International Women and Girls in Science Day: An Interview with Nancy Teng

Tuesday 11 February is International Women and Girls in Science Day, which recognises the critical role women and girls play in the sciences.

To commemorate the day, Big C spoke with Nancy Teng, a current PhD student at the Quadram Institute whose studentship has been funded by Big C.

Since 2019, Nancy has been a researcher in the lab of Dr Lindsay Hall studying gut microbiota and breast cancer.

We asked Nancy about her research, her future plans and what advice she would give to someone interested in pursuing a career in the sciences.

If science is what you are passionate about or what you love to do, then you should do it. Don’t let yourself, or anyone else, hold you back from it.

In 2019, Big C awarded a grant to Dr Hall’s lab at the Quadram Institute to support the addition of a PhD student to assist with their work studying gut bacteria and their effect on certain aspects of human health.

Nancy Teng was the recipient of this funding and through her studentship, Nancy examines how particular gut bacteria can influence the efficacy of treatments for people affected by breast cancer.

She said: “This project really took my interest because of the different disciplines of science and different types of researchers involved in it. It really has its fingers in many science-flavoured pies i.e. cancer biology, immunology, microbiology. Alongside this, I get to work with the local hospital, patients and other scientists which is really different from your standard lab-project.”

Prior to her PhD, Nancy earned a BSc in Biomedicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and a MSc in Immunology of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Regarding her previous degrees, she said: “For me, biomedicine is the science which asks the questions why do diseases happen and how can treatments work against them? Immunology is interesting to me because it’s the first line of defence against disease but there is a very fine balance between doing just enough and doing too much in terms of treatments and this degree studied that.”

Nancy’s family comes from a healthcare background and when she was younger Nancy wanted to be a doctor.

However, Nancy changed her mind about pursuing a medical degree while writing her university applications. She realised she was more interested in the science behind medicine. By talking to others about this interest, Nancy learned about the field of biomedicine and knew that this was the area of science she wanted to delve into.

When asking Nancy what medical professionals or scientists inspire her, she had two people in mind.

The first was her mother. She said: “My mum was a doctor by trade but put her career on hold to raise me and my sister. Once she decided that my sister and I could cook without burning the house down, she started her career again.

“Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to practice medicine again. Instead, she studied for a master’s degree in a field related yet profoundly different from what she had previously done. She worked really hard for the career she has now, and all while still being a really great mum.”

The second person Nancy chose was her PhD adviser Dr Hall.

She said: “When I was studying my master’s degree, someone mentioned Dr Hall’s name in a lecture about the microbiome. I looked her up and was so impressed by her academic career.

“When I got the studentship, I was a bit worried. But since being here, Dr Hall has been nothing but supportive in my PhD project. Despite being a well-known scientist who may not always be at the Quadram Institute, she always makes the time for her team.”

After she has finished her PhD, Nancy is unsure of what she wants to do, but knows she wants to use the skills she has gained to continue a career in research.

She said: “At the end of my PhD, I hope I’ve become a more well-rounded scientist and use the skills and knowledge which I have gained in my next role. Even if I can’t go directly into research, I would be happy working with patients and the wider community, too.”

In regard to advice for younger person who may be interested in pursuing a career in medicine or a science discipline, Nancy said: “You should do what you want if it makes you happy. If science is what you are passionate about or what you love to do, then you should do it. Don’t let yourself, or anyone else, hold you back from it.

“I always knew I wanted to go into science, but I was told that being a woman in science would be difficult. Despite this, I knew what I wanted to do and persevered.”

To find out more about the research happening in Dr Hall’s lab, visit the Quadram Institute’s website.