Elizabeth Simpson was born in London, England. She obtained her undergraduate and professional training at Cambridge University, graduating as a veterinarian in 1963. She then worked in Canada for three years, first as a veterinary surgeon in private practice and then as a government virologist. She returned to England in 1966 and after three years as an assistant lecturer in animal pathology at Cambridge she moved to the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in London. From there, she transferred to the Medical Research Council's Clinical Research Centre in Harrow, relocating to the Clinical Sciences Centre at the Hammersmith Hospital in 1994. Although based in London, she has spent many summers at the Jackson Laboratory in Maine and also a year as visiting scientist at the National Cancer Institute at NIH. She is currently deputy director of the Clinical Sciences Centre.

Elizabeth's research area is cellular immunology. She has made major contributions to our understanding of minor histocompatibility antigens, showing that male-specific cytotoxic T cells recognise self-MHC and products of genes on the Y chromosome. She carried out the molecular identification of the HY genes and the peptide epitopes they encode. She is currently using this information to address fundamental questions, such as T cell-repertoire selection and immunodominance, and to devise models for investigating modulation of in vivo immune responses to tumours and transplants of skin and haematopoietic stem cells.

In the interview that follows, Fiona Watt, Editor-in-Chief of JCS, asks Elizabeth about her experiences as a woman in science.

FMW:How has your research career impacted on your personal life and vice versa?

ES: My scientific research career started because as a child I wanted to be a vet – for reasons I now can't really remember. I applied to London, Bristol and Cambridge. At the interview, London told me they had already taken their female student for the forthcoming year. Bristol and Cambridge each offered me a place. The first three preclinical years at Cambridge involved taking the Natural Sciences Tripos, parts I and II, exposing me for the first time to open-ended scientific thought and reasoning – I was hooked, and from then on, my veterinary studies were focused on the biological questions raised. I particularly liked pathology – trying to work out what had happened to induce the macroscopic and microscopic changes observed. But I was nervous about going straight into research; the game plan anyway was more led by the research interests of my geologist husband, whom I had married during my final year.FIG1 

Elizabeth Simpson with her daughter Emma in the late 1970s.

Elizabeth Simpson with her daughter Emma in the late 1970s.

As soon as I had qualified we emigrated to Canada. Having not experienced any sex discrimination amongst my teachers or fellow students in Cambridge, I was unprepared for it when I made contact with my veterinary colleagues in Fredericton, New Brunswick (home town of Lord Beaverbrook). These gentlemen had day jobs with the provincial veterinary services, and `moon-lighted' to run a small animal private practice in the evenings and weekends. They were pillars of the local establishment. They were not about to admit a young woman into the fold – when I explained to them that not only did I wish to work as a vet, but that I needed money to support myself and my husband during his postgraduate studies, I recall vividly that one of them said: “Why don't you try babysitting, there's always a need for that.” I was so flabbergasted that I couldn't reply – and there were no anti-discrimination laws at that time to challenge them.

I briefly took a job in the local hospital where I worked with a Hungarian refugee pathologist, who encouraged me to set up my own veterinary practice. The reason the practice thrived initially was that everyone wanted to come to see what a woman vet looked like – I was the first in the province. Then they found that I was quite good at clinical medicine, was not afraid to do tricky surgery and had clear ideas about how to institute a vaccination programme to deal with the dog distemper then raging in the town. I also became involved in addressing questions raised by the annual seal hunt in the Gulf of St Lawrence nearby – my first two Nature papers are pathology reports, comparing the hunting methods used there and in the US-owned Pribiloff Islands off Alaska.

My veterinary practice flourished and grew, and I moved into new premises. None of this impressed my professional colleagues, who were friends of the Professor of Geology at the university; my husband completed his MSc, but was not allowed to remain there to do his PhD. He moved to Ottawa, but before joining him I sold the practice, a development not anticipated by my colleagues. Thirty years later, I visited the city of Fredericton with my daughter Emma and found my practice still extant, its ownership having passed through several more hands.

I had managed to do some pathology while in Fredericton and realised that my interests lay in research rather than clinical practice. On returning to Cambridge I was offered a university demonstratorship (an assistant lecturer post) in animal pathology at the veterinary school. This involved quite a heavy teaching commitment and the intellectual environment was not very stimulating. But I obtained an MRC project grant to study xenografted tumours and was reasonably content for a couple of years.

My attention was directed by a colleague, to an advert in Nature for an animal pathologist at the NIMR, Mill Hill. The work of the Director Peter Medawar on transplantation and the immunosuppressive effects of antilymphocyte serum was well known to me from my xenograft research. The idea of working in the proximity of scientists with an understanding of the differences between humoral and cell-mediated immunity was wonderful. Apart from a small amount of service work I was free to carry out my own research and to collaborate with scientists throughout the institute.

We moved to London at the end of 1968, into a house in Islington costing £11,400. Our combined salaries were just over £3000 p.a., but at that time the component earned by the woman was not taken into account for mortgage purposes; so the money from the practice came in handy.

