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Women in Science

Persephone studied science at Cambridge. After her PhD she spent eight years in the USA before returning to the UK as Group Head at the Edward Jenner Institute. Her current work at Oxford involves basic research to inform the development of vaccines to combat infection with HIV-1.

Portrait of Persephone Borrow© Persephone Borrow


at the time of the interview November 2014

Persephone is a Reader and Principal Investigator in the Nuffield Department of Medicine. She is also a Jenner Institute Investigator. She has two children. 

Extended biography

at the time of the interview - November 2014

Both Persephone’s parents were scientists. She wasn’t pushed into a career in science, but when she looked for work experience she found it easier to get placements in a lab, and in a veterinary practice, than a placement in a museum or one which involved history or Latin. Thus partly for practical reasons she decided to make a career in science.

Persephone got a place at Cambridge to study natural science. During a gap year she worked in a lab, doing immunology, which she found interesting. After graduating, Persephone stayed on at Cambridge to do a PhD, which was supported financially by her College. Her work was concerned with a chronic virus infection in mice, which is associated with demyelination, which has similarities to multiple sclerosis in humans.

I really do enjoy what I do and I think it is a fantastic career

After her PhD Persephone decided to look for a postdoctoral position abroad, because she had been advised that by doing this she would learn new techniques. In 1989 she found a scientist in the USA who agreed to supervise her work, and she obtained offers of fellowships from four different funding bodies. She decided to accept three of these offers, one for each year of her three year project, which was based at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. She looked at the mechanisms by which viruses persist.

She did a further three years postdoc and then she obtained her own independent funding, a five year fellowship from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in America, and became an Assistant Member, working on samples of blood from people who had acute HIV infections. During this time she got married to a man who was also a research scientist, and had her first child. She wasn’t eligible for maternity leave so worked from home for six weeks until the nursery was able to care for the baby.

In 1997, after eight years in America, Persephone decided to move back to the UK. The NIH allowed her to take the fellowship funding with her, and she and her husband were both offered Group Head positions at the newly established Edward Jenner Institute for Vaccine Research, Compton, where she continued with vaccine related basic research.

Persephone was then pregnant with her second daughter, so it was a difficult time, looking for a house, looking for a good nursery for her other child, and setting up a new lab. She was not eligible for maternity leave because she was already three months pregnant when she returned to the UK. When the baby was born she took a week of annual leave, then worked part-time for five weeks, and then returned to work.

In 2005 there was a funding crisis at the Institute. Persephone and her husband were offered fellowships, administered by the University of Oxford. She decided to accept the fellowship and became a University employee but her husband took a job in industry. Eventually she relocated her lab to the University too, and is now a Reader and a Jenner Institute Investigator, in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine. Ethnic background/nationality: White Caucasian.