To celebrate International Women’s Day 2018, some of our female staff talk about pushing for progress, overcoming career challenges, achieving work/life balance and excelling.

Mary Sheppard Cropped

calendar-icon 8 March 2018

Mary Sheppard, Professor of Cardiovascular Pathology

Professor Mary Sheppard has been a professor for five years with a specialism in cardiovascular pathology. She runs her own clinical unit. When she’s not teaching or seeing patients, she can be found in a research lab supervising biomedical scientists, cardiologists and pathologists, investigating young peoples’ hearts, looking to find the cause of sudden cardiac death.

Whilst training, Professor Sheppard witnessed a colleague, Dr Katoe Keohane, combine an academic career in pathology with motherhood. 

She said: “One always needs a role model and mine was Dr Katie Keohane."

“She gave me advice as to the progression of my career, but I could see that she faced challenges in having to go abroad with young children while she was training.”

Professor Sheppard went abroad to pursue an academic career after winning a Wellcome Fellowship to do a Master’s in medicine.

After specialising in pathology – a subject she enjoyed - and obtaining her membership at the Royal College of Pathologists, Professor Sheppard got an academic senior lecturer post at the Royal Brompton Hospital where she progressed up to professorship over the career of 25 years.

She said: “We all face challenges as women in science, particularly when it comes to combining career with motherhood.

“I deliberately postponed motherhood until I had obtained my final degrees as I could see my mentor struggling as a trainee with board exams and young children.

“I also faced the usual male-old-boy-dominated medical scene in London where being female and Irish were not advantages.

“With each of my four children I took eight weeks’ maternity leave and returned to work almost immediately because of the specialised nature of my work in respiratory and cardiac pathology.

“I received little support from my male colleagues with none of them at the time having young children as they were much older than me.

“I was very isolated as I had no female colleagues with young children at the time with whom I could form a bond and discuss my career.”

Professor Sheppard also had a busy NHS service commitment with weekends on-call which added to her stress in trying to achieve a good work-life balance.

She explained: “I was unable to network extensively while my children were young as I was trying to achieve a good work-life balance. It was also a challenge to travel to international meetings and establish my name in the research field of my choice.

“I think a supportive partner is extremely important.”

Her unit acts as a national referral centre when somebody dies. Hearts are sent to her for examination to determine the cause of death.

Now Professor Sheppard balances her work and personal life by being definite about her daily appointments and being home by 7pm.

She said: “My weekends are completely free as I am now in an academic position with no on-call NHS appointments. This means I can now commit my weekends to family activities.”

Professor Sheppard enjoys her academic position, particularly the challenge of research and teaching.

She explained: “I enjoy supervising intelligent, academically ambitious people who are on the same wavelength as me.

“I also enjoy mentoring younger people and promoting their careers within academic pathology. I know all the pitfalls that particularly female academics can fall into.

“I am now more ruthless in what I say yes to and agree to. I’m at a very good point in my life where I have achieved what I want with a job that is ideal for me in an area which is new and exciting.”

On tips for success, Professor Sheppard notes the importance of being precise about your career trajectory and getting advice from powerful mentors who have gone before you and who know the pitfalls involved in your particular area of research.

She said: “I think it is a cliché but believe in yourself and never take no for an answer when somebody tell you cannot do something.

“Also be prepared for opposition particularly as you move up, as you will always have rivals in your particular research field who wish to downplay and negate your achievements.”