Inspiring the next generation of Women in STEM - a personal reflection

  • December 12th 2023
  • Olga Nev

A few weeks ago, I took part in a pioneering event called “STEM: Beyond Boundaries,” to inspire young female students and encourage them to pursue STEM careers. Launched at the University of Exeter’s College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences by Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Dr Houry Melkonian and Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education Professor Nicola King, the STEM: Beyond Boundaries initiative seeks to establish connections between University of Exeter students and broader society, including schools and colleges.

Its importance can’t be overestimated. In an era where stereotypes and psychological barriers still discourage girls from pursuing STEM pathways in early school ages, projects like this are crucial. They not only advocate for diversity and inclusivity in sciences but also foster a growth mindset through real-life stories and research experiences.

As an independent interdisciplinary scientist with a PhD in Mathematical Biology, my passion lies in using non-trivial mathematical insights and techniques to model Life and Medical Sciences. I’m deeply interested in applying my quantitative knowledge to a wide range of biomedical and clinical challenges, and through my work, I hope to showcase the power and beauty of Mathematics, inspiring others to appreciate its endless possibilities.

My journey

My presentation mirrored my personal journey – from an aspiring pianist to a mathematical biologist. I shared my story, highlighting the twists and turns of a career path that was anything but linear. It was an opportunity to show these young minds that sometimes, the road less travelled leads to the most fulfilling destinations. Starting as an aspiring pianist, I soon realized my future lay in a different direction and chose mathematics as a more promising career path. Despite excelling in Applied Mathematics and Informatics at University, programming didn’t appeal to me. I found my passion in mathematics, but what to do with it was beyond my imagination. I found myself navigating roles in HR and as an Analyst, which left me unfulfilled and led me back to academia. Seeking a practical application for my mathematical skills, I pursued a Master’s in Mathematical Methods of Economic Analysis, but soon realized that economics wasn’t my cup of tea. Eventually, I was thrilled to secure a PhD position at the University of Warwick, where I modelled biological processes in bacterial cells. This was a new and exciting domain, perfectly blending mathematics and biology. In 2018, I joined Exeter University as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, delving into the study of fungal infections. Collaborating with experimentalists, I fused my expertise in mathematics, programming, and biology. A significant milestone was in 2020 when I received the MRC Skills Development Fellowship and a subsequent award, in 2023, of a NIHR BRC Exeter Translational Fellowship.

If my journey can motivate even one girl to pursue her passion in STEM despite the odds, then it’s a step in the right direction. I want them to see that success in STEM isn’t just about innate talent, but also about persistence, curiosity, and the courage to explore uncharted territories.

Be bold, be curious, and follow your dreams to find one’s passion, to find oneself. It’s never too late!

The best lesson I learned during my journey, which is also the message I would like to pass to young women, is to embrace every opportunity to learn and grow, even from challenges. The path to success is as much about embracing failures as it is about celebrating triumphs. Be bold, be curious, and follow your dreams to find one’s passion, to find oneself. It’s never too late!’

What I’m working on

‘Working at the University’s MRC Centre for Medical Mycology, my current research project focuses on overcoming the main barrier that prevents experimental study of a major fungal pathogen of humans, Pneumocystis, that is an obligate extracellular pathogen of humans and therefore non-culturable in vitro. To achieve this, I have developed an in silico metabolic model of Pneumocystis growth and metabolism and I’m using this model to study Pneumocystis and to design in vitro growth conditions. The ability to grow this fungus will lead to remarkable breakthroughs in diagnosis and therapy.’

Dr Olga Nev

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Olga Nev