International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 11 each year is a day dedicated to women and girls in science, and what better way to celebrate than to interview one of the most inspirational scientists we know working in the field of Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA) - Dr Stephanie Shoop-Worrall.
Anyone who has ever met Dr Stephanie Shoop-Worrall cannot fail to be impressed by the passion and enthusiasm that she oozes about science and research.
She took some time out of her busy day to take part in a Q&A with us for International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
We'd love to hear more about what you do and the current projects that you are working on?
I use artificial intelligence to help figure out which treatments are right for children with arthritis.
Recently, I’ve branched out into a disease called psoriatic arthritis. It affects peoples’ skin and their joints, and can start in childhood or adulthood. So I’m trying to figure out if children and adults should have the same treatments or not.
How did you get into the field of science? Is it something you've always wanted to do?
As an epidemiologist (someone who looks for patterns in disease), my work involves a lot of maths and biology. Those were my favourite subjects at school – I love to solve puzzles and both of those have a lot of puzzle solving!
When I was younger I was convinced I wanted to be a veterinarian (in hindsight, being outside on my feet all day would have been a killer!) During my degree, there was a module on veterinary epidemiology…and the rest is history!
The good thing about being an epidemiologist is the skills are the same no matter what diseases or species you’re working in. As well as arthritis, I’ve worked in cancer, dementia, gynaecology, hypertension and kidney disease in humans. I’ve also worked in anaesthesiology and cancer in dogs. I’m hoping for at least one disease for every letter of the alphabet!
What is your proudest achievement to date?
Oof I can’t possibly answer that.
There are loads of personal achievements – getting my PhD, getting £1m from the Medical Research Council to run my first big project, having my work published in the Lancet Rheumatology…
But I think the best achievements are when I’ve found something that really resonates with people. Last year, I published a paper showing that one in five children with arthritis don’t feel better, even when their joints look better to doctors. Figuring out who’s going to feel like this helps choose which treatments to give them.
When I presented this work to young people with arthritis, the most common thing they said was ‘that’s what I’ve been saying all along!’
Knowing that my work is giving a voice, giving published evidence, that will help people with arthritis, makes all the time swearing at code worth it!
What’s it like being a researcher day to day?
Being a researcher is awesome. I’m not just saying that.
Because my work can be done from a computer, my work hours are very flexible and can mainly be done from home. This means I have time for my hobbies in the morning (which in my case is my two horses - Galaxy and Comet), and then work into the evenings.
When I’m working, I’m usually doing one of three things:
Coding: Some days I feel like a master computer hacker. In order to find helpful patterns in big datasets of people with arthritis, I’ve had to learn to code in different statistical languages. So, if you like studying languages, you should strongly consider taking up statistics or computer science, as odd as it sounds.
Collaborating: I’m just one person with one type of expertise. To make sure my work is actually helpful to people with arthritis, I need a big team full of different people. These include doctors and other healthcare professionals, researchers from different specialties and, most importantly, people who have the diseases I’m studying (or if I’m doing research in dogs, their owners!) I’d have no way of knowing what to study, or whether the results I find are actually helpful, without talking to people whose lives my research could actually change.
Presenting/teaching: One of the best things about being a researcher is the amount I get to present what I’ve found to people around the world. It’s a common coincidence in academia that conferences just happen to be in places you want to visit the most…highly suspicious. I started off being really scared of public speaking, but you get over that very fast in this job - the conferences I present at have around 15-20,000 people attend! I think my favourites have been Genoa and Athens (warm weather and good vegetarian food!).
Who do you find inspirational?
We always have amazing speakers for our International Women’s Day event at Manchester University and they are always, without fail, incredibly inspirational. My favourites have been award-winning journalist and author Angela Saini, who writes on biases in gender and race science, and also award-winning physicist Dr Jess Wade, who writes hundreds of Wikipedia entries for female scientists every year. I always find my favourite books at these events!
Professionally, one of the first times I was inspired to be an epidemiologist came from reading the book ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre. Strong recommended if you want to feel outrage that you can actually do something about as a scientist!
Do you have any advice for budding young scientists out there?
You only need to be interested in one sentence from one science lesson to make a career in science. I had lecturers at university who spent their whole careers researching bee penises, or tracking through rainforests after monkeys.
Aim for a broad degree (e.g. Biology rather than a specific specialty) and that way you can find what interests you and choose modules on those things.
Don’t forget to have fun! You’re human and deserve to not spend your whole time building your personal statement. That being said, the amount of transferable skills between playing Pokémon or team sports/music or losing yourself in a book and doing research are immense. Win win!
Do you have a favourite science experiment for demonstrating science to children?
I always find it hilarious how many children enjoy speed-pairing socks into ‘chromosomes’. Chromosomes come in pairs. Normally, each cell in the human body has 23 pairs of chromosomes so for this experiment children need to match up the 23 pairs of chromosomes (socks) as fast as they can. I love seeing the look on parents’ faces as they wonder why their kids never help with sorting socks out at home!
If you were a superhero, what powers would you want to have?
In my eyes, there is only one correct answer to this question: Teleportation. You’d save so many hours on travel that could be spent doing hobbies, or sleeping. Plus, you could easily transport people to hospital, or take them to see Niagara Falls, or pop in to visit family when they live across the country. Young scientists, I’m looking at you to invent this please!
We have worked with Dr Shoop-Worrall on a number of projects, including the COVID-19 European Patient Registry for which she kindly undertook the complex analysis. Our recent publication can be found here.
Thank you Dr Shoop-Worrall for taking part in our interview.
Dr Shoop-Worrall is an MRC Career Development Research Fellow in Epidemiology and Data Science at the University of Manchester. You can find her on twitter at @sshoopworrall
Dr Stephanie Shoop-Worrall.
With her horses Galaxy (on the left) and Comet (on the right).