Why a successful scientist is like a successful sperm


If you’re interested in a career in research, this will give you an interesting new perspective.

As smiley Sheffield post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Hemmings takes to the stage, she instantly appears warm and passionate about what she does. She launches enthusiastically into her talk, entitled Sheffield, Sperm and Science Communication.

This talk is the first in a line of events organised by APS Femwork, an initiative created by two third year Animal and Plant Sciences students, Natalie Clamp and Ujala Syed. Clamp says that their aim is “to get undergraduates and higher level students in touch with academics… to break down the barriers that younger scientists feel separate them from those actually doing research”. Their focus is on women in science as “typically, women are underrepresented in academia, and in seminar series especially - hopefully seeing female academics speak about both their careers and lives will give younger scientists role models”.

Dr. Hemmings begins by drawing a comical parallel between the sperm’s journey to the egg cell, and a student’s journey to a scientific career. As students are “ejaculated” into the pool of new graduates, they must fight towards research positions like sperm racing to the egg. The environment is treacherous, and the competition is fierce – scientists drop like flies (…or, sperm) and only the fittest survive. The postgraduate who achieves their academic position are akin to the successful sperm that fertilises the coveted egg cell.

In this analogy, post-doc Hemmings has reached the vagina. Most of the competition never gets this far, and only the elite remain to battle on to the egg cell, or academic position. And, like the sperm, Hemmings has had a difficult journey to the “vagina” – or, in her case, her APS post-doc position.

Most people tend to expect scientists to profess to ‘always loving science’ but it often isn’t that simple. Hemmings went to University to escape her parents’ divorce, and chose zoology simply because she loved animals. She went through University never really developing a passion for her degree, and wondering what she’d do next. Then, in her third year, she studied cryptic female reproductive choice in birds (where females can control the success of insemination) for her dissertation. She was hooked, and applied for her Masters with little time to spare.

But the biggest hurdle Dr. Hemmings said she had to overcome was her PhD. Firstly, she had no idea how the process worked – she didn’t know about research proposals and funding applications - but she got there in the end. Along with her PhD in the reproductive behaviour of birds, she began doing more science communication events – talking in schools and to the public. “I want to be one of the ones to enthuse kids,” she says, “the teachers say when they’re doing extracurricular stuff that’s when they light up”.

One of the best pieces of advice Dr. Hemmings gave us though, was about attitude. She said that during her PhD she began to have second thoughts, wondering if she was cut out for biological research at all. Most of us will have these thoughts, and as hard as it may be, we have to put ourselves in the best places to access opportunities. Then we have to say yes to those opportunities, because – as Dr. Hemmings says – “what’s the worst that could happen?”.

So what’s next for Dr. Hemmings? She said she still doesn’t know, but she’d like a permanent position in the Animal and Plant Sciences Department at the University of Sheffield… Or maybe she’ll fulfil her childhood dream of becoming a pop star!

If you’d like to know more about APS Femwork you can look at their website here or follow their Facebook and Twitter feeds.




#AshleyCarley #APSfemwork #General

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