Seven children, a 20-year career break – and a return to cutting-edge dementia research | University of Oxford
Sarah Bauermeister
Sarah Bauermeister

Seven children, a 20-year career break – and a return to cutting-edge dementia research

Dr Sarah Bauermeister is a senior data and science manager at Dementias Platform UK, an MRC-funded project based at Oxford University set up to accelerate research into the diagnosis and treatment of dementia. On International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Dr Bauermeister talks to Science Blog about her route into research – including a 20-year career break to raise and home-educate her seven children.

Q: How did you get into science?

A: Before having children I completed a degree in sports science in South Africa and was intending to travel, but instead I quickly settled in the UK. Later, while home-schooling my children, I worked towards a further degree in psychology, then a master’s – both through the Open University. I specialised in cognitive neuropsychology, focusing on the neurological changes affecting cognition in older adults, and completed my PhD at Brunel University London focusing on lifestyle and fitness as moderators of cognitive decline. I then completed a postdoctoral position investigating cognitive predictors of falls and frailty at the University of Leeds.

Q: Tell us about your first job in science.

Given the competitive nature of the field and the precariousness of contracts early in scientific careers, women are hesitant to take career breaks to start a family.

A: After a 20-year period during which I studied while raising and home-educating my seven children, I became an early-career scientist in Leeds with people 20 years younger than me. I’d already had my family by that stage, but I found that many of the younger women around me felt they were in a difficult position in this respect. 

Q: How can we encourage more women and girls into science?

A: There are some real barriers to women working in science. Although there is a lot of work being carried out to shift the balance, reports show that institutions, research groups and individual scientists still support men in their careers more than women. In too great a proportion of research groups you see the group leader is a man and the postdoctoral researchers are women. This is disheartening, because it shows that many talented women were not mentored or encouraged to stay in science, or given the right support either to return after raising a family or to combine working with raising a family. This type of support is crucial if we want to retain women in this field.

It is no longer up to women to push equality – it needs to come from the top, and then this would filter down so that the main income is no longer gender-specific. Only with this type of policy change will equality of care be feasible for families.

Q: What changes need to happen?

A: We need to start by changing the culture in schools, as well as in higher education. The intake of women into the physical sciences is 39%, whereas in computer science it is only 19%. We also need to change how we develop and talk about women’s scientific careers. Many women still feel that they need to choose between having children and succeeding in their career.

If there was more gender equality with regards to salary, there would be more shared parental care.

Q: What is your current area of research?

A: I’m a cognitive neuropsychologist managing scientific research across several multi-disciplinary projects, as well as being senior data manager for Dementias Platform UK (DPUK). Dementia is our most pressing public health crisis: around 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and the WHO projects that number to treble by 2050. We haven’t yet found a cure, and I’m as driven and excited as I’ve ever been about preventing or delaying the onset of this disease.

My interests include using statistical modelling techniques to make sense of data arising from psychometric tests, and to explore the presence of two or more conditions or states in an individual – such as cognitive change and poor mental health, or childhood adversity and adult low mood. 

DPUK’s Data Portal is a repository of more than 40 cohorts – long-term health studies – comprising data on more than 3 million participants from among members of the public. This data is hugely valuable, and it’s available for analysis by researchers with the aim of finding new insights into the causes, early diagnosis and treatment of dementia.

I have only ever wanted to be a scientist, over any other career. 

Q: What does being a scientist mean to you?

A: I’ve always been curious about the mechanisms of the brain and body, ever since buying and avidly studying a Reader’s Digest book called How the Body Works when I was nine. That passion has never left me, and I’ve never let anything distract me from that – even after a long break to have my children.

Now that I’m working for Dementias Platform UK, I feel driven to contribute towards the search for ways to predict dementia before it is clinically evident, driving forward the search for interventions and a cure.

Q: Based on your own experience, what would be your message to girls and young women considering a career in science?

A: Science doesn’t stand still, but taking time out to have a family doesn’t need to be perceived as ‘the end’: there are many ways to stay abreast of findings, utilise institutional facilities for childcare, arrange working from home, or share childcare with partners, friends and family. There are always ways to pursue a career in science, if you really want to.