International Day of Women and Girls in Science: 

Interview with Dr Lianne Kearsley-Fleet

February 11 each year is a day dedicated to women and girls in science. So many of you loved reading last year's interview for International Day of Women and Girls in Science with Dr Stephanie Shoop-Worrall, so today we have a Q&A with another incredibly inspirational researcher working in the field of rheumatology, Dr Lianne Kearsley-Fleet. 

Dr Lianne Kearsley-Fleet is an epidemiologist with over 12 years’ experience of epidemiological research in children, young people, and adults with rheumatic diseases. Her research has involved investigating the effectiveness of biologic and JAK inhibitor therapy in adults with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) using the British Society for Rheumatology Biologics Register for Rheumatoid Arthritis (BSRBR-RA), and children and young people with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) using the UK JIA Biologics Register (including BCRD, and BSPAR-ETN). She has over 50 original research publications, one of which she led investigating COVID-19 outcomes in children with rheumatic diseases (part of the EULAR COVID-19 Registry).

What is your current research about?

I have been a researcher at the University of Manchester for the past 12 years looking at important questions for children and young people with JIA, particularly regarding some of the treatments they need.

Recently, I have been awarded some funding to start my very own project. This is to use some of the data we already hold in the UK on people with JIA, and investigate what happens as they become adults. I know from talking to a lot of families, as well as doctors, that this is an area with not much information available. I only started in November 2023 but am very excited to get going and start producing some important results. 

How did you get into science?

I have always loved maths and science at school so figured I would end up somewhere using both. I actually originally applied to veterinary school, but due to my dyslexia, my grades weren’t good enough. Instead, I did a science degree and worked in a laboratory for a while. It was through that I realised how much I loved doing experiments, but I also really liked analysing the data to see what the results were. In the end it was obvious that epidemiology, researching different diseases and health-conditions in the real-world, was what I enjoyed the most.   

What is your proudest achievement?

I think I have lots that I am proud of actually… work-wise I am extremely proud of getting my PhD. As someone with dyslexia, who was repeatedly told I wasn’t good enough, this definitely feels like a “I told you so” moment! I am also really proud that I was awarded funding to run my own research project looking at adults with JIA (I had to write many applications and apply to many different funders before I got this one). Plus, I have had some incredible opportunities to talk at international conferences about my research, even receiving some awards, which have been some definite “pinch me” moments.

Thinking about things at home… both my 8-year-old son and I just achieved our red belt in a martial art called Tang Soo Do which I am really proud of. We are now working towards our black belts, although it will take a few years (including an all-day exam) to get there.  

What’s it like being a researcher?

I am very grateful that my work means that I can mostly work from home and be very flexible with my hours. Day-to-day, I am generally either analysing data using fancy statistical software, talking and working with other researchers across the world, or presenting at conferences or teaching students. It is nicely varied, and I find I really enjoy all of it which I think is important any career. 

Who do you find inspirational?

I have always found Florence Nightingale to be an inspiration. I think most people know her as the founder of modern nursing, but what many people don’t realise is that she used her position to collect data and use statistics to highlight how important hygiene is to patient health (seems obvious to us now but revolutionary back then). She was also the first woman to receive the Order of Merit.

In more recent times, I have found Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, founder of STEMETTES, to be a huge inspiration. STEMETTES is a social initiative promoting women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) careers. Through this, Anne-Marie has highlighted her own barriers and experiences with discrimination, and has been working to make science so much more accessible to everyone. 

What advice can you give someone thinking about their future career?

In school you are only really taught about the broader career options; teacher, doctor, vet, lawyer, electrician etc. I had no idea at school that I could analyse health data for a living. I am sure things have improved since, but I would suggest just being open to opportunities, even after what seems like failure. I didn’t get the right grades to do the degree I thought I wanted to do at university. Instead, they accepted me on the ‘science’ course. If I didn’t have that opportunity, I would have never realised that experiments, and analysing data, were what I truly enjoyed doing.

In hindsight, this was always where I was meant to be. I loved maths at school and really enjoyed it (I used to ask my parents to write equations for me on holidays for fun) – therefore it makes sense I spend my day-to-day at work ‘playing’ with numbers. 

Do you have any pets?

I have two cats – Mog (black cat; female) and Rum Tum Tugger (tabby; male) – both named after fictional cats! We got them as kittens about 13 years ago. In 2019, Tugger got into a car accident (we can only assume) and ended up losing one of his front legs as well as a back toe. He is a happy cat though and runs around playing with toys so you wouldn’t know (except that he’s a bit wonky).

You can find Dr Lianne Kearsley-Fleet on Twitter/X at @KearsleyFleet