STEM Equals Profiles - Zahra Rattray

Dr Zahara Rattray - STEM Equals profiles

Tell us a little bit about you:

I am a Chancellor’s Research Fellow and Lecturer in Translational Pharmaceutics in the Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences. I am a mum to Tobi and to feline furbaby Alba.

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

My lab is interested in two research themes: 1) Investigating what happens to nanomedicines when they are injected and developing new tests to predict this. A better understanding of their biological fate can help with reverse-engineering of new materials and drugs for improved performance. 2) I am also interested in understanding the role of various mutations in cancer resistance. I use various analytical techniques (mass spectrometry and imaging) to measure their impact on cell behaviour.

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

I was interested in science from a young age as my father was a polymer science researcher. I would proofread his papers and book chapters for him. Specific interest in pharmacy happened when my sister was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and I was inspired to learn about medicines.

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

I was the only person studying A-level physics at my school. My physics teacher was really committed to STEM and would take me on many school trips to the University of Manchester and Jodrell Bank where I learned a lot about particle physics, telescopes and mechanics that tied in with the curriculum at the time.

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?

My experience of industry and academia have shown me that culture differences exist between these sectors. The pharma company I worked for was inclusive and supportive of work-life balance for all their employees irrespective of their gender. Many female colleagues were promoted shortly after returning from a period of maternity leave. Since returning to academia I have noticed that it is not always as inclusive as my experience in industry. An inclusive STEM community doesn’t make assumptions based on gender identity or family status but offers flexibility for their members. A one size approach does not fit all and transparent communication is instrumental in enabling this.

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

My proudest moment was where a product I worked on in the industry sector became FDA-approved. The closest second was securing my first independent academic role in 2018.

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

The biggest challenge I faced was transitioning from a role in the industry sector to academia. Compared to industry which has a community-centred spirit, I found the academic sector to be very solitary and rely on a lot of effort from new academics to build networks. I am still trying to overcome this challenge through reaching out to other academics within my field of research.

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

I have a support network of like-minded early career investigators that I can rely on to share our successes and failures. This has been instrumental in knowing what to prioritize and receiving true support in applying to various programmes. In some instances, there have been some senior colleagues who have also provided me with feedback on my drafts of my funding applications.

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

Science is not too difficult and it’s not meant only for a specific group of people. If you are curious about how everything around you works, you can be a scientist too! Science is for everyone!

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

a) I once freed some captive geese from a farm. b) I have a rubber duck collection. c) I knit jumpers for Llamas.