Today, on International Girls and Women in Science Day – and every day – we celebrate the incredible women who make up the Frontier Science Scotland (FSS) team. Among them is Dr Sarah Barry, Statistics Team Lead.
We sat down with Sarah to discuss her impressive statistics career, including her work at FSS so far.
Building a biostatistics career with meaning
It was during her final year of an undergraduate degree in Maths and Statistics at the University of Edinburgh – while taking a medical statistics course – that Sarah considered making biostatistics her career.
“I found it really amazing the kinds of things that you could show from data as a medical statistician,” she says. “I saw the results of a study that showed the different effects of a drug on pre-menopausal and post-menopausal women. And I just remember thinking ‘That’s incredible’.”
The rest is history. Sarah now holds an MSc in Medical Statistics from the University of Lancaster and a PhD in Statistics from the University of Glasgow; between the two she spent two years as a Research Associate and Statistical Consultant at the esteemed John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, US.
After completing her PhD, Sarah remained in academia – taking up biostatistician positions at the University of Glasgow before going on to lecture at the University of Strathclyde.
Hailing from the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands, which is under an hour from the FSS HQ in Kincraig, Sarah had long heard of FSS. It wasn’t until 2022, however, that she joined the non-profit medical research organisation tucked away among the mountains.
“The location was kind of unusual. I liked that,” she says. “Also the fact that it’s a non-profit was really appealing to me. I’ve always wanted to feel like I’m working in an area where it’s not just money-driven.”
In 2022, Sarah joined the FSS team as the Statistics Team Lead. While no day is ever the same, her typical daily tasks often include strategising and conducting statistical analyses, overseeing FSS documentation and processes to ensure projects run as efficiently as possible, line-managing and supporting her team of statisticians, and other individual project work.
Charting new futures for women and girls in STEM
Sarah appreciates that the supportive company culture at FSS has helped her excel in her tasks since day one.
“I’ve always felt like they’re absolutely on my side and there to help me get through things,” she says.
Yet a lack of female role models in senior statistician positions remains a challenge for the sector.
“My current line manager is my first ever female one, and I’ve had quite a few line managers over my [19-year] career,” she says. “That’s definitely had an impact on me as it’s difficult to see yourself in those higher-up positions when they are always occupied by men.”
In addition to work-life imbalance, stereotypes and unconscious bias, a lack of role models was among the numerous factors influencing the gender gap in STEM, in which women make up only 28% of the workforce globally. A 2022 McKinsey report, however, revealed that more supportive working environments can positively impact this figure.
For Sarah, such an environment is palpable at FSS, which has a predominantly female staff.
“Frontier Science has a strong focus on employee wellbeing and a positive working environment,” she says. “[They’re] a very supportive employer with a good understanding of the challenges of being a woman in this sector, and being a working mother in particular.
She credits their generous dependency leave as an example, which predominantly benefits women, who are more likely to be carers than men.
Women such as Sarah are continuing to challenge gender norms within STEM, giving hope for change.
When asked for words of advice for women and girls looking to enter a career in the sector, Sarah says:
“Don’t let anybody make you feel that it’s not your place. Follow your dreams and your aspirations – no matter who you are.”