Kathryn Ayscough discusses creating a culture of inclusivity and opportunity in Biomedical Science

Professor Kathryn Ayscough is someone who is on a mission to create opportunities and ensure they are available to everyone.

Since becoming Head of the Department of Biomedical Science (BMS) at the University of Sheffield in 2016 she has been creating staff structures and working patterns that are allowing more people to get involved in developing the department’s teaching and research activities.

She is also considering how to enhance student identity – how students see themselves within BMS, their experience, contribution and sense of being in the department.

Kathryn explains the basis of how she is developing the department, “A department is an organic machine. It’s about getting the most out of its component parts so that it works effectively. Since becoming Head of Department, I have learned that people at all levels need support and to be heard. It’s important to develop a departmental identity because everybody (students and staff) needs to feel part of something.”

Kathryn brings a lot of experience to her role as Head of Department. She studied for A’ levels at a comprehensive school near Bristol then studied at Biochemistry at Oxford University and received her PhD from University College London. She undertook fellowships in California, Dundee and Glasgow then joined the University of Sheffield in 2003 (as an MRC Senior Fellow) and spent nine years in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology before joining BMS in 2012 as Professor of Molecular Cell Biology.

Since being at Sheffield, Kathryn’s Fellowships have led her to focus her time on research but has always undertaken a range of teaching responsibilities. Her research centres around understanding the mechanisms underpinning cell organisation, in particular how cells are able to drive changes in their shape. One current project, focused on the fungal pathogen Candida albicans, aims to determine how specific proteins control cell shape and how this relates to Candida virulence.

Kathryn is also a strong advocate working in support of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) agenda and she has chaired the Faculty’s EDI committee driving forward departmental submissions to the Athena SWAN charter. She notes, “BMS is a good place for women to work. There is a real equality in the way we work and how we interact and share opinions. I hope that our students recognise that and adopt the same culture of inclusion during their time at Sheffield.”

When it comes to the department’s students Kathryn knows there is a lot at Sheffield for them. She says, “The advice I got at school, about what to study and the careers I could consider thereafter, was not great. If I could go back to the point at which I was applying to university, I might well advise myself to follow my heart in what I studied rather than take what was considered to be a very practical and sensible route.

“What I hope Biomedical Science at the University of Sheffield gives our students, is a range of options to study areas of science that they find truly inspirational as well as setting them forward into exciting and rewarding careers in all sorts of different areas.”

And guiding students through their studies is a real passion for Kathryn. “I enjoy teaching in small groups that provide better opportunities for discussion and interaction; I like to get students talking. I have a great sense of pride when I see PhD students who have found some of their research very challenging, graduate with a PhD that they are proud of.”

In research Kathryn has key interests that she wants to pursue to maximise the impact of BMS projects. She is keen to develop the interdisciplinary aspects of Biomedical and Life Science research at the University of Sheffield to the extent that she feels the time has come to grow the research themes across and between faculties to become stronger. She is supportive of the concept of a cross-Faculty institute  that could be home to many of the University’s strategic research projects.

Moving forward in the higher education sector, Kathryn can see an important place for the University of Sheffield that will underline its excellence in student experience and research impact. She says, “The University of Sheffield is, arguably, leading the field as a place where each individual is embraced for who they are and what they bring. It pioneered the We Are International campaign, which highlights how much we value international students and recognises the contribution they make to our culture.

“The University celebrates every form of diversity and embraces inclusivity. I believe there is more that we should be doing to acknowledge social diversity and develop the widening participation agenda that encourages students from under-represented groups to go to university (for example, those from lower income families, people with disabilities and some ethnic minorities).”

At open days we are often asked, “Why Sheffield?”. Kathryn knows why. “Because it cares; it has integrity. Our institution, our lecturers and our city value students. We care about why they join us and what they do while they’re here and importantly also after they graduate. Sheffield, the university and the city, has some great and worthy values, and we want to share all that we can with our students.”