Women who inspired me to become a neuroscientist

Award-winning neuroscientist and TED speaker Sarah-Jayne Blakemore talks about the pioneering women in science who inspired her.

Just before I went to university, I spent three months working in neuroscience laboratories in California. There I was exposed, for the first time, to the social stereotype that scientists were men in lab coats.

The idea that it was unusual for a woman to be a scientist had never been an issue at my all-girls secondary school. It was not mentioned by the teachers and many of the students went on to study scientific subjects at university. But in California, where I was living independently for the first time, I became aware that many people had preconceptions of what women should be doing with their lives, and that the career I wanted to enter was not viewed as 'feminine'. And yet many of the same people were vocal about women's equality.

Women in science, both the famous and those who I have worked with every day, have shaped my career, offering support, guidance and inspiration. Here are three that I look to for inspiration (there are of course many, many more):

Rosalind Franklin

Francis Crick and James Watson are well known for their discovery of the structure of our genetic code but their work wouldn't have been possible if it were not for Rosalind Franklin, an X-ray crystallographer in the twentieth century. She produced 'Photograph 51' which demonstrated the structure of DNA and led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. Franklin died at the age of 37 and was not able to be awarded the Nobel prize for her discovery, which instead went to Crick and Watson.


Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Another incredibly important discovery was made by Jocelyn Bell Burnell. In 1967, she was the first to discover radio pulsars, which now credited as one of the most significant scientific achievements of the twentieth century. Her supervisor Anthony Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. Bell was excluded from the prize, even though she was the first to observe and analyse the pulsars.

Her supervisor Anthony Hewish was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery. Bell was excluded from the prize, even though she was the first to observe and analyse the pulsars.


Uta Frith

Uta Frith, a professor of Psychology at UCL has influenced the careers of many women in science, including mine where she has been both a mentor and friend for many years.

Her research focuses on developmental conditions such as autism and dyslexia, and one of her well known theories was that autism is associated with a problem with theory of the mind, the ability to understand other people's mental states. Frith developed a support network to encourage women to share ideas and information and co-founded the UCL women's network. She has also written about unconscious bias and how it affects which scientists receive grants.

It was Uta Frith who gave me the encouragement I needed to feel able to make the leap from my early research into adults with schizophrenia to the study of the teenage brain.

Watch the author's TED talk

More about the author

Inventing Ourselves

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

'Finally, a book about the adolescent brain written by someone who actually does the science! Highly readable, ground-breaking' Professor Laurence Steinberg

Why does an easy child become a challenging teenager?
Why do teenagers struggle to get up in the morning?
Why do they often take excessive risks?

We often joke that teenagers don’t have brains. For some reason, it’s socially acceptable to mock people in this stage of their lives. The need for intense friendships, the excessive risk taking and the development of many mental illnesses – depression, addiction, schizophrenia – begin during these formative years, so what makes the adolescent brain different?

Drawing upon her cutting-edge research in her London laboratory, award-winning neuroscientist, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explains what happens inside the adolescent brain, what her team’s experiments have revealed about our behaviour, and how we relate to each other and our environment as we go through this period of our lives. She shows that while adolescence is a period of vulnerability, it is also a time of enormous creativity – one that should be acknowledged, nurtured and celebrated.

Our adolescence provides a lens through which we can see ourselves anew. It is fundamental to how we invent ourselves.

'Beautifully written with clarity, expertise and honesty about the most important subject for all of us. I couldn’t put it down' Robert Winston

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