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British Science Week - Dr Caoimhe McKerr's story

In celebration of British Science Week’s #SmashingStereotypes campaign, which profiles the diverse people and careers in science, we’ve spoken to colleagues about the stereotypes about working in science that they’d like to smash.

Today, we’re bringing you Caoimhe’s story.

"Be more water!

At school, I remember wanting to pursue Medicine, always fascinated by infectious disease – the more gruesome the better. But the reality of being able to go to university wasn’t available to me at the time.

I come from a background where most people didn’t go to university or even stay on at school. My social capital and resource to pursue that avenue was limited. In fact, I left school before my A Levels, working in a factory for a year, before deciding to go back to school and finish my exams.  I gained a place to study Microbiology, with a tuition scholarship and funding source for disadvantaged students, and so began a very circuitous career into epidemiology and public health.

I worked across several public health jobs after graduating with a degree and then Masters in Tropical Medicine. I was given wonderful opportunities to travel and see the world and contribute to disease control and research in other countries; something I never thought would be available to me.

My love of public health and epidemiology grew. I loved the technical aspects but also the creativity and the beauty of problem solving. And I loved talking to people whose lives were changed by what we did.

I sought out mentors along the way. They helped steer and develop me into my more focused work roles, helping me understand my strengths and where I found joy and purpose in my work. They advocated for me along the way too. These people became role models for my scientific career.

With lots of support from a senior colleague, I secured funding from the Health Protection Research Unit to study for a PhD, and so, regretfully, I left my (nicely paid) post to embark on full-time student hood. I was 38, with a one-year-old baby at home.

Leaving the security of my job was difficult, coming from a place where I had not ever had financial security. But with support and belief from my family and colleagues, I felt confident taking the leap. It was an important step in forging myself as a positive female role model for my son, and reframing the shape of my own perceived barriers, for both of us. Working in academia for several years was not always easy, and I often felt out of place, having to address imposter syndrome, for inter-sectional reasons – being female, being working-class, being non-British.

Now, as a senior epidemiologist in Public Health Wales, I get to come to work every day to make a difference, working with colleagues who genuinely love and care about the work they do.

As part of the genomic epidemiology team, I work to advise and direct the application of pathogen genomic data into routine surveillance, and parameters for its use in outbreak response. My day can be filled with technical meetings about infectious diseases, reading or creating charts, tables and other surveillance outputs, mapping COVID variants, discussing hospital outbreaks, writing papers, contributing to teaching – the variety is endless.

For the last two years, I have also led a MSc module at the University of the Highlands and Islands, on the epidemiology of healthcare infections, and I keep involved with public engagement work.

Epidemiology is a fulfilling and surprisingly creative career - navigating problems and finding a fluid way round a problem is central to how we get stuff done.

My advice to anyone considering this path would be to take it. Identify inspiring and supportive colleagues and ask for mentorship. Even if you take a circuitous and winding route into this world, just go with it. Recognise and take positive opportunities where you can, be confident in the contribution you are making, and remember that it is your very lived experiences that make your contributions so important and valid in our public health services." - Dr Caoimhe McKerrEpidemiologist, Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre (CDSC)