Dr Samantha Le Sommer
Where are the places you have been and the positions you have held?
I did not begin my career the way I wanted; I left school after a very difficult time in my life with no qualifications. I studied for my HND at Clydebank College, (now West College Scotland) then went on to study BSc Biological Sciences with Honours Immunology at the University of Edinburgh. I found university hard, going from a council estate in the west of Scotland to Edinburgh was a bit of a culture shock. Doing a PhD had ever only really been a pipe dream, and not something I had truly seriously considered doing until my honours project, but, I was awarded a University of Aberdeen IMS Competitive Studentship in 2013 and completed my PhD in 2017, where I then began working as a postdoc in the IMS.
This year I was awarded an internal fellowship (Wellcome Trust ISSF Fellowship) by the university, for 12 months, in order for me to begin my transition to an independent career. Currently, I am a committee member for the NVISION postdoctoral career development program, member of the LGBT staff network, and part of department’s school outreach team. I am passionate about widening access to postgraduate education at the university for underrepresented groups, and increasing diversity of early career researchers.
What is your present research focus and has it changed?
My present research focus is studying the role of phosphatases in immune function. This has really been the focus of my research since my honours project, though the phosphatases and diseases I’ve worked on have shifted. I began my PhD project in Professor Mirela Delibegovic’s lab investigating the role of protein phosphatase 1B (PTP1B) in macrophages during inflammation associated with type 2 diabetes, then ended up sliding headfirst into a cancer project as we discovered the mouse model I was working with had a high rate of developing acute myeloid leukaemia. At the same time I helped with another project with a collaborating Professor John Forrester looking at the role of PTP1B in dendritic cells. I was really excited to be able to continue that work into my postdoc and my future fellowship work will focus on integrating these two projects by studying the role that these dendritic cells play in the development of cancer. I think, when you find a thread of work that both is viable and interests you, then you have to grab it and follow it with everything that you have.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
My internal fellowship. I have always had a really incredible team of senior scientists there to support me, ever since I arrived at the university. It is one thing to hear them tell me they believe I’m a competitive candidate, it’s another thing entirely to have the university financially back that. The world of fellowships is a little insane sometimes, the bar is set so high for applications now, especially when you have to gather data, write, and develop these applications, while employed on a grant; really it’s a whole job in itself. These kind of schemes give ECR’s like myself the space, time, and support they need to explore their own ideas, and find their own scientific identity and niche.
Have you had to overcome any stumbling blocks
Over the last several years my health had begun to decline, and following a number of hospital stays, and problems, I was diagnosed with a severe chronic pain condition called endometriosis. There were times where I thought my career was over, and that no employer, or PI, would really be understanding of the adjustments that I needed nor would they want to work with someone with a chronic health condition. The university however, and my PI, have been fantastic. The support I’ve received from the university has been outstanding, with specialist career advice, mentoring, flexible working, and most importantly the cultural attitude of the workplace that someone’s circumstances, did not affect their ability to be a fantastic scientist.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Having a work life balance is really key to doing good research, especially even more so when you have a chronic illness! I cannot stress this enough. Sometimes it can feel like taking care of myself is a never ending battle. I have done Shotokan karate most of my life and I train three times a week. I’ve managed to make a good group of friends outside of the work bubble and my research area through one of the local comic book stores, we like to just hang out together, go see a film, have dinner, play some board games. I think you shouldn’t under estimate the value that just having some to relax with friends will have on your life.
Anything else you want to add to help others in their career goals?
Talk to the senior scientists around you about what it is you want to go on to do. You’re not being a show off, or a suck up, you’re letting everyone know you are ambitious. I have found within the IMS people who will support ambition. Find the people who are where you want to be, and talk to them, ask those with real lived experience of getting there how they did it, and what they learned from the process, and learn from their stumbling blocks too. While I know this sounds clichéd, pay it forward, there will always be someone behind you. It might be a masters or PhD student, or an undergrad, or even school students, who will need to hear your path, and learn from your stumbling blocks too.