NIMR was a perfect place to be launched on a research career. The institute housed not only some of the foremost British immunologists, John Humphrey, Av Mitchison, Ita Askonas, as well as Peter Medawar, but also visiting scientists from Australia, Europe and North America, on sabbatical or as post-doctoral fellows – such as Graham Mitchell, Klaus Rajewsky, Eli Sercarz, Martin Raff, Paul Plotz and Harvey Cantor. We were always in and out of each other's labs, talking together at coffee breaks, lunch or at the bar after work, discussing ideas, looking at data, making plans for joint experiments.

During my second year at NIMR, Peter Medawar had a stroke. Although he made a remarkable recovery, he was not able to continue as Director and moved to run a small research lab at the new MRC Clinical Research Centre in Harrow. I moved with him. The magic circle at the NIMR was broken and the immunologists scattered geographically, although strong collaborations and friendships persist to this day.

My research career has been interwoven with my personal life. The delay in entering a research lab at the beginning of my career was partly because of my marriage to a geologist who knew where he wanted to go. But in retrospect, the experience of setting up a veterinary practice and doing pathology is an important background for the research work I do in transplantation, especially the in vivo aspects. It gives me a reality check. The marriage foundered as we both became established in our own research careers. I was less willing to put my interests second, and while he was on the one hand very proud of me, he probably felt threatened too. We divorced and made no effort to keep contact. My daughter Emma was born in 1975, of a loving relationship lasting nearly three decades, albeit an unconventional one, which placed me effectively in the role of single parent. My research career has been woven through that, and was also filled with many friends and colleagues.

FMW:What changes for women in science have you observed during the course of your career?

ES: I now see women, especially those of my daughter's age (28), taking themselves and their careers more seriously than many of my Cambridge undergraduate contemporaries did. In the late 1950s, the notion of getting married and `settling down' seemed foremost in the minds of many, and career ambitions that survived were secondary to those of the husband. In a sense, the beginning of my own career exemplifies that. However, thirty or forty years ago, for young women with very clear ideas of their own, who could cope with the prevailing institutionalised expectations, there were relatively few barriers that could not be overcome. Apart from my interview at the London Veterinary School, I cannot remember any episode of discrimination against me as a woman during my undergraduate or postgraduate veterinary education, or among my professional colleagues, except the pair I encountered in Canada.

My delayed and rather unconventional entry into academic scientific research (at NIMR in 1969), within an institute rather than a university also mitigated against discrimination. This was a time of rapid and exciting advance in the subject of immunology and it encouraged everyone, even a newcomer, to enter the fray: I had no indication that my ideas were not taken as seriously as those of anyone else. In that community at that time, the majority of men actually liked women and did not feel threatened by them. Perhaps this was partly because, there, jobs did not seem to be a problem – the younger people were on short-term contracts, but posts within and outside the institute were plentiful, and the prospect of a good paper, covering new ground, was much more interesting than that of a tenured appointment.

Peter Medawar offered me a tenured post (I had not expected or hoped for this) on my return from NIH in 1973. He was an excellent mentor, supportive, protective and encouraging. The environment of that institute was not anti-female: I took over leadership of the Transplantation Biology Group in the early 1980s, and by that time there were several other female group heads. This is now also the case in the Clinical Sciences Centre where I work, but is not common for all research institutes and certainly not for universities.

The progression of women scientists to senior positions depends on many factors. The country is one: some, like Germany, have traditionally had very few; others, such as the US, have more but numbers are still constrained by social barriers. In England there are clearly differences in different research institutes, as well as between institutes and universities. Sometimes personal factors contribute significantly to the differences – for example, a director or other powerful male who does not like women, or is frightened of them.

Personal factors relating to potential women candidates are also relevant: if they have children early in their scientific careers and there is inadequate financial support for childcare, it is more difficult. It is easier for women who have established a lab with one or more students or post-docs to have children and manage childcare so that their research work can continue with the least amount of disruption. I was in that position when I had my daughter, and I don't believe that either the lab or the child suffered. In fact, some of my most productive and enjoyable years in the lab were during those first few years of her life, but my time at home was vital and fun too, if sometimes exhausting. Our annual summer visits to the Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor in Maine, begun in the first year of her life, provided me with another way of putting together the immunology and genetics aspects of my work as it progressed, and also time beside the lake together for swimming, sailing and entertaining friends. The photo of me walking with Emma by the shore was taken one such summer in the late 1970s.

FMW:Do you feel that being a woman is an inherent advantage/disadvantage for a career is science and why?

ES: No I do not. I think a career in science is a tough one right now, but that really bright people of either sex can succeed. From a social perspective males and females have to share roles and domestic tasks, especially when it comes to raising children. That is more acknowledged now, but there is still a long way to go. Without that sharing, an undue burden falls on women, putting them at a disadvantage in their careers. I have had male friends, as well as females, who have been successful single parents – parenting is not intrinsically gender related.

FMW:What are your remaining career ambitions?

ES: Using the model system I have helped to establish, I want to address basic questions in science and move them into clinical translation. As formal retirement approaches, I see myself as doing this `in consultation' with existing as well as new colleagues, with whom I share grants and interests. In vivo responses are enormously complex, and my background allows me a long overview, which is not common.

Feedback on our series of Women in Cell Science articles is always welcome and should be emailed to wics@biologists.com