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Women in Science – A Conversation With Dr. Joanne Mason

Headshot of Dr. Joanne Mason sitting at a desk.
Credit: Yourgene Health
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Read time: 7 minutes

Throughout history, women have made significant contributions to science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). However, STEMM fields have suffered a gender gap that persists today, with women often being underpaid and underrepresented, particularly in senior roles.

Encouragingly, in more recent years, several initiatives have been working to grow awareness of the inequalities women face and drive change to improve opportunities. Addressing issues such as gender stereotypes, unconscious bias and a lack of visible role models is helping to encourage more women to embark on and build a career in STEMM.

Technology Networks recently had the pleasure of speaking to a fantastic role model for aspiring women scientists, Dr. Joanne Mason.

After completing her PhD in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Cambridge, Dr. Mason has built a successful career in science, including managing a next-generation sequencing (NGS) core facility in Malaysia, leading the Comparative Genomics group at Public Health England, becoming director of sequencing and sample acquisition for Genomics England, and taking on her current role as chief scientific officer for the Novacyt Group of companies.

In this interview, Dr. Mason tells us more about her career path and experiences along the way, as well as sharing advice for women considering a career in science.


Anna MacDonald (AM): How did your interest in science originate? Were there any role models that inspired your career?

Dr. Joanne Mason (JM): I have always kind of loved science. There wasn't a day or a moment when I decided I wanted to become a scientist; it was just something I was good at in school, and it felt that a career in science could be really interesting.

Thinking back, I must have driven my parents crazy, constantly asking “Why?” over and over again when I was a kid. Since a young age, I have had a curious nature and biology really appealed to me.

During my time at sixth form, I loved studying biology. My first inspiration was my biology teacher I had at A-Level. She had a PhD and had previously worked in industry for a while, and then she'd come back to teaching biology. She really inspired me with the stories she could tell us about the projects she’d been working on. She gave me perspective and understanding of what it was like working in science, in the real world. So, I decided I wanted to do my degree in science, specifically in biology; I realized my passion for human biology.

My second inspiration was when I did my degree. I did a placement year and my supervisor, John, was amazing. He challenged me to think about doing a PhD which was something that I wouldn’t have even thought about doing before then. No one in my family had a PhD, but he really made me believe that I could do it, and I did.

Those are the two people who, very early on, convinced me to work in science, but there have been so many people I’ve met throughout my career that have been doing incredible things who inspired me to keep going, keep working hard and make a difference.

AM: Can you tell us more about your current role and your career path to this point?

JM: I'm the chief scientific officer for the Novacyt Group of companies, which recently acquired Yourgene Health. I lead the scientific strategy across the company and mentor scientists who develop molecular diagnostic products.

It's a great job—the best job in the world in fact! It never feels like I come to work because I'm just really interested in what I'm doing. I'm passionate about science and helping other scientists get a fulfilling career. I'm very fortunate that I love what I do.

How did I get here? After my PhD, I did a post-doc, and during my career, I have been incredibly fortunate to see the rise of NGS technology. I can still remember the first meeting I sat in when NGS had just launched; Gordon Dougan gave a presentation and I just thought: “Wow, that's amazing—I want to do that!”

I went to work for the Health Protection Agency (as it was then called) to lead the Comparative Genomics Group, where I would have an opportunity to learn and use NGS and push forward the technology into how we do diagnostics today.

My career has grown over time, and I believe that has been through taking the opportunities presented to me. I've been fortunate to work overseas in Malaysia, and I've worked on some fantastic projects like the 100,000 Genomes Project. By the end of the project, we managed to develop a fast-track pathway where results were returned in just two weeks to cancer patients, instead of months and months!

AM: What do you enjoy most about your work and what would you say are your proudest achievements?

JM: I suppose I really enjoy two aspects of my world. One is helping the progression of other scientists and supporting them in developing their careers, giving them opportunities, and seeing them advance. The other is what I love about science—the actual application of it.

We are seeing the products that we make and the projects that we work on actually having a direct impact on people's health today and I guess that relates to my proudest moments.

When I was working in a clinical lab, there was an individual whose treatment was failing, and the clinical team were desperate for anything else they could treat him with. We decided to sequence his genome, both his tumor and normal genome. I can remember the sequencing came through on a Friday afternoon and myself and the team spent the weekend working through the data. By Monday morning, we had found some mutations that were driving the cancer that would allow him to get onto a clinical trial. Later that same morning, the clinician treating him was on the phone getting the patient on that clinical trial.

