Throughout my career as a research scientist, wife and mother, and now as CE of BBSRC, I have always tried to be a positive role model. In doing so I did not set out with the intent of being seen as an inspiration to others, and I have to admit that the thought that I might be viewed in this way makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. Yet recently, a series of seemingly unrelated events and conversations have led me to reflect on this.

For me, this journey began in early autumn with an email from BioBeat inviting me to be included in their ‘50 movers and shakers in BioBusiness 2017 (PDF)’. Nothing especially unusual in this as a one-off perhaps. Around the same time I was invited to present at a China-UK ‘Women in Life Sciences’ symposium. Unable to fit a trip to Beijing into my schedule, I instead recorded a short video
to be played at the meeting. I shared some of my own experiences, sought to emphasise why diversity in science matters and how it was important that we all played a role in promoting diversity and inclusion. The following week, just as I had finished chairing a discussion session at the STS Forum in Kyoto, I was approached by one of the participants – who, it turns out, had attended the China-UK meeting in Beijing. She enthusiastically explained how she had been inspired by what I had said in the video message. Naturally I was pleased to receive the positive feedback and to know that what I had said had resonated, yet I thought little further about it.

Melanie Welham
Melanie Welham speaking at Biology Week. Copyright: BBSRC

The following week I was speaking at the Royal Society of Biology’s Biology Week parliamentary reception, which BBSRC co-sponsors. It is always a pleasure to meet colleagues from the bioscience community, talk about the excitement and potential of biology with parliamentarians and share the speaking platform with the President of the Royal Society of Biology – Jean Thomas. After the presentations Jean and I were talking to guests, one of whom expressed her delight at being in the presence of two such inspirational women; at this point I recall feeling rather self-conscious. But why did I? Was it ‘imposter syndrome’ or something else? And, following on from this, I was mentioned in this PLOS blog on female heads of science agencies and organisations.

It has taken a little while for me to work through why these instances of positive affirmation did not sit entirely comfortably with me. The way I have rationalized it is that, throughout my career, I’ve been motivated not by my own success but by how I can best make a difference. Yet I’ve realized that it is important to accept and appreciate that how we are viewed by others may be different to the view we have of ourselves.

Indeed, those of us who find ourselves in senior positions need to reflect on the fact that others will see us as a source of inspiration (even when it isn’t something we expect) and we need to graciously acknowledge this and make the most of the opportunity this gives us to authentically encourage and support others to follow in our footsteps. I also think there is a real opportunity to be more open with those who have personally inspired us – something I intend to start right now!

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