Celebrating women in science

Thursday 11th February 2021

Celebrating women in science

Today (11 February) is International Women in Science Day. Here at QVH we have a dedicated team of scientists working in our histopathology lab. Their work involves the diagnosis and study of diseases of the tissues, and examining tissues and/or cells under a microscope. The team receives over 20,000 specimens per year and supports our specialist services with timely and accurate diagnoses accredited to international standards.

The team play a vital role in confirming whether a patient has cancer so they can progress to having treatment. They’re also involved in providing patients with good news that they don’t have cancer.

We spoke to two members of our histopathology team to find out more about their roles and why they chose a career in science.

Fiona Lawson is the laboratory services manager for QVH’s histopathology service. Her route to histopathology was slightly unusual, involving parrots and emu on the way! With a dream of becoming a vet, Fiona studied for a five-year biomedical science degree in Canada, before moving to the UK and using her skills and love of animals in DNA testing and working out the sex of parrots, emus and ostriches! But it was an advert for a biomedical science job at a hospital that lured her away.

Fiona explains: “I saw a biomedical science job advertised, something you don’t tend to see in Canada, and I thought I can do that! I got a job working in cellular pathology for the NHS back in 1995 and haven’t looked back since.” Moving to different hospitals to expand her experience, Fiona joined QVH as laboratory services manager 15 years ago.

“Biomedical science has changed so much,” explains Fiona. “Our speciality is more advanced now as are the diagnostic techniques like molecular testing. Every day is different and it is great to be part of a team and specialism that is evolving.”

Whilst much of Fiona’s role is managerial, you can often find her looking down a microscope helping to quality check the samples. She is so passionate about science, not only was she able to help QVH’s histopathology lab become the first in the UK to gain the internationally recognised ISO15189 accreditation, but Fiona is helping support junior members of the team to develop. “The opportunities are endless,” Fiona enthuses. “Biomedical science offers a whole range of disciplines with lots of opportunities to work in each. They are skills you can take anywhere in the world.”

More recently, Fiona has used her skills to help establish a COVID-19 testing lab at the hospital, processing tests from asymptomatic (without symptoms) staff and patients prior to surgery. “Having run the histopathology lab and knowing the protocols involved I was asked to be the governance lead,” Fiona explains. “I work with a principle scientist who also heads up the quality management, and a senior laboratory scientist who runs the lab day to day. I’ve learnt a lot about COVID-19 and the intricacies around that type of testing. That’s the thing with biomedical science, the learning opportunities are endless.”

Suzanne Hatter is an advanced practitioner in histopathology and has been at QVH for three years. “Since I was little I’ve been interested in looking down a microscope so I was perhaps always destined to do a science degree. Like many people I didn’t set out to have a career in biomedical science, I sort of drifted into it! After graduating with a degree in biology I became a school lab technician before seeing a trainee histopathology role at a hospital (I had to look up what histopathology was!) and that was 20 years ago now.”

Suzanne’s role at QVH involves dissecting tissues specimens and following a very skilled and detailed process to enable the samples to be looked at under a microscope for a diagnosis. “I select the relevant parts of the tissues, which are then processed and embedded in wax. Once set, the blocks are cut with a microtome, stained and ready for viewing under a microscope. Each sample is given a unique number that links it to the relevant patient and follows it throughout its journey. As you can imagine there are lots of quality checks too.

“Every sample is different and it’s all about knowing how to interpret each one. I’m learning to report skin specimens and I attend meetings with clinical colleagues where patients treatment pathways are discussed.

“I’ve always wanted to work within the field of science and I’m driven by wanting to make the best analysis I can for each patient.”