Dr Olivia Champion

Published on: 11 May 2016

STEMnet ambassador Dr Olivia Champion is taking part in Soapbox Science Exeter

The past year has seen Dr Olivia Champion step outside of the lab, to become CEO of start up company, BioSystems Technology, whose research grade larvae will help to reduce the number of experimental mammals used in pre-clinical trials.

Dr Champion, a Research Fellow, in the College of Life and Environmental Science’s Bioscience department, combines her work with the Biosystems start up with research into the interaction between hosts and pathogens, and outreach work with STEMnet. She will be taking part in the upcoming Soapbox Science event, in Exeter’s Princesshay.

What is your current research about?

My research is in the area of infectious diseases. Much of the work I do involves the use of infection models to tease out mechanisms of pathogenesis and I have been interested in developing alternative infection models, such as insect larvae, that can be used to reduce reliance on mammalian infection models.
Over the last 18 months or so I have been busy commercialising some of my research. Together with my co founder, Professor Rick Titball, I have pioneered a proprietary method for breeding and sterilising Galleria melonella, the larvae of the greater wax moth. We produce standardised, research grade insect larvae, called TruLarv, which can help reduce reliance on mammalian testing. We recently formed a start up company called BioSystems Technology and we have just started sales of TruLarv in the UK and Europe.

The reduction in the use of experimental animals has been Government policy for many years and TruLarv provide an alternative research model that will align with legislation by reducing the number of experimental mammals used in pre-clinical studies. It could simultaneously increase the effectiveness and success rate of compound screening programmes by allowing much broader screens of candidates before testing in mammals, increasing the power of, for example, drug development programmes and the capacity for anti microbial drug discovery.

It’s been a very steep learning curve, moving out of the laboratory, where I have been focused exclusively on research for over a decade, to become co founder and CEO of a start up company. However, my business idea was picked up early on by the Innovation, Impact and Business (IIB) group at the University of Exeter. Through IIB I was introduced to a business mentor who guided me through the pitfalls of entrepreneurism and I have also been well supported by the business incubator SETSquared.

You can follow Dr Champion on Twitter.

Has there been anything that you have found out, with this research, which has really surprised you?

It’s surprising to everyone that insect larvae can be used as a model host to help us to understand how bacterial pathogens cause infections in humans. However, we do know that the innate immune systems of insects and mammals are highly conserved and the results that we obtain from infections in insect larvae correlate well with the results obtained in mammals and humans.

The Soapbox Science event is an outreach platform for promoting women scientists; who were your inspiring female role models?

During my science career, until recently, I have not had too many female role models who were accessible to me. However, I’ve been fortunate to have excellent male supervisors including Professor Brendan Wren who supervised me during my PhD, and Professor Rick Titball who I work for now, both of whom have really supported and inspired me in my career ambitions.

With the advent of Athena SWAN I have come into contact with far more female academics which has been a really positive thing for me and others. Professor Tamara Galloway and Dr Eduarda Santos are both inspiring female academics who I admire greatly. Both of them are based in Exeter and through Athena SWAN there have been more opportunities to meet with them and hear their stories; they’ve both juggled their careers whilst raising families and their work internationally recognised. I’m also fortunate to work with some amazing women who really encourage and inspire me, including Dr Sariqa Wagley, Dr Carmen Denman and Dr Nicola Senior.

I think positive female role models are hugely important to everyone but especially for females who are trying to survive in a male dominated arena.

You are a STEMnet ambassador, what does that involve?

As a STEMnet ambassador I get involved with local and national outreach events and talk to young people about science. Some events have involved talking about my career path, others are more general and involve talking about weird and wonderful aspects of science that aren’t really associated with my research, such as how to identify prey or predators from the features on a skull.

I have also been involved with the Big Bang exhibition and judged children’s science projects. It’s a lot of fun, it doesn’t take up much time and I would thoroughly recommend getting involved if you are passionate about science and you like young people.

How do you think that more females can be encouraged to continue with STEM subjects?

I don’t think it’s a simple as just encouraging females to continue with STEM subjects. The evidence shows us that plenty of females study STEM subjects and that they have similar ambitions to their male peers as they start out in their STEM career.

However, the evidence also shows us that female scientists are far less likely to secure a permanent academic position compared with their male counterparts. Data collected from Universities across the UK on the gender split during academic progression in STEM disciplines highlights the problem and Figure One exemplifies the situation. Grade F is the last point in a researchers career progression before tenure. We can see from the figure that there are equal numbers of men and women working on fixed term contracts at every point until grade F after which the number of women drops dramatically. To women entering a career in academia with ambitions to become a professor this makes sobering reading.

Figure One: Representative figure showing the gender bias during academic progression in a STEM discipline at a UK University

The reasons behind the stark gender imbalance in academia are now being investigated and appear to be multifactorial. Obviously there is the fact that the female reproductive window of opportunity coincides with the point at which she’d finish her education and would ideally put her foot down with her career. But, career breaks for maternity leave and the ongoing disruption of juggling family life with a career, the need for flexible working hours and good child care are not the only factors at play. Many talented women without children do not secure tenure and conscious and unconscious discrimination may be a factor in this. Worrying evidence by Moss-Racusin and colleagues published in PNAS in 2012 reveals outright sexism by academics who favour male students.

The current spotlight on gender imbalance in science is thanks to the Athena SWAN charter that promotes gender equality and which was championed by Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor in 2011. Dame Sally Davies placed a financial incentive on academic institutions to address their gender inequality issues by restricting the award of research funding to only those institutions that had achieved an award of the Athena SWAN charter for women in science.

If we want to see more females continue with STEM subjects there needs to be an overwhelming support for Athena SWAN, not just as a tick box exercise, but to entrench the equality charter’s aims into the fabric of institutions to create a more equal society.

How important do you think it is to communicate your research with the public?

Communication and outreach with the public is very important. For example, Soapbox Science is s a fantastic initiative that promotes the breakdown of gender stereotypes, supports female scientists and provides positive role models for children. These aims are really important for both science and society as a whole, not just in the UK but around the world. Science outreach events also have wider role in improving the relationship between the general public and scientists.

There can still sometimes be a distrust of scientists by the general public. Outreach events such as Soapbox science show the general public that we are, for the most part, normal, hard working, people who have pursued an interesting career because we have inquisitive minds and we want to solve real world problems.

What are your top tips for academics who want to communicate their research?

There are plenty of mechanisms for involvement with outreach projects. Become a STEMnet ambassador. Speak to any societies of which you’re a member and see if they have outreach opportunities. I’m a member of the Microbiology society and I recently became a 'Microbiology Society Champion' so that I can engage with outreach events in the South  West.

There are also other events that need scientists for outreach such as the Big Bang Fair and of course Soapbox science.

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