Work Life: Dr Rita Sousa-Nunes, Career Development Fellow, Cancer Research UK

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Dr Rita Sousa-Nunes, 40, is a research scientist specialising in brain cancer. She lives in West Hampstead, north west London

"I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon of life. I was born in Lisbon and grew up watching David Attenborough on TV. I later moved to London for a PhD in developmental biology (the study of how an embryo develops from a single cell) where tragically my first tutor, Rosa Beddington – an extremely influential female scientist – died of cancer. She was only 45.

Every year, more than 9,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with tumours that start in the brain or central nervous system – that’s around 25 people every day. My work aims to better understand the causes of brain cancer so we can spot it much earlier. I want to help take the fear of cancer away from future generations.

My day starts at 6am with a double espresso while checking email updates from all the major science journals I subscribe to, such as Nature, Science and Cell. It’s vital that I keep on top of other research being carried out.

I’ll wear trousers and a top by Spanish designer Adolfo Domínguez and heels by United Nude. People outside the industry don’t realise how relaxed it is, but I dress how I would at the weekend. It’s also an incredibly creative field as scientists, like artists, are passionate about leaving a legacy.

I get the tube to work and arrive at the lab in London Bridge before 8am. It’s a small, open-plan space within the Guy’s Hospital campus of King’s College London.

I manage two other scientists and two master’s students. Through our experiments we seek to better understand how faults in certain genes can trigger changes in cells, which can lead to cancer. We do all our testing on fruit flies. We breed them in the lab in order to create certain gene combinations, euthanise them with diluted alcohol, then extract stem cells from their brains to see how each gene combination has behaved; it’s a bit like playing molecular Lego.

There’s a lack of female role models high up in science

I use very fine forceps and a tungsten needle (a dissection tool) under a microscope. It’s vital to be accurate and my eyes often get tired from squinting all day.

I’ll take a break at lunchtime. We all eat together in the common room and I’ll usually have a salmon salad. We’re currently an all-female team, but that’s rare. Although equal numbers of men and women take biology at undergraduate and PhD level, women are still massively under-represented in the workplace. Only 30% of group leaders in my department are female, which is considered high, and there are even less in the top jobs. I think it’s partly because women may want families, but I don’t have any children – it simply hasn’t happened for me.

But there is also a lack of female role models high up in science. I’m funded by Cancer Research UK and have recently become involved in their new Women Of Influence initiative, to try and tackle the problem. They hope to raise £1million to support the work of young female scientists and also provide them with mentors from a network of powerful senior businesswomen.

In the afternoons I might work on a grant application, which can take weeks to complete. Research fellows receive a temporary salary from a charity or the government but must apply for additional funds to hire staff and conduct new experiments. I have to come up with original research avenues – but everyone is competing for a share of a very tight budget.

I’ve written 10 published papers but my greatest discovery was about how dormant brain stem cells awaken – it could be used to improve the effects of chemotherapy. My findings were published in Nature in 2011, which was so exciting. I’ll usually leave the lab around 8pm and meet friends for dinner at a nearby pub. I might pop back afterwards to check on an experiment, but usually I’ll head home and watch Miranda, before going to bed around 11pm."

For more information on Cancer Research UK’s Women of Influence initiative visit

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