Women in Science – Q&A with Fiona MacKenzie

To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’ve asked some of our female scientists about their experiences studying and working in science. Fiona MacKenzie is the Client Services and Sourcing Director at The Intelligent Tissue Group and was Tissue Solutions’ first employee back in 2010!

Q: What did you study?

A: I graduated from Glasgow University with a BSc in Biochemistry.  While working in my first job at Strathclyde University I wrote up an interesting project as an MPhil and then took it a bit further as a PhD.  Finally, I studied for an MBA.

Q: What made you choose to study Biochemistry?

A: I loved subjects like Biochemistry and Physiology because they combined the core science subjects of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics into real functions and mechanisms within living systems. There were also still lots of unknowns, presenting opportunities for further learning and research.

Q: Did you always want to be a scientist?

A: I wanted to understand the world around me and be part of something that I hoped could make a difference. I really became hooked when I started doing lab work, there is so much satisfaction in designing and carrying out an experiment. I loved the sense of accomplishment when you finally get something to work, and the longer the frustration has been, the greater the sense of achievement.

Q: How has your career in science developed over the years? What was your first job and what is your job now?

A: My first job was working at Strathclyde University, with an amazing team who specialised in extracting medicinal compounds from plants used in traditional medicine.  My supervisor travelled all over the world collecting plants, taking them back to the lab to isolate the active metabolites creating a library of novel compounds from 80 countries in 5 continents, and gaining lifelong friends along the way.

I was lucky enough to be able to go on solo field trips to Sri Lanka, to collect plants used in Ayurvedic medicine. I learned about the traditional medicine methodologies used locally and worked in the Institute of Indigenous Medicine at the University of Colombo. This formed the basis of my PhD, using phytochemical and bioassay-guided methods of drug discovery in medicinal plants.

After my PhD, I accepted a Post Doc position for a year and then was offered a job working for the University’s Biotechnology Transfer Centre.  The Centre matched expertise within the University Departments to commercial projects and clients which was great fun. I really enjoyed the mixture of being involved in both the bench-based science and also having the opportunity to get out of the lab to meet and interact with clients.

Next, I went to work for SB Drug Discovery, as part of the Screening Team, where I met Morag and was then offered a role at Tissue Solutions where I have worked for the past 11 years.

Q: What would you say to girls and women considering a career or education in science?

A: You don’t have to wear a lab coat, or work in a lab to have a career in science, there are lots of different options and working in science can take you all over the world.

Persistence is also important.  Lab work often requires a lot of ground work, repetition, and a bit of luck before any success!

Science doesn’t have to be your only interest and having more strings to your bow can be a definite advantage.  Science is definitely very important to me but it’s not the only thing that defines me.

Q: Did anyone influence or inspire you to become a scientist?

A: There were a lot of stereotypes surrounding the STEM subjects when I was selecting my subjects at secondary school. My Mum and Dad were great at encouraging me to push the boundaries and my Dad fought my case when I wanted to be the only girl to study Technical Drawing, rather than Home Economics which was the standard subject choice back then.

Q: How have you helped towards the research and fight against COVID-19? 

A: I’ve been proud to be part of the team delivering human biomaterials to support researchers developing tests and vaccines.  Working in collaboration with the partners within our network, we have been able to provide access to COVID-19 samples from the very start of the pandemic and we are continuing to supply samples for longer-term research projects. It has been really interesting to see this progressing, along with some of the scientific achievements that are benefiting us all.


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