dr claire sharpe

“It’s about retaining women that have been trained, have expertise and are good and making the work environment one that they can stay in,” says Dr Claire Sharpe, a Reader in Renal Medicine and an Honorary Consultant Nephrologist at King’s College London and and ambassador of Kidney Research UK’s Women in Science campaign

Discussing the need to keep women in STEM and in particular the biological sciences and medicine, Claire believes that the problem doesn’t lie with encouraging girls and women into the sciences or a career in medicine. The problem lies in retaining these same women and girls within the industry.

According to recent statistics, 65 per cent of early career researchers in biomedical sciences are female. However, there is a huge drop off rate when looking at the progression to professor level with less than one in five biomedical professor positions across the research sector currently held by women.

Claire said, “The biological sciences, and certainly medicine, more women than men go into it on the outset. So it isn’t about encouraging them to go into the biological sciences, it’s about keeping them there.”

Indeed, Claire knew she wanted to be a doctor from a young age, saying, “It’s something I wanted to do when I was at school.”

“At the age of 13-14, I liked the sciences and I particularly liked biology, and medicine seemed like a good way of combining everything as I also wanted to work with people.”

Alongside her interest in the sciences, Claire credits a rather unusual source for wanting to turn her passion into a career. She said, “There were only two girls in the A-level physics class, and the teacher declared from the outset that “girls really only do Physics A Level because they know they’re going to be in a class full of boys.”

“It didn’t put me off, it made me angry.”

Despite this, Claire didn’t have her whole career planned out. She said, “Once you’re in medical school, you are on a little bit of a conveyor belt.”

“I chose kidney disease, partly because I found the patients and the subject really interesting.”

“Once I’d chosen which specialty I wanted to go in, I decided I wanted to do some research in it, so applied for my PhD and I enjoyed the research so much that I tried to balance continuing the research and clinical medicine afterwards.”

Claire divides her time equally between her research and teaching work and her clinical work with renal patients, including those with kidney damage caused by sickle cell disease. She is also Chair of the Athena SWAN self-assessment committee, a charter established to recognise commitment to gender equality. Claire juggles all this while balancing her home life and caring for three children.

Speaking about her working day, Claire said, “I don’t really think there is such a thing as a typical work day for me.”

Alongside her hectic schedule, which Claire admits is sometimes like ‘spinning plates’, she also helps the next generation of scientists and researchers. She said, “I spend a lot of time talking to people about their career plans, having mentoring type conversations.”

Having a mentor is something that Claire strongly supports. She says, “There’s always a debate about what a mentor is.”

“Is a mentor or sponsor someone who puts your name forward and promotes you in public? Or is it someone who helps you believe in yourself and boosts your own confidence?”

“I think it’s really a combination of all those things.”

“So, yes I think mentoring is very important.”

She continues, “Professor Bruce Hendry [fibrosis expert, Professor Emeritus at King’s College, London and immediate past President of the UK Renal Association] was my supervisor for my PhD and he was very supportive and encouraging, always pushing me to do things slightly outside my comfort zone, which I think is important.”

“It gave me the confidence that I can go and do things. I think that’s what a good mentor should do.”

When asked what she would see in terms of her achievements, Claire said, “Actually in five years time, looking back I think what I’ll be most proud of is building a critical mass of other people, getting other people into the sciences and achieving their potential.”

“So supporting and helping other people of both genders to have that confidence to go into an academic career, which isn’t necessarily the safest career structure but it is one we need to encourage people in to.”