As the UK winner of Next Wave's recent competition, Sapna Chadha travelled to the "Women in the Life Sciences" conference in Stockholm in early December 2001. In return for our sponsorship, we asked her to write a report about the event for those who had to stay home. Here's what she wrote ...

Having worked in industry and academia for 4 years, I recently embarked upon a PhD. But then the uncertainty began. Had I made a mistake? Is scientific research the right, or even a possible, career path for me to follow?

Perhaps Sweden is not the most obvious place to go to find answers to my questions. However, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm held a conference at the beginning of December 2001 entitled Women in the Life Sciences: Tools for a Successful Research Career. This conference was just what I needed to give me useful encouragement and advice.

Science can be very isolating and frustrating because of the lack of a clear career structure. I was amazed to meet so many other people like me at the conference. I suddenly felt animated and confident. We all had the same problems, mainly stemming from incorrect, and in some cases no, advice regarding our research careers. I've always felt passionate about medical science and wanted to work in a field where I could make a difference to society, but realised that my concerns stemmed from the lack of job opportunities and guidance.

Perhaps even more surprising, I found the conference was a real eye opener to the female world of science. I had never thought of gender as a reason for exclusion from higher scientific posts. This was something I thought had been 'solved' in previous generations. But gender prejudice was demonstrated with compelling statistics and reports. One study showed that only 20% of Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust grants end up in the pockets of female researchers, who make up 44% of biomedical academic staff. Further statistics that give credence to the reality of gender unfairness can be found in the ETAN report: Science Policies in the EU: Promoting Excellence through Mainstreaming Gender Equality.

The speakers were mainly high-level women scientists from academia and industry. Their experiences were similar to mine, and to those of many of the other conference delegates. However, they had achieved senior posts and policy-changing positions. All the women talked about biases they had faced throughout their careers, and how they had managed to recognise the weaknesses that affected their career development, and had tried to overcome them. Professor Eva Sykova, chair of the department of neuroscience at Charles University's Medical Faculty in Prague, was disappointed about the amount of support available from other women. It had been her impression that successful women are often reluctant to admit that they have faced discrimination along the way, and as a result do not effectively support other women.

It is obvious that enormous selective pressure has been exerted on the women who remain in science, who have to be highly motivated, highly committed and extremely well-organised to survive. Despite the high numbers of women in undergraduate science courses, the proportion of women declines markedly at the postdoctoral level, where career tracks begin. There are few role models for women coming up the system, and a woman has the added difficulty of not being taken seriously. All these factors make staying in science and promoting oneself difficult.

The aim of the conference was to equip us with tools to make staying in research easier. As a result of what I learned at the meeting, I am looking for a mentor through a number of the organisations suggested. A mentor keeps one focused and can provide valuable insights based on their greater experience of the science world. I often feel isolated and feel this will improve my self-esteem.

I am also trying to be more proactive about my own career development rather than depending solely on my circumstances. For example, I am using networking to make contacts that will in time, I hope, lead to collaborations. This will strengthen my career as well as give me important international experience.

Writing research grants, which is very similar to writing business proposals, is an important tool for any career. The conference stressed the importance of taking the big step and applying. Writing and presenting ideas well are important skills to develop in order to be successful. I had never considered that writing grants could be done from an early stage of one's career. Indeed, a postdoctoral colleague of mine who is in her 40's has only just started applying for grants. However, this conference has given me the confidence to go for grants, and it has also highlighted how important it is for me to perfect my communication skills.

If you had asked me about my career aspirations before I went to Stockholm, my answer would have been very unsure. I have come away feeling energised, and confident that a successful career in research science is possible. I feel committed to striving for scientific excellence and have seen that women can achieve good positions within research. I will remember vividly the variety of women from different cultures and backgrounds that I met.

Attending this conference exposed what was going on in my subconscious. I could never quite understand my lack of confidence and felt it was my fault. Unfortunately, women will have to strive twice as hard as men to be considered equally competent, 'Waiting' for equality won't work.

I was lucky enough to win Next Wave sponsorship to attend this conference, and as many of the speakers said, 'luck plays an important part' in building a research career. Here's hoping that my luck continues.