In conversation with Dr. Katie Field

As one of the 15 women recognised in this year’s Women of Achievement, Dr. Katie Field (Associate Professor in Plant-Soil Processes) stands out as a contemporary in plant science. She is one of the recipients of the coveted David Phillips fellowship by the BBSRC, as well as other impressive grants, for her research into plant-fungal relationships. We sat with her to discuss the impact of her research and the current climate for women in science.

Hello, Katie. So to start off, do you remember why you decided to pursue a career in science?

I’ve always been interested in science, particularly plant science really got me. I’ve always been interested in the natural world and how things work. I guess, Biology gives you the ideal combination of those things. The natural progression for me was plant science. I had a very good lecturer at university, who inspired me to go down the plant science route above all else.

It’s funny, because I was the same.  I absolutely hated plants until I came to university.

Because at school they teach you plant science in a really dreadful way. They only teach you photosynthesis, and there’s so much more to it.

How did it feel to be recognised by the university for all your achievements?

It was a big surprise, and a great honour to be recognised. I think it’s a really important thing that they do, showing the work of women across the university in all different disciplines, because it’s one of the things that is really lacking. It’s a way to give female students strong female role models, and I think it’s great that the university is highlighting these women and what they’ve achieved.

I think it’s a really important thing that they do, showing the work of women across the university in all different disciplines, because it’s one of the things that is really lacking.

It was an impressive list, looking at women like Professor Jane Nixon who received an MBE last year for her research in Medicine.

It makes me feel like I’ve underachieved!

Could you give us a quick overview of your research?

My research is focused on plant-soil interactions, how fungi trade nutrients for sugar with plant roots. I look at this in an evolutionary context, how did these fungi help the Earth get green 500 million years ago before plants even had roots? Following through to future climate change, and how we can harness the power of fungi to help feed our growing population.

So, how can understanding these complex relationships between plants and fungi better prepare us as a species for the future?

There’s a huge problem on earth at the present. Climate change, political instability, and finite resources means that agriculture today is pretty unsustainable, if we continue in the intensive way that we have been. A lot of the advances in crop yields of recent times have largely been in response to inorganic fertilisers and pesticides. So, basically throwing chemicals on the land. Obviously we can’t do that forever, not least because the resources to make these fertilisers are finite. There is only enough rock phosphorus on earth to last another 50 years, and then there is none left! It is really important that we find other ways of accessing nutrients in the soil. One way of doing this is to use these naturally occurring fungal partners of plants, which are able to exploit different nutrients sources and reach areas of the soil where roots are unable. There is real potential that we can manipulate fungi to be our own helpful partners.

Okay, last question. Do you think there are still any challenges for women in STEM subjects today, and do you have any advice for women pursuing careers in these fields?

I think there are still barriers for women in STEM today. Certainly there aren’t enough women in senior positions. Not just at the University of Leeds, but across the entire sector. It’s heavily male-dominated in the top positions. But I think it is changing, we are seeing a shift in the landscape. Women are progressing through the ranks more rapidly than they were. But, I think it’s down to all of us to try and break the stereotypes, break through the glass ceiling, and keep pushing for change. Challenging whenever we see things that don’t match up to our expectations. If we feel there are any discrepancies between the way we are treated and a male colleague, whether that’s down to pay, progression, or even just the way we are spoken to. It’s up to us, we need to speak up.

I think there are still barriers for women in STEM today

I always found it bizarre, because Biology is seen as one of those subjects that is stereotypically seen as a feminine science.

I think it is to a point, isn’t it?

But, when I arrived in first year, all of my lecturers were men. I always took notice when I had a female lecturer.

When I was at university, I remember I had one female lecturer and she did a chemistry module during our first year. That was it, throughout my whole degree. I know the recent appointments that they’ve taken on in Biology are almost all women, so that’s quite encouraging. I think it’s just a matter of time, and we’ve just got to filter through the system, and make it to the top. It’s just bloody hard work! But, we’ll get there.


Olivia Maskill