We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Professor Mary Hannon-Fletcher Discusses Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in Science

A headshot of professor Mary Hannon-Fletcher
Professor Mary Hannon-Fletcher. Credit: Ulster University.
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 5 minutes

Mary Hannon-Fletcher is a professor of biomedical sciences and dean of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at Ulster University. Mary completed a degree in biomedical sciences in 1995 and completed a PhD in 1999. After a few years as a research officer, she secured a lecturing post in cellular pathology in 2003, followed by a senior lecturer position in 2010. She was promoted to professor in 2021.

When Ulster University joined The Athena Swan Charter, Mary became Ulster’s Athena Swan Champion. The charter is a framework used across the globe to support and transform gender equality within higher education and research by encouraging and recognizing commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEMM. Since 2014, she has guided Ulster to achieve two bronze awards at university level, and eight bronze and two silver at school level.

External to the university, Prof. Hannon-Fletcher is a board member, research committee chair and member of the finance and HR committee at the WAVE Trauma Centre, an organization committed to supporting those affected by the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, delivering trauma education in Queen's University Belfast, Ulster and Cork universities.

KR: What inspired you to go into science and what motivated you to transition into academic research?

MHF: I have loved science since I was a little girl, even asking for a chemistry set for Christmas. Then my baby brother was diagnosed with leukemia aged 7, and he thought the people working in the labs were fantastic. They were so kind to him and made such a difference to his treatment experience. I decided I wanted to do that too. So, when I finished my O levels, I got a job working in a cytogenetics lab and attended college to qualify as a medical laboratory scientific officer. I worked in labs in the UK and Switzerland and then returned to Northern Ireland to undertake a degree as a mature student in biomedical sciences.

In my final year my supervisors asked me if I would like to stay on to complete a PhD, I was surprised but said yes. I completed my PhD in 1999, took up a research post and then a lecturing post, senior lecturer, head of school then professor of biomedical science and now I am dean of equality, diversity and inclusion at Ulster University.

KR: Can you tell us about your career, your research and your current role as an Athena Swan Champion?

MHF: My research focused on oxidative damage to DNA, proteins and carbohydrates in healthy populations and renal disease and diabetes. Over the past 19 years I have developed an international reputation in research focusing on interventions for dietary and supplementary impact on health and disease, together with assessment of DNA damage, antioxidant status and dietary intakes. My research activity is ongoing and has currency even though my civic and teaching excellence has been my major focus.

I have had a sustained and significant publication track record in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, publishing in Circulation, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Mutation Research and Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, all in the top 10% of journals in my subject area.

My sustained leadership and commitment to implementing EDI into the normal working practices at Ulster is evidenced by my role as Ulster Universities Athena SWAN (AS) Champion, where I have been the main driver for AS activity in the university since 2014. In this role I have overseen the successful University Bronze applications (2014, 2017 and current 2022) as chair of the University Athena SWAN Committee 2014-2019 and now member of the University Athena SWAN Self-Assessment team 2019-to date.

Through the university action plan, I have led numerous successes across the university.  Some of these include:

  • The introduction of a female only mentoring scheme, FAME, which has now been extended to include the Doctoral College, Ulster Business School, mentoring programs and the Women’s Network.
  • Leading the introduction of the Returner Carers Scheme
  • Introducing and delivering the New Athena SWAN Academic Women in STEM Networking Events
  • Delivering together with People and Culture Preparing for Academic Promotion workshops
  • Organizing and presenting at the conference “Gender Equality in STEMM: The Future is Bright”

I have built on my leadership role as Ulster AS Champion to work strategically across Ireland and the UK to support universities, schools, departments and colleagues to promote and progress towards gender equality and achieve their successful AS awards and improve the staff and student experience. I provided mentoring support to staff on a variety of strategies to implement changes enabling them to deliver high quality teaching and support for learning.

My focus now is at the strategic level, ensuring our policies support a diverse range of staff and students to achieve their goals.

KR: As a woman forging a career in science, what were the main barriers you came up against and how did you overcome them?

MHF: To be honest I have been very lucky, I have many female role models who support me in my career. My husband has been a real champion of my career, he stayed at home to look after our daughter until she was school age, so I could continue. We are a real unit, working together to help all of us.

For me it was important to have these conversations early, where do I see my career, how does he see his, who will remain at home to undertake most of the childcare. We agreed that he would stay at home, mainly because I could earn more doing fewer hours, as my husband was in the catering industry and the hours are long and antisocial. It worked well – he went back to work, completed his degree, and worked in research and after schools’ clubs.

KR: What advice would you give to women and girls contemplating a career in STEMM?

MHF: Learn as much as you can about the qualifications and job opportunities required for your chosen career. Seek out opportunities for internships or work experience, be sure you understand what the job involves. Then for me the most important thing for girls is to decide what you want, you need to have honest conversations with your (future) partner to make sure they share the same goals, as this is a long road and childcare is a large cost to everyone and one real barrier to progression, so have hard conversations and plan, if possible.

Find a good mentor or mentors, ask questions early on, make sure you develop relationships and networks as they are instrumental in supporting your career. Do engage in the politics of the workplace, not necessarily every aspect but it is not helpful to be naïve as this has a real impact on progression. Learn to say NO and ask what you can give up if you want to take on new responsibilities. Check if this new role is suitable for your promotion progression.

Own your space, you have earned it – accept that. Become a mentor yourself. Always speak up if you are overlooked in meetings etc. do not accept that. We must take our place and once there, support others to reach their goals.

KR: Is there more that could be done to support and inspire women in STEMM?

MHF: More role models, more females going out to schools to talk about their careers and how to get there, better STEMM teachers who inspire the future generation of women. Better diversity in the workplace and support for females through all of the life cycles they encounter. Things are improving in this area with roles like mine, but more can be done.

Prof. Mary Hannon-Fletcher was speaking to Kate Robinson, Assistant Editor for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee:

Dr. Mary Hannon-Fletcher is a professor of Biomedical Sciences and dean of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion at Ulster University. As Ulster University's Athena Swan Champion, she has been the main driver of the institution's Athena Swan activity.