Inspiring women in science and research at the Natural History Museum
More than 300 scientists spend their days inside collections, storeroom and labs at the Museum. Their research is answering some of the biggest questions about life on Earth.
Female scientists share how they began their careers, what they love about their jobs, and their advice for budding scientists.
I have been working at the Museum as a palaeontologist for seven years, and my research focuses on animal fossils from the Cambrian period (about 541-485 million years ago) when the Earth saw a great flowering of animal life.
I study the early ancestors of animals in a group called Ecdysozoa, which includes nematodes, tardigrades and arthropods such as millipedes, crabs and spiders.
One of my greatest achievements has been leading a new field of research called neuropalaeontology. Most palaeontologists work on hard parts of animal fossils, but colleagues and I were the first group to report fossilised neural tissue, which rarely survives through fossilisation. We found nervous structures in some of the oldest ecdysozoan fossils from the Chengjiang Biota, a World Heritage Site in China.
I study the central nervous systems and cardiovascular systems of ancient animals, which helps us to understand how they lived and evolved.
We have since published several other papers on the subject, and now the discipline of neuropalaeontology is growing. It's been fantastic to work in this field of science because I am able to make exciting new scientific discoveries and to contribute towards solving the puzzle of early evolution of animal life on Earth.
I have always been interested in nature because my mother is a biologist and she taught me how astonishing the natural world is. I became a biologist in 2001 with a degree from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and went to the coast to start my PhD in the cell biology of sponges.
That time changed my entire view of science and evolution and made me a hardworking researcher with an indefatigable curiosity. When I applied to the Researcher position at the Museum I never thought I was going to get it, it was a dream to me. But since 2015 that dream became reality.
My position here allows me to travel to fantastic places doing fieldwork and it has given me freedom and resources to follow my instincts. I love the fact that I am always surrounded by amazing people, all the knowledge contained in the library and the collections - it is truly inspiring.
I graduated in Turin and completed my PhD in Marseilles before arriving at the Museum in 2002 with a post-doctoral European grant. I joined the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project in 2005, and since 2012 I have developed my own projects.
Over the last 12 years I have been researching the evolution of human behaviour through the analysis of bone assemblages, aiming to recognise and interpret different expressions of human actions. These include hunting, butchering and feeding choices, the production and use of bone and antler artefacts and the cultural modifications of human remains in funerary and cannibalistic practices.
I have always been interested in history, but after reading Lucy by Donald Johanson aged 13, I realised I was interested in the human story: how we evolved, and how our behaviour and beliefs changed. Holding old specimens or artefacts is a privilege and the starting point for questions and clues about our past. I particularly like the research part of my work. When I was a teenager, I wished I could be a student forever. I am lucky because being a researcher is not very different from being a student.
Dr Zerina Johanson, Merit Researcher and Head of Division for Vertebrates and Anthropology Palaeobiology
I research the evolution and development of early vertebrates, focusing on hard tissues like teeth and the skeleton, working on fossil and living animals. My career has been very much a work in progress, including several years as a postdoctoral researcher in Australia, then starting work at the Museum as a curator of fossil fishes, and moving to full time research.
I’ve been privileged to work with some amazing researchers through my career, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without their support. This includes some important female role models who continually inspire and motivate me. My goal is hopefully to provide something similar to young women interested in STEM careers, including support at a variety of levels.
My advice is to be flexible and prepared to take new opportunities when they present themselves. My earliest research was on fossil marsupial teeth, but now I’m working on broad questions of skeletal and dental development and evolution in some of the first animals to evolve a backbone and teeth, which I’m tremendously excited about.
I’ve always been interested in science. My mum and dad took me fossil hunting in Devon when I was small, but I never seriously considered being a research scientist until I had almost finished university. Towards the end of my geology degree I was looking at some rocks from Spain and found they were full of tiny but beautiful microfossils called foraminifera, and I haven’t really looked up from the microscope since!
I became fascinated with foraminifera and what they can tell us about how the oceans and climate have changed through Earth’s history. Today I use pre-industrial specimens from the Museum collections to try to understand how the world’s oceans are being affected by climate change.
For me science is all about problem solving, which is why it’s so important to have people from a diverse range of back grounds working together. New perspectives and different ways of thinking about problems lead to innovation and advancement, which is why it’s so important that we continue to support and encourage women and minorities in STEM.
I studied zoology at university, spending my gap year and holidays in pharmaceutical labs. Pharmacy wasn't what I wanted to do but it was good experience. Turns out it was just the right experience for my first job here, which was a junior lab manager in Entomology, which eventually evolved into Research Support, Molecular Biology Labs.
I love working in science. I often wake up wanting to come to work, to see if my experiment worked or to try something new. I sometimes describe my job as poncing about in a white coat because I play about with DNA until it works. In a very controlled and scientific way of course! I never say, 'eureka!'. More often I say, 'it doesn't work', but that's science.
As my manager says, if it were easy, someone else would've done it by now. In science you are always thinking and always learning. To discover new things we need to think in new ways. Our lab hosts scientists from all over the world, all thinking differently. That diversity really drives our science. My advice for starting-out in molecular biology? Be proactive. Get experience wherever you can, keep reading, keep learning and get out and meet scientists (for real or online).
I am currently looking at the evolution of ocean plankton. I have always been interested in natural history. During childhood holidays I spent many happy hours watching birds, rock-pooling and looking for shells. That led me to study science at university where I discovered geology, and we were taken on field trips around Europe to look at rocks.
From there I did a PhD at the Museum, working on a group of fossils called planktonic foraminifera. These are among the most abundant fossils, and they make up large areas of seafloor sediment. Since the 1950s there has been an international collaboration to sample the seafloor, allowing us to study these sediments. With such a good fossil record, we are able to see how the communities of these plankton change through time, something that is very hard to do in most groups.
I love working in science as I get to answer questions that I find fascinating, and being based at the Museum I meet all sorts of interesting people.
Citizen science is a phrase you might not have heard of. It means ordinary members of the public getting involved in science research by doing wildlife surveys and sending in your observations, or doing online tasks like transcribing handwritten labels or tagging images from our collections to make the data available for scientific research.
Thousands of people support the Museum in this way every year, and it's my job to design projects that are fun, interesting and make a real difference to science research.
My undergraduate degree in zoology and masters in biodiversity and conservation supported my love of nature and passion for understanding and protecting the natural world.
After a couple of years working at Exeter Museum I came across citizen science through a project called OPAL which I worked on for six years. Now I support our scientists to use citizen science in their research, including supporting Professor Juliet Brodie with the Big Seaweed Search.
I'm so lucky to be able to work with inspiring, adventurous women who are experts in their field and travel to Antarctica, the Falkland Islands and many other far flung destinations to conduct world class research, making a real contribution to understanding and conserving our planet.