Unfortunately, the patient passed away, but that extra treatment that he had, gave him nine months of good-quality life that allowed the patient to be there when his daughter got married. If we hadn’t taken that action, he would have never been able to be there. That’s my favorite part of working in science, really making an impact on someone’s life, and that’s what we strive to do.

AM: Have you faced any setbacks along your path to success? What have you learned from them?

JM: Yes of course, everyone faces setbacks throughout their career, whether that's a project that's not working or gets stopped. That can be quite difficult as a scientist, when you are passionate about something and all of a sudden you are told that it's going to end.

Even now in my career, there are setbacks and sometimes they're temporary, sometimes they're permanent. I guess the thing that I learned is resilience and persistence.

As a scientist, you need to be resilient because things are rarely a straight route to success in a project or your career.

When you're researching or developing something, you need to learn to just keep going and keep at it—you do get there eventually. In short, be determined and never let anyone tell you that you can't do something! If there are hurdles that you find a way around, it makes the reward at the end even more valuable.

AM: What do you believe are the greatest hurdles that women face when pursuing a career in STEMM? Are the challenges the same for industry and academia?

JM: The glass ceiling is very real. There are not very many senior women at board or C-suite level. It is difficult to progress and there are many studies stating why, whether that be for not having your voice heard, imposter syndrome, etc.—all these things are very real, and so women can have difficulty achieving the highest levels.

I think, as women, we need to support other women, but we can also benefit a lot from male colleagues. So, it's not to give up on a career in science, but maybe you do really need to dig into that resilience and persistence to make sure that you are reaching your full potential and not being afraid to take those opportunities.

Make sure you’re not giving in to that nagging doubt on your shoulder that you're not good enough, tell yourself that you can do this because women scientists are just as capable as their male counterparts.

We’re all scientists. We're not female scientists and male scientists. We are all just scientists.

I do feel like the same challenges are faced in both industry and academia. You don't see as many senior female academics. I think if you decide to have children, it's difficult in both areas to take time out from your career and say: “I'm not going to do this for several years.” It is great to now see more opportunities to pick your career back up again, with grants for women who take time out.

AM: If you could give one piece of advice to a woman who is considering a career in science, what would you say?

JM: Do it. I think if you love science, absolutely pursue it because it won't ever feel like work if you're doing what you're truly passionate about. It’s fantastic to spend your life doing things that you're enthusiastic about. If you're given an opportunity, take it and see where it goes, because it is all about taking those opportunities presented to you, or making opportunities for yourself. Don’t be afraid to do something a bit different.

The amazing thing about working in the world of science is that you’ll never be bored because it’s ever-changing, you’ll never be doing the same job again as the industry evolves with advancements in technologies, etc. Embrace having that continuous enquiring mindset, keep learning and stay current with what's developing. I believe gaining knowledge of new things all the time is a terrific way to make a career for yourself!

Dr. Joanne Mason was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Senior Science Editor for Technology Networks. 

About the Interviewee:

Dr. Joanne Mason is the chief scientific officer at Novacyt Group, leading the development of the next generation molecular diagnostics particularly in the area of reproductive health. Joanne has been a champion of modernizing diagnostics with the use of genomic technologies having previously held positions as VP Biodiscovery with Cambridge Epigenetix (now biomodal) where she led the development of clinical epigenomic technologies particularly in the area of early cancer diagnostics, the Director of Sequencing and Sample Acquisition for Genomics England, where she managed the delivery of samples and whole genome sequencing for the 100,000 Genomes Project. She has previously acted as an advisor on the DOH Rare Disease Policy board, MHRA Genomics for Diagnosis forum and UK NEQAS – Genomics England steering committee, Genomics England sequencing advisory board and BIA genomics advisory committee. Joanne previously worked for Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust where she set up and managed a NGS Core facility leading translational research, offering disease-specific diagnostic panels and introducing whole genome sequencing into the diagnostic setting. Prior to joining Oxford, Joanne managed an NGS Core facility in Malaysia and led the Comparative Genomics group at Public Health England studying novel and dangerous pathogens. Dr. Mason holds a PhD from Cambridge in Molecular and Cellular Biology.