Researcher in the Spotlight November 2015


Prof Susan Wray BSc, PhD, FRCOG, FMedSci, is a Professor of Cellular and Molecular Physiology at the Institute Of Translational Medicine, University of Liverpool.

What is your research about?

I’m a smooth muscle physiologist. My favourite smooth muscle is that of the uterus, the myometrium. My research is about trying to increase our understanding of the basic science of myometrial contractility and its pathophysiology. To accomplish this I am interested in elucidating intracellular signalling pathways, the relation between metabolism and function and characterising biopsies taken from women with problems in pregnancy or labour.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

I’m a physiologist thanks to my biology teacher, who interpreted my inarticulate scientific likes, as being those best suited to physiology. My enthusiasm was dampened after my first year at university, as there was no physiology and the course (as would have been the case wherever I studied) was mostly a repeat of A level physics, maths chemistry and biology, albeit with more boys than at a girls grammar school. After taking a year out, which was remarkably difficult to arrange as I had passed all my exams, and consisted of random odd jobs in the harsh real world, I returned and completed my BSc at UCL. Stuck for what next to do on degree day, I fell into a PhD. Since then, physiology was something I really wanted to do – I still love research.

Why is your work important?

Beyond paying the mortgage? Our knowledge of uterine physiology is still remarkably impoverished – we cannot even explain spontaneous activity, pacemaking or initiation of labour adequately. From this stems an inability to predict and prevent problems such as preterm labours, difficult term labour and post-partum haemorrhage, which all involve uterine contractility. Apart from the intellectual embarrassment, this ignorance impacts on the lives of women and their families and is unacceptable.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Yes. The work of my group and others is bringing definite progress. We have recently been awarded £1M to set up, in Liverpool, the Harris-Wellbeing Centre for preterm birth Research, which is a terrific boost. Also, our finding of increased lactate in myometrial capillary blood from women labouring dysfunctionally (slow to progress, poor contractions), has been taken up into a test to predict such difficult labours by measuring lactate in amniotic fluid. The physiologist in me, however, is more interested in knowing why some women have the increased lactate levels and preventing this in the first place.

What does a typical day involve?

A mixture of the usual graft around keeping up, writing papers or grants or reports, seeing students, interrupting the smooth flow of work in the labs, and finding time to be creative or thoughtful. I do my editorial work for Physiological Reports, of which I am extremely proud to be Editor-in-Chief, usually first or last thing each day. I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon, as it’s raining and I’m playing catch up.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

The variety, the discoveries, the people and helping put back into the system. This was my stimulus to take up cudgels for equality and become my university’s Director of Athena SWAN.

What do you enjoy the least?

Getting grants rejected – who are those fools?

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

My liver is in good shape and I’m still married.

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Do it your way. Listen to others but challenge. Be tenacious but have fun. Enjoy your successes.

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