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Women in Science

Alison worked in a lab in London and did a biology degree at the same time. After her PhD she moved to Cambridge for postdoctoral work. Then she moved to Oxford for a Lectureship and obtained an MRC grant to start her own lab, where she focuses on developmental genetics in C. elegans.

Portrait of Alison WoollardBackground

at the time of the interview - November 2014

Alison is an Associate Professor and University Lecturer in genetics in the Department of Biochemistry, a Principal Investigator and a Fellow and tutor at Hertford College. She is married and has two children, aged three and seven. Ethnic background/ nationality: White British.

Extended biography

at the time of the interview - November 2014

Alison went to a girls’ grammar school, and was good at both arts subjects and science. When she left school she started a degree in environmental science but decided it wasn’t the course she wanted to do at University. Her father, who was an industrial chemist, suggested that she should work in a lab to see if she enjoyed it. Alison loved that experience, and decided to continue working in the lab while at the same time doing a degree in biology. She then did a full time PhD, working with yeast. She wanted to understand why cells divide and why cell division sometimes goes wrong. After completing her PhD, Alison moved to Cambridge. There she studied nematodes, called C. elegans. A year later, in 1996, she obtained a three year MRC Fellowship. In 1999 she got married.

In 2000 Alison moved to Oxford because she had obtained a Lectureship. In 2002 she obtained a five year grant from the MRC. This was then called a Career Establishment Grant, and is now called a New Investigator Research Grant. Soon after she established her lab she had her children, who are now aged seven and eleven.

So I think the real problem is this inability to stop the clock that happens in academic science ...  I’m never bored. It’s not boring. But it’s exhausting.

Alison took six months off work with each baby, and as a tenured Lecturer was paid by the University. However, she felt she had to keep in touch with what was happening in her lab. She answered emails, visited the lab, and continued to write academic papers, because she believed that as a senior investigator running a lab it was impossible to find anyone to replace her, and that she needed to keep an eye on what was happening. After six months she returned to work full time and has never worked part-time.

Alison and her team continue to work with C. elegans. Their overall aim is to understand how gene networks encode developmental programmes, and in particular the molecular genetics of cell proliferation and differentiation.

Alison has a very busy life, trying to combine teaching, running the lab, working as Fellow and tutor at Hertford College, doing administration, and caring for her children. She thinks that it is very hard to work part time as a scientist but recognises that her flexible working hours are an advantage. She finds it hard to find uninterrupted time to complete tasks such as writing articles for publication. However, she loves her work and has a passion for science.