Guest Blog: Sarah Coupland shares her career journey for International Women's Day

08 March 18

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Press Office

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This is my first blog and I’m sharing the story of my career as an academic clinician. I am a Consultant Histopathologist and also the George Holt Chair of Pathology at the University of Liverpool. Actually, I’m the first female to occupy this chair since its inception in 1894 by the Victorian ship owner and philanthropist, George Holt from Liverpool. Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate as many achievements as possible of all those women – either recognised or unrecognised - who have done something remarkable.

I was born in Sydney, Australia, and undertook my general medical training at the University of New South Wales, before doing a PhD under the combined supervision of Prof. Frank Billson (Sydney Eye Hospital, Sydney) and Prof. Friedrich Hoffmann (University of Benjamin Franklin, Berlin, Germany). During my PhD, I learnt to speak fluent German and also developed an interest in ophthalmic pathology. I undertook an elective in 1994 with the world-renowned eye pathologist, Prof. William Lee in Glasgow, who confirmed my resolve to pursue this specialty, and who is one of my mentors.

In 1995, I commenced General and Specialist Pathology Training in the Dept. of Prof. Harald Stein in Berlin, where I lived for a further 10 years with my husband, Prof. Heinrich Heimann. In 2000 I took a short break to have 3 wonderful children: Amelie, Zoe and Karl (yes triplets!) before going on to complete my specialist pathology training. In 2005, I successfully defended my Habilitation on Ocular Lymphomas, becoming the first female Associate Professor to have graduated from Prof. Stein’s department.

I moved to Liverpool and commenced working as a Consultant Pathologist in 2006. With the help of Prof. Bertil Damato, I also established (and continue to lead) a research group, the Liverpool Ocular Oncology Research Group (, which concentrates on basic and translational research examining the genomics and proteomics of ocular tumours, particularly lymphomas and melanomas. My research team has grown from 2 members to 15 over time, thanks to funding sources such as Fight for Sight, as well as the dedication some of it senior members, such as Dr Helen Kalirai, who is my “right hand woman”, making sure all is running smoothly whilst I’m (often) away at University meetings and international conferences.

Over the years I’ve also been elected to various national and international roles, including President of the European Ophthalmic-Oncology-Group (OOG), President of the International Society of Ophthalmic Pathology (ISOP). I am also currently Vice President of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO). Following the philosophy “publish or perish”, I have been relatively prolific in publishing scientific articles and textbook chapters, and have been able to keep my research group going through continuous grant writing.

Like many others, my career path was one of serendipity and luck. I was very fortunate to meet the people who I met along the way, and who gave me support, inspiration and decisiveness, to continue pursuing what interested me. Whilst there have been highs during this pathway, there have also been definite periods of lows, which I learned from but also try to forget. I’ve quite a stubborn streak in my nature, and this has carried me through such difficult times.

On International Women’s Day, it’s important to reflect and remember what has been achieved in our lifetime by women in science and medicine, as well as those in the past generations, when the obstacles that were to be overcome were surely higher. This is particularly the case this year in 2018, when we are celebrating 100 years since the suffragette movement was able to gain voting rights for British women over the age of 30. I don’t have any particular female role models from the past, as there so many to choose from! However, Mary Anning (English palaeontologist), Marie Curie (French-Polish physicist), Rosalind Franklin (British chemist), Dorothy Hodgkin (British biological chemist and trained physician), Elizabeth Blackwell (first female physician trained in the US), Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (first British female doctor) and Isabel Barrows (first female ophthalmologist and member of a medical faculty) all come to mind. I also admire many female scientists and clinicians working today including Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (British astronomer), Elizabeth Blackburn (American-Australian biologist), Suzanne Cory (Australian molecular biologist), Jennifer Doudna (American biochemist) and Jo Martin (President of the Royal College of Pathologists), amongst others.

With respect to advising young female scientists on balancing a professional life and family, I truly believe that there are ways of juggling both spheres. Although difficult, it does require great organizational skills, including incorporating help from others (e.g., child caretakers and after-school clubs); good time management; stamina and being prepared to sleep less, as you often have to work either very late or very early (!); building good relationships and networks with colleagues; and having a dedicated partner with whom to balance your own personal strengths and weaknesses. But most of all, love what you do!