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Women in Science

Irene did biochemistry at Oxford, followed by a DPhil, looking at MRI methods to study muscle and brain biochemistry. She did a postdoc at Harvard, before returning to Oxford. She was the Director of the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain until 2015. Her main interest is pain and consciousness research.

Portrait of Irene Tracey© Women in Science


at the time of the interview - January 2015

Irene is a neuroscientist and holds the Nuffield Chair in Anaesthetic Science in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences. She is head of the Nuffield Division of Anaesthetics and Associate Head of the Medical Sciences Division. She has three children. 

Extended biography

at the time of the interview - January 2015

Irene was always interested in how things work, and she had excellent science teachers at school. They encouraged her to do science at University. During one school holiday she did work experience in a hospital, and she also worked in a lab, which she loved. This convinced her to follow a career in science. Irene did a biochemistry degree at Oxford, which was good because she had the opportunity to work in the lab and conduct research projects. She stayed at Oxford to do a DPhil, where she used Magnetic Resonance methods to study brain chemistry.

It isn’t like a job. It is truly like a hobby and it’s an absolute privilege and luxury … to be able to be a scientist

After completing her DPhil, Irene went to Harvard Medical School, in Boston, USA, where she became trained in the relatively new technique of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) and where she was introduced to the field of pain research. While working in the USA Irene made excellent contacts, which helped later in her career. She also married and thoroughly enjoyed her time in the USA.

In 1997, after two years in the USA, Irene returned to Oxford to help co-found and establish the Oxford Centre for FMRI of the Brain (FMRIB). She had an MRC Core Funding Grant to do this. It was quite a tough time because as well as setting up the new Centre she was helping to care for a sick parent, and she had her first child.

In 2001 Irene was appointed to a University Lectureship in the Department of Human Anatomy and Genetics, and had a fellowship at Christ Church, so she was also lecturing in neuroscience. During this time the FMRIB became a centre of excellence for neuroimaging. Irene also had her second child. She took four months maternity leave, as she had done for her first child.

After five years as a University Lecturer Irene was approached to go to another job, but she decided to stay in Oxford and became Director of FMRIB in 2005, which had over 100 staff. She was then pregnant with her third child. Irene took just two months maternity leave. Her husband took the other two months statutory maternity leave and then he took six months unpaid leave to look after the baby. He has always been a huge support.

In 2007 she was appointed to the Statutory Nuffield Chair in Anaesthetic Science and then became Head of the Nuffield Department of Anaesthetics, while still directing FMRIB until she stood down from the Directorship in 2015. She is now Associate Head of the Medical Sciences Division and was elected a Fellow of the Medical Academy of Sciences in 2015.

Irene thinks that the University of Oxford is a wonderful place to work. She hasn’t experienced any gender discrimination herself but recognises that Athena SWAN has improved the work place for women. She thinks that a scientific career is a great for those who love their subject, partly because of the work and partly because the hours are flexible. Ethnic background/Nationality: White British.