#Womeninscience: Dr. Keira Melican

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#Womeninscience: Dr. Keira Melican


Keira Melican is an Assistant Professor at the Karolinska Institute. Here, she shares her experience of getting to this position and the challenges women working in science face as they progress through their careers. 

How did you find the experience of progressing to a senior position in research?

My current position is ‘Assistant Professor’ which is considered Junior Faculty here in Sweden. I do hope to progress further to the more senior positions. I am originally from Australia where I did my Bachelor degree at Monash University in Melbourne. I then did my Master’s degree at Uppsala University in Sweden, followed by a PhD at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. I received a Marie Curie fellowship to do my post-doc at INSERM in Paris before returning to Stockholm to my current position. I have been an Assistant Professor since 2014 and am looking to take the next step to Associate Professor in 2019.

Getting to this position has been quite a journey both geographically and academically. The road to here has been quite uncertain at times, with a number of ‘last-minute’ decisions and choices which had to be made relatively quickly. It has required flexibility, toughness and a degree of stubbornness. The career path is not always very clear and it has felt like I have had to make my own way quite a few times.

What challenges do you think women face when working and progressing in academia?

There is certainly a degree of patriarchy in academia which we are still fighting to change. Sweden is well advanced in this, but still has a way to go. I believe there is an element of bias, whether unconscious or conscious, which is quite apparent when looking at the statistics of both positions and grants. Sweden promotes equality in all grant and job calls, and at the lower levels I do think this is helping to even the playing field, but it gets tougher as you move up. I think the expectation for mobility becomes a particular challenge for women when they have families and partners with jobs outside academia. Travelling for conferences and meetings becomes more challenging with young children and attendance at these events is critical for networking and career advancement. Another factor I believe influences many, though not all women, is a lack of confidence in their abilities. A lack of role models may be part of this. There is a fine-line to be walked as a woman in being strong but not ‘outspoken’ and a leader but not ‘bossy’.  

What support have you received throughout your career?

My greatest support and role model has been my ‘mentor’ Prof. Agneta Richter-Dahlfors who was my PhD supervisor and whom I continue to work closely with. She has faced and overcome many of the challenges of being a successful woman in academia and is a great source of encouragement and inspiration when things get tough. She is very quick to point out apparent disparities in behaviour and inequality, which makes it feel more appropriate to speak up when necessary. 

A great piece of advice I received early on was ‘have the right partner’. My husband is very supportive of what I do, the odd hours, the deadlines and the travel. He pitches in at home with the family and takes care of things while I travel. The Swedish parental leave system is very generous and allowed us both to take extended leave with our children. I think this helps promote equality in the household which then translates to societal equality. I could not do what I do without his support, the same goes for my mother who flies across the world each year to take care of my kids while I travel to conferences.

In terms of financial support, I received a very good post-doctoral fellowship through the EU Marie Curie program which allowed me to take a post-doc internationally in Paris, while my husband remained in Sweden. The funding allowed us to travel regularly between France and Sweden, and without it, the position in France would not have been feasible.  

Have you had role models throughout your career?

As above, Prof. Richter-Dahlfors has been a great close mentor, role model and ally. Other role models I have include women who I think have stood up and made their voice heard without necessarily sacrificing their femininity. Women I admire include Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel andMelinda Gates. Closer to home there are a number of female Professors here at Karolinska whom I admire, particularly those who manage to balance this work and family life.

What is the importance of having female role models? Do you think there are enough female role models?

I think female role models are very important, to see that it is possible to succeed is critical in the tough moments. I think younger students and even children need to see women in science, to break the stereotype of the old man in a white coat. It has been somewhat disappointing to see how many of my peers during my PhD are no longer working in research, and often not by choice. The funding situation and the politics often make it difficult and I think women are more inclined to step back for family or personal reasons. I enjoy teaching students and being in close contact with the undergraduate students. I often receive good feedback from female students that it is refreshing to see approachable women in research. 

Do you think women are now more encouraged and recognised in the field than they used to be?

It is certainly getting better. The Nobel prize is obviously a big thing in Stockholm, and it was particularly refreshing to see 2 women receive the prizes in 2018. Obviously, I would like to see more women laureates, and particularly in Medicine, but at least a conversation has been started and I think the committees are more aware of their role in promoting women scientists. There are some great movements underway here including a new mentor/support network called ‘Women in Science’ which is targeted to exactly this idea, promoting and supporting women in science. Many of the large academic organizations are trying to promote women including the ‘power hour’ series at the Gordon Research Conferences. There are targeted grants and positions aimed to enhance equality but as always there is some level of backlash against this perceived ‘positive discrimination’. I understand the difficulty in this but at least there is an effort to recognize and address the issue. 

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