Melanie hopes her rise to the top will inspire women to do the same

A University of Leicester diabetes expert who heads up a pioneering research centre hopes her story will inspire other women to climb the career ladder.

To mark International Women’s Day, on Wednesday 8 March, Professor Melanie Davies CBE has shared her story of how she overcame barriers to rise to the top of her profession.

Prof Davies, who leads the NIHR Leicester Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), is keen to use her standing as a senior female leader in medical research for the benefit of women looking to progress their careers.

“I endeavour to inspire women who are making their way in what is still a very male-dominated world,” said Prof Davies, who was last year named as one of the UK’s top 100 female scientists by academic platform She was ranked 76th in the United Kingdom and 736th globally in the 2022 Top 1,000 Female Scientists in the World rankings.

Prof Davies added: “Things have changed for the better over the years, but there’s still plenty to be done to ensure women are on an equal footing with their male colleagues.

“I feel that I am at the time and stage of my career where I need to devote time to being a role model. I try hard to get on panels to ensure there’s a female voice being heard, because there still aren’t many senior female leaders in medical research. It’s important for others to see that a mum-of-three, which I am, can reach the top. I try to be visible, because you can’t inspire people if they can’t see you.”

Prof Davies also takes a hands-on approach to help female researchers progress at the University and BRC.

She said: “I’ve been a mentor to many. I’ve spent time reviewing their fellowship applications, which can be a lot of work, and support them. I encourage them to be bolder, to ask questions, not to be afraid to push themselves forward. It’s crucial to pass down tips to help them progress and reach their potential as often they tend to underestimate their own potential, imposter syndrome is more common in women.”

Boldness is also something Prof Davies has had to develop over the years, to make sure her voice has been heard.

“If you saw me at work, and at home, you might think I am two different people,” she said.

“There have been difficulties over the years, which taught me to be more assertive than I would naturally be, otherwise nobody would have listened to me. That was 15 years ago, it’s got better now, and at the BRC and University, it’s a good place for a woman to work. The senior people are excellent and the culture is really good.”

NIHR Biomedical Research Centres are partnerships between healthcare professionals and academics in the country’s leading NHS trusts and universities. The NIHR Leicester BRC is a partnership between the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust, University of Leicester, Loughborough University and University Hospitals of Northamptonshire NHS Group.

The combined research teams in Leicester, Loughborough and Northampton work together to develop groundbreaking treatments, diagnostics, prevention and care for people who have a wide range of diseases.

Under Prof Davies’ stewardship, Leicester’s BRC has enjoyed immense success.

She said: “We received £26m in funding last year, which is a two-and-a-half upfold in funding. This demonstrates the importance of the work we do here. It means we can keep 200 researchers working here in Leicester for the next five years. The research carried out at the Centre has really put Leicester on the map, in terms of reputation for biomedical sciences.

“It’s been a huge achievement for myself and everybody involved. Everybody has collaborated and pulled together over a long time and the talent we have at the BRC is world class.

The University of Leicester’s medical research carried out at the BRC includes vital fields such as diabetes, cardiovascular science, cancer and Covid-19.

The diabetes research, which is conducted at Leicester’s Diabetes Research Centre, is something Prof Davies is rightly proud of.

“I established a home for research in diabetes in Leicester, following the centre being set up 15 years ago,” she said. “And with colleagues we returned the second-best REF performance in the country in lifestyle research (Sports and Exercise Medicine). We’ve worked hard to build one of the top diabetes research groups in the county, with work looking at people living with type 2 diabetes self-manage their condition, living with it and how drugs and lifestyle can have a positive effect on their lives.

“Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of diabetes in the UK and abroad have benefited from our research. We have a team of 160 researchers who are publishing two-to-three papers a week. It’s a big operation and one I am proud of.”

For those looking to follow in her footsteps, Prof Davies has this advice: “Be persistent, work hard and be committed to achieving. Look for people who can give you good advice. Take advantage of mentorship schemes. Role models are crucial.”

Prof Davies has published over more than 900 original articles and received more than £85m of funding. She was awarded a CBE in the 2016 New Year’s Honour’s List for services to diabetes research.

Prof Davies’ research interests include the causes, screening, prevention, self-management and treatment of type 2 diabetes mellitus. She is the Principal Investigator on a number of large global studies in the field of diabetes, obesity, physical activity, sedentary behaviour and cardiovascular disease.