Professor Catherine Porcher
MRC Senior Scientist. Molecular Hematology Unit, WIMM
Catherine Porcher became captivated by molecular biology at University, whilst listening to lectures on the transcriptional regulation of the lactose and tryptophan operons. This motivated her to undertake a PhD in molecular biology, in Paris, on the transcriptional regulation of one of the haem biosynthetic pathway genes.
At the first international conference she attended as a PhD student, she met all the leaders in the field. She could finally put a face on the names whose work she had been reading about for the past 3 years (no Internet and webpages at the time!) and, having been highly inspired by one of them, decided to do her post-doc training at Harvard in Prof Orkin’s lab to study the function of a key regulator of blood.
“My years as a post-doc fellow have been some of the best in my scientific career. I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to pursue an academic career to go abroad, possibly in a big lab. This has been an eye-opening experience on myself and on high-level research.”
Catherine came back from the States with her husband and their 4 month-old baby to establish her own lab at the WIMM as an MRC Career Track Scientist, working on the transcriptional regulation of haematopoiesis. Whilst the contrast from being a post-doc to being a group leader was sharp, she gradually built her lab but kept it deliberately small.
“With a husband very supportive but also fully committed to his clinical and academic duties, a second child before a first publication arose from my group (not the ideal order) and not wanting to have an au-pair or nanny, I deliberately chose to protect my work/life balance by keeping a lab of maximum 5 people. This allowed me to closely follow everyone’s project, whilst being able to spend quality time with my children every day.”
The pressure for publishing often meant working late at night after the children had gone to bed, but this is the price to pay. Catherine is now a tenured MRC scientist, focusing on the molecular mechanisms underlying cell fate decisions in early haematopoietic development.
“Female scientists should not be put off by the daunting thought of “I cannot have it all”. Combining family life and a demanding career certainly means sacrifices and a somewhat slower progression, but it certainly is possible with focus and support (both at work and at home). All those years looking after young children also give us additional transferable skills.”
The advice she gives, for everyone with ambition in academia, is to plan a career path early on and go for it. Supporting mentors, determination and hard work (and a bit of luck too) will help make things happen.