PEOPLE: Women in research – Dr Nicola Angel

For this year’s National Science Week, Echo Chamber Escape will be profiling a range of science and technology professionals over several articles to highlight what careers in these sectors look like and the opportunities for upcoming graduates to look forward to. This interview is with Dr Nicola Angel, Head of Laboratory Operations at Microba.

  • At what stage in your life did you decide you wanted to become a researcher? Or is this a field you ‘fell into’? 

At school I enjoyed Biology enormously even though we had a teacher who was new to teaching and really struggled with the class.  While the rest of the students played a game of using their watch faces to reflect the sun into her eyes and see how long before she left the class, I was involved in an epic battle with my high school nemesis to take the top marks for the year (I lost but it didn’t diminish my love for science!). I didn’t know at high school that my goal was to become a researcher but I continued to study subjects that I found interesting and exciting until I came out the other side of University studies with a PhD and an emerging career in medical research.

  • What have been the greatest highlights and lowlights of being and working with researchers? 

Nothing beats the feeling of bringing an ambitious project to completion with a large number of researchers working together to a tight grant application, conference presentation or publication deadline, where the data is both novel and significant. I think one of the hardest situations is when you are working with a research group that has insufficient funds, or leadership in the team, to achieve a robust scientific design and you know that a lot of hard work is going into producing data that will be compromised or not lead to the outcome that is desired.

  • Why do you think there are fewer women graduating from research fields? 

In my experience with Science graduates through to PhD research graduates (in my field), I feel that we have addressed gender inequity that may have existed and there are equal numbers of graduating men and women, which are well trained, bright individuals that would have promising careers. Australia is renowned globally for the quality of its research, innovation and ability to translate basic science. However, post-graduation it is obvious that we fail to retain this talented pool of women. There are disparities in pay, grant funding cycles that require a constant research output in order to remain competitive for research funding making part time work and maternity leave challenging, and systemic bias that still persists in many organisations.

While recognition of women in research fields is increasing with many government and privately supported initiatives, mentoring networks and gender quotas, the efforts we have made to date have not made a substantial impact. We need to support these efforts and continue to provide strong role models and mentors for our young scientists that are coming through the ranks.

  • Does this need to change? Why? 

Having gender equality in scientific research is vital as women bring unique ideas and perspectives to research and science in general. Encouraging only half of the population to participate in research is limiting half of the potential for scientific advancements to be made. As a society in general, there is no place for gender bias to be tolerated and perpetuated and we should take any steps that we can to address this and change.

  • In your view, how can academic researchers work more effectively with commercial groups?

There is a reluctance and skepticism in academic institutions that commercial groups are looking to make money, or appropriate IP, at the expense of the researchers. I encourage academic research groups to be open in approaching commercial groups which have the same desire to get the best outcome for researchers from their funding dollars. This could be by providing supported, optimized and cost-effective solutions for many stages of basic research, translational research, project management, or grant applications. These collaborations and contracts need improved support from academic institutions that look to enable rather than restrict these opportunities. In fact, commercial groups are staffed by seasoned industry professionals that are passionate experts in the field and are genuinely excited to be involved in supporting academic projects (most of them having come from that field themselves).

About the expert

Dr Nicola Angel is the current Head of Laboratory Operations at Microba Pty Ltd, a Queensland based biotechnology company that is a world leader in the analysis of the gut microbiome. The Microba Laboratory, that she manages, employs the latest testing methods, comprehensive quality assurance processes and a trained team of skilled scientists operating an efficient high throughput sample processing pipeline. She has pioneered methods used in microbiome analysis, including optimised metagenomic DNA sequencing to identify the microorganisms present within a sample with reproducibility, reliability, accuracy and specificity.

Since graduating with a PhD from the University of Queensland, Dr Angel has been integral in a number of academic and industry-funded projects to support advances in the understanding and treatment of a range of human diseases with novel diagnostics and therapeutics. In providing services for other researchers, she has enabled thousands of research projects to generate high quality data for grant applications, presentations and publications.

She recognises the importance of personally advocating for and mentoring the next generation of researchers, particularly in fields that have lower graduate or retention rates in the workplace for women. She has a passion for the achieving and supporting world leading scientific advances within Australia by working collaboratively with academic researchers, educators and commercial groups.

Image description: Headshot of Nicola smiling at the camera, with her light brown hair tied back, wearing a grey top and black jacket.