Tania Browne spent 20 years working as a chef before deciding to return to school to study epidemiology and health science. She writes about health, science and statistics for a number of different sites including SciLogs and the Guardian.
When I was a kid I didn’t really think that science was something that I could possibly do.
On getting involved with science
My journey has been quite an interesting one. I started in science very, very late, basically. I spent the first 20 years of my career working as a chef and, ah, spent a very long time doing that and then about three years ago I decided that I kinda missed out in not having a degree and things like…I’d never got round to going to get my degree, and I did a couple of part time courses with The Open University, just basic units, and then quite recently I just got made redundant from my job after 18 years working in the same job and my husband and I sat down and we just decided how much money we had and what we could work on and I decided to go back to full-time study. And that’s been really, really fun and quite a learning curve, actually.
Epidemiology is basically the study of health and disease across populations of people. If you go and see your doctor and you have, say, high blood pressure, your doctor will be interested in you, what your particular condition is and how he can treat you to make you better. What an epidemiologist will be interested in is whether there was a history of high blood pressure in the area you live in, across your gender, what age you are and so on, so we’d be looking at all those different sorts of things to see if they created a higher instances of blood pressure among your kind of population and so on.
So I just find that sort of stuff really fascinating. My grandfather was actually a doctor, but we always kind of say the brains didn’t carry on down the generations in our family, but we’re doing ok now, yeah! So I think that sort of medical thing interests me, um, the medical sort of elements interest me but I don’t think I’d actually be very good at being a doctor.
On blogging about science
That was really wonderful and this shows what the power of Twitter is, basically. I follow quite a few people who are doing doctorates and post-doctoral study on Twitter and a few of my friends actually write for SciLogs, and I was always quite admiring of them but I didn’t think it was anything I could do. I didn’t feel that I was qualified. And, um, a very good friend of mine, a guy called Dr Pete Etchells, you know, sort of said, ‘Well, why don’t you try this’ because he wrote for them himself and I said, ‘Well, I’ve always assumed that you needed a science degree or you need to be a post-doc or something to actually qualify to write for them’. So he taught me to pitch and he really helped me along and so I pitched to the communities manager there and amazingly he just said yes almost right away.
So it’s a really lovely thing to be able to do, and the thing I like to emphasise in my blog is that it’s not so much a science blog as a blog where I’m learning along with you. I don’t know everything about it and I’m perfectly happy for people to come and tell me in the comments that I’ve actually not got something quite right or, you know, somebody with a lot more experience or education on that, so it sort of follows me on my journey as I learn things as well and I hope to pass some interesting things along.
On women in science
Dean Burnett writes a regular blog for the Guardian and he asked me if I would like to write something for Ada Lovelace Day because every year on Ada Lovelace Day he likes to try and get something out. And I found that really interesting to do.
It was…when I was a child, I used to watch a programme called Tomorrow’s Worldon television and, ah, there were lots of women who were science presenters at the time like Maggie Philbin, who’s a hero of mine, and Judith Hann and people and it seemed like that had dropped off somehow and not only were we not getting much science on television but we also weren’t seeing that many female faces. I mean, we have quite a few coming through now with Alice Roberts and Helen Czerski and people, and it’s wonderful, but we could still do with seeing a lot more female…I mean, a) more science on television full stop and b) a lot more women presenters would be good. So I think I sort of focused my writing for Ada Lovelace Day on that and how much I’d loved it as a kid. And I have a ten year old daughter myself and I would really like to see her have the same kind of heroes I had when I was a kid, sort of, following on through.
On science and class
I recently wrote a piece with a friend of mine, Dr Corrine Burns,, who works at the Science Museum, about getting people from less privileged backgrounds into science and people from…and I am quite happy to self describe as working class: my dad was a plumber and my mum worked in Waitrose and they had, like, one O-level between them. And when I was a kid, I didn’t really think that science was something that I could possibly do. It was something that other people did and I would probably end up being a shop assistant or something, you know, less glamorous than being James Burke, you know, wandering around in his safari suit doing Connections or whatever.
And so what they actually found, this project, it’s called the ASPIRES project and it’s run by the King’s College in London, and they published a report earlier this year  that was talking about getting more working class people into science and from different kinds of background because there’s a certain…when you talk about having women in science, it’s all very well but we run the danger of getting the same, nice middle class girls whose parents have degrees and who’ve made sure they do their hard work and get their A-levels, into the scientific positions again and again and what we should be looking at is people from wider, different backgrounds. And if they don’t have the sort of influences of family or people they know who are scientists or family friends who are scientists then they find they’re a lot less likely to consider science as a career.
We did get quite a lot of feedback on it, yes, but a lot of it was based around the idea that we need less traditional routes to scientific careers. For instance, you know, it’s very obvious nowadays you go and do your degree, your MSc, your PhD and then somehow you’ll go into a post-doc career and all the risks of getting grants and looking for tenure and all this kind of thing, and the idea of a less academic route into scientific careers was one that came up again and again in the comments under that. And personally I think it’s a very good point. I think there’s a lot of emphasis, in this country, on getting your GCSEs and your A-levels and going on that way, but actually for engineering and so on, for a lot of people, it’d be better to just go into a practical route straight away and do your learning alongside the practical stuff, because academia is not for everyone.
On the financial risks of a academic career
That was something that came up again and again and it was something that specifically came up in regards to women who stop their careers for a little while to have children and so on. But that’s something that I don’t think only happens in science, I think that’s something that happens across the board and, again, you get women who do perfectly well at the beginning of their careers in their twenties and into their early thirties and then they stop. And the reason that we don’t have so many women professors and women getting into the sort of higher echelons of scientific careers, so often that career break that they take is just at the time when they could be doing a lot more research. So that was really interesting to find that but, as I say, I don’t think that’s just science, I think that happens in a lot of places.
On global healthcare
What we’ve seen, unfortunately, in the last 30 or 40 years is health inequalities globally and, um, we’re trying to figure out why that is. Whether it’s a case of money and, you know, poverty in various places and all that sort of thing. So what I would really, really love to see is a reversal of the health inequalities which are ever-growing between nations in what we call the Western world or the higher economic countries, you know, compared to the countries that have a lower income. I would really like to see that.
I actually have a bit of a confession to make, in that when I was at school maths was by far my least favourite subject. I always saw myself as one of those people who liked English and who liked writing stories and I didn’t actually do very well in my maths GCSE and I wasn’t interested in carrying on with it any further and it’s only since I became interested in epidemiology that I’ve become very interested in statistics as well.
So one of the things that really fascinates me about statistics is when we are studying what makes us ill, what’s likely to make us more healthy and so on, across a population of people, there are so many, what we call exposures, which are risk factors that come into play, um, like I’ve said, your age, what gender you are, even where you live. Not even if you live a great distance but…for instance, we know people in the poorer neighbourhoods of Glasgow have a much lesser life expectancy than people who live in wealthier areas across the road and things like that. And I find that statistics is actually really interesting to me, as a branch of maths, because I can see the real applications and, you know, how it applies to my everyday life. I think maths always seemed very distant to me but statistics is a way I can apply it and think, ‘Oh yes, that means that this person is more likely to have a problem than that person’ and why, and how we can cancel that out and make that risk as little as we can, you know, and sort of more equal across people. It’s really, really interesting to me.