secured my first lecturing position after my postdoctoral position. They really wanted to celebrate my first academic position. My mum had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer and she passed away the month after I started my position so I was proud that we celebrated that moment together.

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

Maintaining a research group and academic responsibilities during maternity was a challenge. Thankfully I have a wonderfully supportive lab family who look after each other.

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

My family, my research team and my current mentor.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

Take some time to research the career you are interested in pursuing and follow your gut instinct if you get there and it does not feel right for you. There is so much diversity in what careers in STEM look like so look for opportunities to work with others and don’t be scared to take your career in a different direction.

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) I once won a Kellogg’s cornflake sponsored art competition as a child. b) I once had three pet frogs, Fergus, Fergus-etta and Frodo. c) I can play the violin.