Professor Sarah Gilbert

Group Head and Professor of Vaccinology, The Jenner Institute Programme Manager for Wellcome Trust Strategic Award on Human and Veterinary Vaccine Development

Professor Sarah Gilbert always knew she wanted to be a medical researcher, but as a 17 year old A-Level student Sarah admits she didn’t really know where to start. After completing a biology degree at the University of East Anglia, Sarah went on to do her PhD in biochemistry at Hull University before taking on a number of postdocs within the biotechnology industry. Starting out at the Brewing Research Foundation, Sarah went on to work for the Leicester Biocentre for two years before taking on a role at biotech company Delta, where she learnt about drug manufacturing.

In 1994 Sarah secured a senior postdoc position in Professor Adrian Hill’s lab at Oxford University. Initially working on genetics and host-parasite interactions in malaria, Sarah eventually started working on vaccine development. Just one year after giving birth to triplets Sarah became a University lecturer in 1999 and a University reader in 2004. In 2007 Sarah received a flu vaccine development project grant from the Wellcome Trust, which provided her with the funding to lead her own research group. Sarah is also the Programme Manager for Wellcome Trust Strategic Award on Human and Veterinary Vaccine Development and her ultimate goal is to build up her team to be the leading vaccine research group in the world.

“Work life balance is very difficult, and impossible to manage unless you have good support. Because I had triplets, nursery fees would have cost more than my entire income as a post-doctoral scientist, so my partner has had to sacrifice his own career in order to look after our children.” she says.

“When I had the children in 1998 I was only entitled to 18 weeks paid maternity leave, which was tough when I had three premature infants to care for. Now that I’m a lab head, however, I can see the other side of the coin. When people take up to 12 months maternity leave during a three-year project grant it can be extremely disruptive to the progress of the entire team’s research project, especially if multiple people are away at the same time.”

“One of the good things about being a scientist is that the hours are not fixed, so there is a fair amount of flexibility for working mothers. Having said that, there are also times when things (such as overseas conferences and important meetings) are fixed and you have to make sacrifices.”

My advice to women who want to have a family and a career in science would be to accept that it’s going to be exceptionally hard work. It’s important to plan ahead, and make sure you have people who are willing to cover for you at home while you work. That might be your partner or relatives, or you may be able to buy in help” she continues.

“Whatever the solution is, planning and being realistic about what you need will certainly help in the long run. Thankfully my children seem to have survived unscathed, but none of them want to be scientists.”