Women's History Month: the neurobiologist fighting Parkinson’s through research

Meet Neuroscience Professor, Rosemary Fricker

“She showed me the way to be the best person that I could in life, to become quietly successful and confident."

Rosemary Fricker headshot

A panellist at our International Women's Day event this Wednesday, Rosemary Fricker, is a Professor of Neurobiology and Director of Studies at Wolfson, currently working as convener for the Global Health Research Hub, and co-ordinator of the Early Career Researchers Programme. 

Rosemary’s connection to Wolfson, however, did not begin through her role as academic staff; she studied at Wolfson for a PhD in Neuroscience from 1992-1995, investigating methods to enhance the survival and function of cell transplants for brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. 

This field of study had a specific personal motivation for Rosemary – her Gran who developed Parkinson's disease. Here, Rosemary reflects upon her own female research influences, the challenges of being a woman in academia, and the hopes she has for her own future career. 

What area of scientific research interests you the most, and why is it important to you? 

My research interest is in the use of stem cells to replace lost or damaged nerve cells in the brain. I am also interested in the role of vitamins in brain development and protection of nerve cells. I became interested in this field as an undergraduate student, when my wonderful Gran developed Parkinson’s disease. I was always determined to become a scientist, and to make a difference to people’s health through science research. 

I was on work placement at the Babraham Research Institute when I was introduced to an inspirational Cambridge academic, Steve Dunnett, who was working on transplant therapies. I was offered a PhD position in his lab, and we continued to be collaborators and work colleagues up until his retirement a few years ago. Once I became an established scientist, I had the opportunity to meet many people with Parkinson’s over the years. They have been my biggest motivation to try to make a difference with my research. 

What’s your favourite thing about your current role? Do you have a specific high point in mind? 

I love being back at Wolfson. The College has the same welcoming atmosphere as when I was here as a PhD student, and I have met so many interesting folks from across the globe. 

Alongside my work at Wolfson, I am strongly involved with the University Botanic Gardens. I lead a team of volunteers in a science project to understand the effects of climate change on the seasonal cycle of trees.

Probably the most memorable high point in my career was my inaugural lecture as Professor at Keele. It was an amazing event, not only attended by my colleagues, but friends, neighbours, and family – all wanting to know and understand the academic that I was, as well as the person they knew outside of Keele. 

When you think of International Women’s Day, what does it mean to you? 

IWD has always given me a moment to think about the female ground-breakers in academia, science, and medicine. I am still disappointed that I have met some highly intelligent and hard-working women who are not reaching the higher levels of academia, mostly due to the limited time they have to be an academic while juggling the rest of their lives. 

In academia, there is still an ethos of measuring the quantity of research outputs alongside the quality - this has to change so that women can be recognised for what they can achieve in the time available to them.

Which women have been sources of inspiration for you throughout your personal and academic life? 

Elizabeth Garrett-Anderson – the first women to obtain a medical degree in the UK (1865) – is a powerful source of inspiration for me. She was barred from joining classes intended for male doctors and after she passed the exams a ban was put in place to stop other women sitting the exams to enter the profession.

My Gran is also my inspiration. She was quietly brilliant. She had to give up being a school teacher once married, but was intelligent, determined, creative, encouraging and had a beautiful graciousness. I once found a school book prize awarded to her for seven years attendance without a single day of absence! She showed me the way to be the best person that I could in life, to become quietly successful and confident.  

What helps you when you feel stuck in your academic journey? Any words of wisdom that stick in mind?

A quote that has sustained me as a researcher is from my Swedish mentor, Professor Anders Bjorklund. He said, "History shows that you don't have to be the first, you just have to be the best when it comes to science research. When academics read publications in five years time, they will base their views on the best research, not the date of publication".

What are your aims for the future? What would you like to achieve looking forward? 

This next chapter of my life involves exploring paths not taken when I made earlier choices for my career. I have rekindled my love of botany by taking up a phenology project in the University Botanic Garden, combining my research skills with a new field.

I also believe in supporting the next generation of researchers and academics, they are the creative minds of the future. So my role as DoS and involvement in the Early Career Researchers programme at Wolfson are very rewarding and I hope will continue.

Discover More

Professor Fricker will be speaking at the 2023 Women of Wolfson Panel Discussion on Wednesday 8th March at 6pm, alongside five other inspirational female panelists. See here for more information about the event and other ways to get involved.

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