Dr Maria HarkiolakiMaria has been with the Diamond Project since 2012. She has been responsible for the design, installation and commissioning of high-resolution 3D microscopes for biological samples under cryogenic conditions.

She has delivered a successful correlative imaging synchrotron beamline and associated technique platform and currently heads a team of scientists looking to better understand host-pathogen interactions at the cellular level. Previously, she was a Principal Investigator at the Structural Biology Laboratory at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine of the University of Oxford and prior to that a post-doctoral researcher with Cancer Research UK. Maria undertook her graduate studies at the University of York, under the supervision of Professors K. Wilson and E. Dodson.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I studied at the University of York in the UK, completing an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry as well as DPhil in structural biology. After graduation, I worked as a postdoctoral research associate for Cancer Research UK and then as a group leader at the University of Oxford, the latter with the support of the Royal Society through a Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship.

I then took up a position as a beamline scientist and later as a principal beamline scientist at Diamond Light Source on the Harwell Campus, working on 3D correlative imaging of biological systems. My current role encompasses technology development, outreach activities, primary and applied research and management of an excellent team of scientists and students.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career? 

Not as such, but I always wanted to contribute towards understanding how life organised itself and be present when new data is brought to light. So I pursued a career in biochemistry and in the process found, and fell in love with, protein crystallography, which is a form of very high-resolution microscopy that enables scientists to “see” at an atomic resolution.

After many years in that field, I was fortunate enough to come across an opening for a beamline scientist which allowed me to discover a new world of technology development and research opportunities. Making that transition was the scariest and best decision of my professional life.

So all in all, my career was the result of some planning and lots of opportune (and at times unexpected) decisions.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I have had to face challenges as everybody else in life. Though there were some specific ones relating to my career, such as in academia, I had to overcome personal limitations (I was never good with retaining information, complex math or test taking) through lots of work and attention to time/project management.

The greatest challenge was that I pursued my degrees in a language other than my native tongue, which was difficult at first but has ultimately filled me with a great respect for the English language and its potential.

In my private life, deciding to start a family and having children meant that I was out of ‘active service’ (research/grants/projects) for about a year each time (accounting for the later stages of pregnancy, nursing and overall childcare) and when I returned to research I could no longer devote the same amount of time and effort, which reduced my productivity and delayed professional progress. I also faced financial challenges which were overcome with personal hard work and the support of my family.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

There are two moments that I count as big career achievements. The first is becoming a principal investigator at the University of Oxford. The second is moving to a whole new field and delivering a successful beamline at the UK synchrotron.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?  

I’d say it’s down to determination and the need to prove to myself that I can succeed. By putting in the time and effort I’ve been able to reach my goals. But I was also fortunate to have people in my life that were willing to help me when I needed it. As with anything, there is always an element of luck, but as they say: luck favours the prepared.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology? 

Persist but always be willing to adapt and know that we’re all in the same boat.  If you are struggling nine out of ten times your colleagues are most likely struggling with the same thing, but just aren’t showing it. Communication, being open and willing to learn goes a long way here. We need to break down the barriers and help each other to succeed.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech/science, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

I was fortunate in that protein crystallography, my original field of study, was defined historically by outstanding female scientists and therefore was never an expectation to prove myself because of my gender. I was in a very real way stepping on the shoulders of giants that had already proven that attainment had nothing to do with gender.

I knew there could be bias but I was raised to believe that I could and should fight back and therefore I always felt that I was the one who defined my own future. However, I do recognise that there are difficulties, especially in traditionally male-dominated disciplines. Perseverance and a fighting attitude are, in my view, the only way to move through these barriers.

Young female scientists should not see themselves as victims are less than in any way, because they are absolutely essential and they can see eye to eye with any of their male colleagues, any time and any day and in any discipline.

What do you think companies can do to support the progression of careers of women working in technology/science?

Companies should be transparent about existing biases and ensure that they offer equal pay to female and male employees as judged by the median values of gross hourly wages across pay grades.

They should also understand that having a family can place extra pressure on young professional women and ensure that maternity provisions are both pragmatic and generous. And finally, avoid patronising their female employees with token gestures that bring about no real change.

There is currently only 17 percent of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry? 

Tell young girls in primary and secondary education that they can be absolutely magnificent in difficult and demanding jobs. Tell them that without their direct contribution in science and technology there will be no progress worth having. This is a message that they should hear all the time, until they see that they have a duty to excel and change things for the better through their example.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Take part in networking opportunities within and across industries. This helps you to grow a strong network of not only like minded people, but also to broaden your horizons and to learn and engage with people you wouldn’t normally have the chance to.

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