Dr Samantha SaundersDr Samantha Saunders is a research associate with PETA.

She is a veterinary surgeon and has a doctorate in coronavirology.

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

I work as a research associate with PETA’s science team. Each year in UK laboratories, around 3.5 million animals are drugged, infected, mutilated, or abused in other ways in the name of science. All my training and experience to date – first as a veterinarian, then as a scientist in a coronavirus research laboratory – has shown me that tests on animal not only are cruel but also impede scientific progress. My job involves working with government officials, companies, and scientists to communicate the weaknesses of tests on animals and promote modern, robust non-animal approaches to replace them. PETA’s Research Modernisation Deal is our plan for ushering in a new era of science without animals.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I never planned my career, but I always knew I wanted to help animals. After volunteering in an animal shelter as a teenager, I decided to go to veterinary school to learn how to heal animals and keep them healthy. During veterinary school, I did a research project in a laboratory that opened my eyes to the possibility of helping many more animals by bringing about scientific breakthroughs, such as new treatments for diseases. This led me to my doctoral research, which involved studying a coronavirus that infects cats to help develop better vaccines and treatments against that virus. Even though my research used cells rather than live animals, I worked alongside people who experimented on mice and rats, and I became disturbed by the futility of their efforts. They were not only harming and killing these sensitive animals but also failing to generate any useful information. This led me to my current role, in which I help prevent more animals from being used in pointless experiments.

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

I have been an ethical vegan for many years now, and some aspects of veterinary school were very challenging from an ethical point of view – for example, working in an abattoir and on animal farms. It was difficult to witness animals undergoing surgery without pain relief, being killed in full sight of their companions, and being confined to cages too small to allow them to turn around – all routine practices on UK farms. Sometimes, knowing that I could do more good as a qualified veterinarian was the only thing that kept me going.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My PhD involved using molecular biology techniques to study a feline coronavirus. Some time after I had graduated and started working at PETA, the pandemic emerged, and I was called upon to go back to the coronavirus laboratory where I’d done my doctoral research to develop testing methods for the virus that causes COVID-19. I felt very proud to be able to use my skills to help tackle such a real and urgent problem.

Since joining PETA, one of the projects I’ve been most excited about being involved in is our work to end cosmetics tests on animals in the EU. Although tests on animals for cosmetics ingredients have been banned in the EU under the Cosmetics Regulation since 2013, such tests are still being done under the pretext of chemical safety testing. We’re working hard to stop this practice, because we recognise that the life of an animal is worth more than a tube of toothpaste or sunscreen.

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

I’ve always let what I’m interested in and passionate about dictate what I do. This hasn’t led me on the most straightforward career path, but I’ve enjoyed and learned a lot from every step of it.

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

Find that sweet spot where what you’re passionate about and what you’re good at meet, and do whatever you can to make that your job. For me, that’s using my science expertise and communication skills to promote approaches to research and testing that benefit society and keep animals out of laboratories.

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

As the famous phrase goes, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Women have historically been seriously underrepresented in STEM fields, and that is still reflected in the lack of women in senior management positions in some organisations. This was very much the case in veterinary practice and academia, in which most of the junior positions were filled by women and most of the senior positions by men. I am very grateful I now work in an organisation that was founded by a pioneering woman and is led by an amazing group of kick-ass women – there’s no shortage of inspirational role models at PETA!

What do you think companies can do to support and progress the careers of women working in technology?

Universities need to equip women with the skills necessary to thrive in STEM fields. For life sciences students, that means comprehensive training in animal-free approaches to research and testing. As in vitro (cell-based) and in silico (computer-based) methods are growing massively in popularity, this is the only way to future-proof students’ skills.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

For scientists interested in working in the exciting, rapidly expanding fields of in vitro and in silico research and testing, the PETA Science Consortium International e.V. website contains a wealth of information. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre offers a summer school for students and early-career scientists eager to learn about non-animal approaches in science. And, of course, you can’t miss the European Congress on Alternatives to Animal Testing – the most exciting animal-free science event on the calendar!

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