Professor Irene Roberts
Group Leader, Paediatrics and Molecular Haematology Unit, WIMM, Oxford University
The seeds of Professor Irene Roberts’ rather unconventional career path were probably sown much earlier as she grew up in a scientific family where cooking and beer making were scientific experiments (variably successful) and a microscope sat on the kitchen table. Irene studied medicine at Glasgow University where her interest in human fetal development began thanks to inspirational teaching by the then Professor of Anatomy. Naturally drawn to haematology by the opportunities to link molecular, microscopic and clinical findings in the same patient, she specialised in paediatric haematology.
An opportunity to work in Garrett FitzGerald's lab at Vanderbilt University led to an interest in platelet/megakaryocyte biology. This was followed by post-doctoral research on acute myeloid leukaemia with Nigel Russell at the University of Nottingham and Lucio Luzzatto at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School (now Imperial College London), where she was appointed as Senior Lecturer in Paediatric Haematology in 1990 and Professor of Paediatric Haematology in 2000, building up a clinical service and a research lab. That both were successful, she attributes to her supportive and tolerant non-scientist husband and a shared sense of humour. Three sons followed.
“This led to a hugely demanding lifestyle. However, we were determined to do without a nanny and organised work around the needs of our young family. The microscope (and husband's legal papers) reappeared on the kitchen table so that work could be done at home after school homework and bedtime.”
Invitations to international meetings were only accepted if the family could travel too. While this might not work for everyone, Irene believes that maintaining her academic career was only possible through the support of her enlightened seniors who endorsed this flexible approach.
With the boys almost grown up, and relishing a challenge, Irene moved to Oxford in 2013 after 25 years at Imperial College, and is currently establishing her lab at the WIMM. Her long-term research interest in haematological disorders of the fetus and newborn is specifically directed towards understanding the cellular and molecular basis for trisomy 21-mediated perturbation of fetal haematopoiesis and the impact of trisomy 21 on leukaemia initiation.
“I feel, I have been lucky enough to mentor a large number of scientists and clinician scientists, many of them women, and watch them carve out successful careers in science, hopefully with less trial and error than I have employed myself.”