International Women’s Day
Dr Debra Bloor on becoming a scientist, even after being told she shouldn’t.
At CARE, we are immensely proud that 92% of our amazing scientists are women.
As part of our celebrations of women in science for International Women’s Day and British Science Week, we hear from one of those important women: Dr Debra Bloor. From being told she shouldn’t study physics or pharmacy, Debra defied the career expectations of her teachers to become a pioneering infertility researcher, the Chief Inspector of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and CARE Fertility’s Director of Governance – briefly working in marketing along the way!
In this guest blog, Debra talks us through the rocky start to her now illustrious scientific career, the stand-out moments of her research, and her thoughts on encouraging and supporting children – especially girls – in their dreams of becoming scientists.
I wanted to be a research scientist in high school, but my teachers were worried that my preferred subject choice of physics would clash with the shorthand and typing classes. I was also told that if I studied physics, I’d never get a job. That was what passed as careers advice in the 1970s!
I studied biology at university because one of my A Level teachers told me I wouldn’t get the grades to study pharmacy. She was wrong, but I was lucky for the advice she gave – life as a pharmacist wouldn’t have been half as exciting.
I came to the world of IVF by a long and winding path. I was a hospital laboratory scientist in a busy children’s hospital for a few years when I left university. I learned a lot, the hours were long and it was stressful, but it was a privilege to be part of a team that helped save lives.
After a few years though, and now newly married, my husband got the chance to work in Hong Kong, and I abandoned full blood counts, cross-matching and ‘on call’ to tag along.
Hong Kong is an amazing place and I did the strangest job ever - not science this time but marketing. 1987 was pre-computerization and my job was to extract information on future plans for computerisation from banks. I think I was successful in this venture because in 1987 I was the tallest woman in all of Hong Kong (or at least that’s how it felt) and that’s how I get bankers to talk to me!
My first big break in realising my schoolgirl dreams came when I returned to Manchester and applied for a job as a research assistant at Manchester University. My future mentor’s curiosity about my career path got me the interview, and the interview got me a year’s funding to study a new type of wound dressing. That year transformed my life. My boss gave me ideas, journal articles and contact names and sent me off across the university campus to play with expensive pieces of equipment that really, I should never have been let loose on . At the end of the year, we had so much data he said I should write up an MSc and then he offered me a PhD post. Although the work had been amazing, wound healing wasn’t my passion. I really wanted to be a molecular biologist! I did have an MSc though: another stepping stone towards my dream.
Researching wound dressings
When working as a research assistant in Manchester, I was studying the physical properties of a certain wound dressing – particularly how the different components absorbed water and how the sterilization process by irradiation affected the components. My favourite part of the work was using a brand-new type of electron microscope that used frozen sections rather than the usual wax embedded and dehydrated samples. It meant I could identify and see how different components of the dressing reacted when they absorbed water and then, most interestingly, how the behaviour and structure of the components changed completely when the samples were irradiated.
My second break was that my boss didn’t give up – he recommended me to his colleague who was looking for a molecular biologist to join her team of chemists to work in logical drug design. I wasn’t yet a molecular biologist, but he convinced her I could “pick it up”.
My job as the biologist of the team was to use molecular wizardry to make lots and lots of a particular bacterial protein – oh, the protein had to be “invisible” too . The field of molecular biology was just emerging, so I had to go out, read papers and then recreate the magic in the lab. We didn’t have much money and the workshop built much of what I needed based on pictures and descriptions. Sadly, we didn’t revolutionise drug design, but part of the joy of science is in testing the ideas.
Now a fully-fledged molecular biologist with experience of cloning genes and sequencing DNA and a PhD, my fertility journey began. I got a job in a team trying to identify how embryos attach to the surface of the uterus . You’d maybe expect that something so fundamental must be understood but it’s not - there is still so much that is not known.
This is one of my favorite scientific subjects. Embryo attachment is a “cell biological paradox”. Working in fertility, we are all pretty familiar with the idea of a blastocyst with its layer of trophectoderm cells on the outside, which are all tightly stuck together and form a sealed barrier around the inner cell mass cells that go on to form the embryo. It’s these trophectoderm cells that attach to the wall of the uterus when the time is right. What’s amazing is that these cells are, by design, non-stick – like the Teflon of the biological world. They are the same as the cells that line all of the cavities and “tubes” in our body (like our blood vessels and our intestines and, of course, the uterus) – imagine the disaster if the cavities and tubes of our bodies were sticky! So, the non-stick embryo and the non-stick uterus, for a very brief time (known as the window of implantation), are able to stick together. While we know that hormones are involved in making this happen, we’re still not sure precisely which molecules act as the “glue”. There is still so much to understand, even in our field.
I studied embryo development for more than ten years with IVF patients giving me the most precious gift, their embryos, for my research. We made some amazing progress in working out how an embryo’s genes work in their first 6 days, and while I never did discover how embryos attach to the uterus, I was able to leave a legacy of embryo DNA that other scientists could and do continue to use as a source material for further research.
Our Embryo DNA legacy
Our research pioneered similar methods to those used now for PGT-A and PGT-M to “amplify” the DNA from a single cell. Once the DNA is amplified it is a resource that can be used again and again in different studies.
After more than 10 years “at the bench”, I was lured from my researching by the security of a permanent job contract joining the HFEA and becoming a civil servant. It’s not for me to say, but I would hope that my background gave me some credibility in the IVF world, and I certainly loved being involved in helping research scientists get the HFEA licences they needed for human embryo research. Joining the CARE family in 2016 reconnected me to the science and although I can only live a vicarious scientific life these days, I am hugely proud to be part of an organisation that values science and research so highly.
Reflecting on my experiences, I do genuinely think that all young people should be supported and encouraged if they are interested in having a career in science. Even in my very first job, I was using my science background to help people. We need more scientists in every field; the smallest scientific insight can be a piece in a jigsaw that one day will all fit together and lead to the next big leap. There is still so much to discover and understand, and a life in science is never dull.
The header image of this blog shows some of our wonderful laboratory team in CARE Northampton.