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Women in Science

Kay did a chemistry degree at Oxford and then moved to biochemistry for her DPhil. For the past 30 years she has been looking for effective treatments for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, working in laboratories in Oxford and London. She has made important discoveries and has an international reputation.

Portrait of Kay Davies© Women in Science


at the time of the interview – June 2015

Kay is a Professor of Anatomy in the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, and Director of the MRC Functional Genomics Unit at Oxford. She has a grown up son. 

Extended biography

at the time of the interview - June 2015

Science is fun ... I think you need to be passionate and you need to be tenacious and don’t worry when things go wrong. If things go wrong, they right themselves eventually

Kay was very good at mathematics when she was at school. She read chemistry at Oxford. There were very few female undergraduates, but she felt well supported by her women’s only College, Somerville, where she felt she could ‘retreat’. Kay did her DPhil in the biochemistry department, and loved it. The atmosphere was good and it was fun.

Kay has been trying to find an effective treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy for the past 30 years. She was awarded Fellowships from Oxford and then from the Royal Society. She went to Paris for a while as a postdoc and then returned to London as an MRC Senior Fellow. Later she returned to Oxford to set up her own research group. She now has an international reputation and is a leader in the field. In 1999, she set up the MRC Functional Genomics Unit aimed at exploiting genome information for the analysis of the function of genes in the nervous system. She is currently its Director.

Kay says she has had very good mentors, who have been male and who have encouraged her, and who have helped her to obtain funding. She thinks that when women are writing fellowship applications they need to have the confidence to make it clear what they have achieved. She finds it hard to do this herself and she thinks that this may be because other people feel intimidated by bright women, so women tend to downplay their achievements.

Kay has other roles, such as Deputy Chairman of the Wellcome Trust. She says that she has to be pretty robust to be the only woman on a panel of men. She thinks that the situation for women in science has improved, but that there is still unconscious bias.

Kay had her son when she was aged 37. She took three months maternity leave but kept in touch with the lab. Colleagues came to her home to discuss their data. Her husband, also a scientist, ‘never changed a nappy’, but he supported her and encouraged her to continue her work. Kay returned to work full time. She had a nanny, and then an au pair and her parents helped with child care when necessary. Kay thinks that there is never a bad time to have children, but that at different times the issues are different. The key is to work for someone who allows flexible working hours. It is outcome that matters and it’s the team effort that matters. Kay thinks that working part-time may be difficult because funding agencies sometimes think that if a woman works part time she is not a serious scientist. Also those who officially work, for example, three days a week, often end up working much more than three days but only get paid for part-time work.

In the past Kay has experienced some discrimination on grounds of gender, particularly when she was applying for a lectureship at Oxford. At times she felt that she wasn’t taken seriously because she was a woman, but she thinks that the situation has greatly improved, partly due to Athena SWAN. Kay helped the Wellcome Trust set up a leadership course. She has been on a management course herself, which she found very helpful. The course was run by the University. Kay highly recommends science as a career. She is proud that she has discovered something that may eventually lead to a cure for muscular dystrophy. Ethnic background/Nationality: White British.