We are delighted to celebrate this International Women’s Day by sharing an inspirational conversation with Dr Alecia-Jane Twigger, Research Associate, WTK laboratory, Department of Pharmacology, University of Cambridge.
It was a privilege to learn about her work to advance maternal and infant health through human lactation research. We thank her for speaking candidly about ‘Gender equality for a sustainable tomorrow’ and more …
How do you see your work in the context of – or contributing to – gender equality?
Historically I believe that research into female health has been grossly understudied. Females make up half the population and research into human lactation is essential not only to support health outcomes for the mother, but it also has the potential to impact every child’s growth and development.
Many studies, whether on metabolism or human nutrition, are focused on men because they are easier control subjects. It’s OK to establish a baseline on a controllable population, but that doesn’t mean women shouldn’t be studied. From a scientific perspective, you can in some ways see how this has developed. If we have a history of many male scientists, the focus might not have been on understanding the female side of things. So more female representation in science is a very good thing. Shedding more light onto research focused on improving female health is essential to counteracting the stunning gender bias of research into human health.
How do you believe your work can contribute to a sustainable tomorrow?
Research into human lactation promotes a sustainable food source for developing infants. If we can support more women breastfeeding, attempting to assist women with low milk supply, this will provide a sustainable nutrition source and lead to long term, favourable health outcomes for the infant. There are reasons the WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for a child’s first six months of life.
That is not to say that breastfeeding is free, it certainly takes a toll on the mother. But in prioritising breastmilk for infants, we naturally prioritise access to health and nutrition for mothers too, which can only be a good thing.
When we met you in 2016, you were an early career academic, selected for a Trainee Expansion Program (TEP) research grant … how has your scientific career since then unfolded?
Once that door was opened, others followed. I was lucky enough to follow up the TEP award with another postdoctoral fellowship from the Helmholtz Center in Munich. This allowed me to continue the work started during the TEP.
Since then I have joined the Department of Pharmacology and Cambridge Stem Cell Institute as a research associate in the Khaled research group at the University of Cambridge. I’m very proud to have recently published the work I started with the TEP in Nature Communications and the Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia.
Working at both the Helmholtz Center and now the University of Cambridge has afforded me the opportunity to network and collaborate across a number of projects. I recently launched the ‘Cambridge Lactation Network’ with Dr Claire Meek, a gestational diabetes researcher who’s interested in lactation biology, as well as Dr Albert Koulman, an expert on metabolomics and lipidomics who has developed numerous techniques around human milk. I hope the Cambridge Lactation Network will lead to further collaborations and help promote local lactation research.
In being exposed to these different environments and the general lactation community worldwide, I also became an active member of the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation, working on the social media committee and scientific review board. I was just elected to the executive committee, so lots of exciting things going on.
It’s just great to be surrounded by so many passionate researchers, especially when it comes to human lactation, which I love. The opportunity afforded by TEP really launched my career. And that work influenced my long-term research goals and passions.
What are your short-term goals and long-term aspirations?
In the short term I hope to start my own independent research programme focused on understanding the mechanisms behind human lactation. So, digging more into the data, the techniques I established as part of the TEP, and the experience I’ve gained as a postdoctoral researcher. And then strengthening that to try and untangle the pathways of human milk biosynthesis – that’s a huge passion of mine.
In the long term I hope to support cutting edge research into mammary gland biology and human lactation by supporting and providing opportunities to the next generation of researchers. I was really lucky to have met so many wonderful mentors and researchers who inspired my research. I’ve had opportunities to follow my passions, so I want to support other people doing that too.
Moving through your career with gratitude is so important. To be grateful for the opportunities that you’ve had, naturally that will inspire you to hold the door open for others to come through.
How did you arrive at this field of research – was there a particular event or person who sparked your interest or inspired you?
Yes – both! I was in a third-year undergraduate lecture at the University of Western Australia given by Dr Foteini Hassiotou (now Kakulas), about the cells in milk. At the time my mum was breastfeeding my baby sister and I thought: ‘Wow, there are cells in milk? That’s so cool!’
I was curious and wanted to know: How does this impact my baby sister? How does this impact my mum?’ I remember going to Dr. Hassiotou’s office and saying ‘Hi, I really love your work, would you consider having me as an honours student?’ She was super passionate and excited to have me. This led me to doing a PhD with the group and launched my career and desire to learn more about how cells in milk and how lactation in general support the health outcomes of the mother/infant dyad.
I was brought into a very supportive environment right from the beginning and I’m very grateful for that.
How have role models or mentors impacted your life and professional journey?
I am lucky to be in a field filled with so many inspiring women. I am an extrovert so if I go to a conference and hear a talk by someone I feel inspired by, I will go up to them and bombard them with questions. Everyone has been super open and supportive.
When it comes to role models, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all. I take aspects of inspiration from other people and build them into my own career path. I think we should aspire to be our own role models because the perfect path is tailored to us and cannot be worn exactly the same way by someone else.
As a follow-up, what advice would you give to someone who is shy about interacting with other professors or speakers?
For sure it gets easier. Of course, for your first conference, you’re going to be overwhelmed. If you have supportive colleagues to sit next to, that helps. Timing is also important. If you catch a speaker just as they’re grabbing a coffee, when they might not be surrounded, it’s easier to approach them. And you have to remember that the speakers are just people. They’re actually flattered that you’re excited about their research.
Do you ever feel you have an advantage – or a disadvantage – in your work because you are a woman?
If you go to any mammary gland conference, you will be surrounded by female researchers, which is a huge advantage. Having said this, most senior academics are still men. I do think this culture is changing, and I hope that equality continues to occur throughout the whole hierarchy of science.
I also think representation is very important. Seeing senior female academics makes it easier to visualise yourself in the situation. I hope this continues for minority groups as well – seeing more representation in the higher ranks of academia helps you envision yourself there.
One unsolved challenge that begs more discussion is the difficulty of balancing an academic career with building a family. I’m lucky, I have lots of role models who have done it. I’m also in an environment that would be very supportive of that. But I can’t ignore the fact that these two aspirations of mine will inevitably compete for priority and time.
What advice would you offer to a girl who is considering different career options?
You won’t know what the perfect career looks like until you are in it! I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined that I would be here today doing what I’m doing, but I love it. And I think that’s the essence of knowing you’re on the right path – enjoying it.
In most cases you have to follow your gut and not be afraid you’re going to make the wrong decision. You’re going to be offered opportunities and it’s really important to take that space to ‘see how it feels’. If you don’t enjoy something, modify it so you’re moving constantly toward what you want. A good career takes a lot of work, but when it feels natural, it’s enjoyable.
What is a regular source of motivation or inspiration for you?
I am very lucky, working in lactation research with breastfeeding women who are participants in my studies. They are so inspiring, and they’re so positive and excited to hear about the science I am doing. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship where I conduct research to understand how lactation works, and they provide samples for the research. In some ways, I’m talking to the ‘end user’ of my research. If you can report back the clinical findings as you go and inspire and connect with a range of different people, not just in your field, that’s wonderful.