As part of Encephalitis Research Month, we asked eminent female medical professionals to share their experiences of working in science. This blog's interviewee is Professor Angela Vincent, Emeritus Professor of Neuroimmunology at the University of Oxford and Encephalitis Society's Scientific Advisory Panel member. 

Name: Angela Vincent

Occupation: Emeritus Professor of Neuroimmunology

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science?

As a child, I was keen on nature study and messed about a bit – for example, boiling up dead birds to look at their bones, that sort of thing. I was good at art and maths but not a high flyer overall. As a teenager, I started reading books about psychology, mathematics, and physiology, not so much to learn but because I was fascinated by the existence of so much knowledge. In fact, I have always had a poor memory and suspect that “disadvantage” makes me a more of an experimental scientist, rather than one who follows the trends.

Where did you study?

I started by studying medicine at Westminster Hospital Medical School in the 1960s. I qualified in 1966 and did one year of “pre-registration” house jobs (ie. the first year as a junior doctor) in general surgery and general medicine, in two less prestigious London hospitals. I enjoyed the surgery and conducted six appendices under supervision as well as a few minor ops. The medicine was routine and not very inspiring; as a result, rather than continuing along a medical career, I did an MSc in Biochemistry at UCL with the intention of being a pure scientist, which I had always felt drawn to.

What is your area of expertise and how did you choose your field of study?

I suppose I slowly became a clinical neuro-immuno-biologist! I was first offered a position as a research assistant at University College London (UCL); the aim was to separate pre- and postsynaptic membranes from rat brain tissue for biochemical studies. At that time there were no clever reagents to use, and I had to spend hours looking down an electron microscope to see if I had achieved separation. It was a hopeless project but it gave me a bit of freedom and I wanted to find a way of labelling the postsynaptic membranes. Ricardo Miledi in the world-famous Biophysics Department at UCL made a radioactive snake toxin that labelled the postsynaptic membrane at the neuromuscular junction; this gave me an excuse to approach him and I worked with him for five years – on the neuromuscular junction. It was great fun and those years provided the scientific basis for practically everything that I have done since.

I made few choices, things just came along. Ricardo wanted to look at the neuromuscular junction from patients with myasthenia gravis, and started collaborating with a neurologist, John Newsom-Davis, at the National Hospital in Queen Square. As a medic, I was the obvious person to collect the muscle pieces and work on the project. Others in the USA identified that myasthenia patients had antibodies in their blood that were responsible for their muscle weakness and fatigue. I started measuring the antibodies in John’s patients and then moved to the Royal Free Hospital to help John establish a research group on that myasthenia. Almost all of the group moved to Oxford in 1988 and John retired ten years later, leaving me to direct the work.

At that stage we had an international reputation for our work on myasthenia, but we had also begun to move up along the nerve towards the brain. However, it was one particular patient, with insomnia and hallucinations, who made me appreciate that antibodies to a potassium channel protein in the blood could be responsible for brain disease. In the same year we identified two patients with epilepsy and memory loss who had the same antibodies. Importantly these patients and others subsequently identified improved when their antibody levels were reduced by treatments. These were the first cases of what we now call autoimmune encephalitis, which was the focus for the next 20 years.

What inspires you in the workplace?
Antibodies are relatively easy to measure in patient serum and CSF and identifying them and learning about the clinical features from their neurologists, has been very satisfying. I found early on that I loved the atmosphere of the laboratory and I have always tried to visit each day just to chat to people, while informally finding out whether they are working hard enough! So I suppose ultimately what love(d) was the colleagues, the patients and their clinicians – I miss all three now that I am retired from the lab.

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face?
As long as I was just someone in the lab I never faced any prejudice. Ricardo and John were both very easy to get on with, treated me as an equal, and tolerated my children who often turned up after school. When I became the leader of the group and then, for three years, head of the Neurology Department, everyone within the department was very helpful and collaborative, but a few of the senior people in the clinical faculty, who were all male, were a bit dismissive - I just ignored them. I only twice had to be assertive in order to get what I felt was important for the research group.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?
It’s essential to have good science in schools – I was lucky that my girl’s boarding school happened to have some good teachers at the time. Flexibility in careers, good childcare possibilities, and appreciating that even if a woman can’t be a workaholic during the child-caring years, there is plenty of time afterwards. I describe my career as treading water until my (four) children left home, and only then being able to be more ambitious, creative, and exploratory.

What advice would you give to people considering a career in science?
Find out what you are good at and do it as well as you can – a career in science can mean many things, there are huge opportunities, and it can be challenging but it is seldom boring.

June is Encephalitis Research Month.

And to celebrate, The Big Give is offering to DOUBLE every donation we receive this month - so for every £1 that is donated, we will receive another £1 on top.

Any money raised will go towards our Encephalitis Research Month appeal and projects which support researchers around the world.

If you would like to double your donation to the Encephalitis Society, visit the Big Give website.

Double your Donation