IW Alumnus Interview: Margaret Cunningham

This is the first in a series of quick fire interviews with Ingenious Women alumni. The Ingenious Women programme has been running in Scotland for eight years and over 130 women have been on the programme.


Dr Margaret Rose Cunningham

Chancellor’s Research Fellow

University of Strathclyde, Strathclyde Institute of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences (SIPBS)


1) Please describe your professional background and current role. 


I started my career as a modern apprentice laboratory technician at the University of Glasgow at the age of 17 where I was based at the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics.  During this time I attended college day-release over a 5 year period to achieve a HNC in applied biological sciences and then a HND in biomedical sciences.  I also completed my SVQ level 2 and 3 in laboratory and associated techniques.  I decided to leave my technical position and continue my studies at the University of Strathclyde where I was a direct entry student into Year 3 of their BSc (Hons) Biochemistry and Pharmacology degree programme.  It was the first time I had experienced pharmacology as a topic and I really enjoyed it so I decided to continue on that track at postgraduate level.  I was successfully awarded an AJ Clark PhD Studentship from the British Pharmacological Society (BPS) and I started my career investigating the pharmacology of surface proteins called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) and consequences of GPCR dimerisation.

When I completed my PhD in 2010, I applied for fellowships – whilst unsuccessful, some valuable feedback from the process recommended that I move and experience a research environment outside of the Glasgow area. Looking back, I completely agree with the advice I received.  For my first postdoctoral position I moved to the University of Bristol to work with the Bristol Platelet Group to research platelet GPCRs and GPCR-protein interactions. After 4 years in Bristol, the opportunity emerged to start my own research group through the Chancellor’s Research Fellow Scheme back in the University of Strathclyde. In 2014 I returned to Strathclyde with a Chancellor’s Fellowship where I have a growing research group investigating cardiovascular GPCR function in cardiotoxicity and design of new GPCR molecules as potential new cardiovascular therapies.  Other roles in my current position include lecturer in pharmacology for undergraduate students, co-director of SIPBS Outreach and co-lead of the Cardiovascular and Metabolic group.

2) Why did you apply to the IWS programme?


When I saw the IWS programme advertised, my motivation to apply was largely to expand my professional network in enterprise and meet new people at a similar career stage.


3) What did you take away from the IWS programme?


The network that has formed since the IWS programme has been excellent and continues to grow.  Several events have been held since the retreat which has kept the momentum going and helped to strengthen the network.  I met so many wonderful people during the retreat and I still keep in touch with many of them regularly and meet up.

4) What has been the highlight of your career so far?


One of the highlights of my career so far is being elected as an RSE Young Academy of Scotland member recently in 2018.  This is another example of a great network of professionals spanning academia, business, industry and policy etc.  The backgrounds of the members are so diverse with great opportunities to be part of activities that have high societal impact.

5) What three career recommendations would you give to early career researchers?


  • Don’t be afraid to ask for advice and take the time to find a good mentor.
  • Use every opportunity to meet new people both within and outside your area of expertise.
  • Look into courses that offer professional development training. This could be anything from leadership, project/time/people management to writing, presentation or communication skills.


You can follow Margaret on Twitter @MagRoseCun

Blog on the Ingenious Women/ BCSWomen Scotland event: Advice to my 22 year old self

by Sharon Moore

“Advice to my 22 year old self”…

… was the title of our most recent event in Scotland, a collaboration between Ingenious Women Scotland and BCSWomen Scotland, and it proved to be one of our biggest events to date. We heard from two entrepreneurs who shared the lessons they would go back and give themselves at the age of 22.

Vicky Brock, CEO and Co-Founder at vistalworks, had a very clear plan when she was 8. She wanted to go to London. She had many plans to get there – plan A was to go to university, plan B was related to musical theatre, and so on – and however she would do it, she definitely would! And she did. She became a machine, learning fast, not learning deep, and did indeed get herself to London to attend University. Vicky become very good at being half an hour ahead of everyone else, and her first recommendation was more isn’t always better – enough to get by is good enough.

Point 2 was to “do less, tell more”. She suggested 70% of your time being spent on the ‘doing’, with 30% on ‘telling’ how well you did it, and what you achieved. Working hard is no guarantee of success, and only working hard is definitely not going to bring success. She was clear to state that it’s not about being obnoxious but about selling your work, output, ideas.

For Vicky 22 was actually quite a dark time. When going through University she hadn’t prepared for ‘what next?’ but did eventually find work in theatre. Her next lesson was “So what? Who cares? Why?” She recommended working smart and being efficient; do the least amount of work you can to get the results you need. (Although those of us who know Vicky a little know that despite her claims of being lazy, we know she works very hard indeed.) I was particularly struck by her comment about not trying to please everyone: “if you do try you’ll fail and destroy yourself in the process”.

In that theatre job, Vicky put herself forward for a role that she wasn’t particularly well qualified to do; but then neither was anyone else; and surely she couldn’t be as bad as anyone else. So, she thought she might as well give it a go. And she did. And she fell in love with data.

Lesson 4 was that it’s perfectly ok to walk away. She hadn’t realised it was ok to walk away from a job you don’t like (particularly when previous generations in our society had had jobs for life). I was struck by “work rarely loves you back”.

Vicky then repeated something we heard from Dr Sara Shinton at an event in May last year and shared it as point 5: “Create your own opportunities”. Put yourself out of your comfort zone, go networking, say ‘yes’ – after all, what’s the worst that can happen? You don’t always know where an opportunity will lead, but it’s likely to be positive.

Vicky finished with “You will fail. Fail fabulously.” Reframe failure as practice. And don’t be less of yourself for anyone. And we think you are fabulous Vicky.

Next up was Sarah Lee, Director of Hot Tin Roof and Co-Founder of Ping Go. Sarah started her career at an all-girls school, which, whilst this can have some peculiarities, meant she has felt on a level-playing field with men in tech as she knew many young women who were good at STEM subjects.

Her first lesson was not to believe the naysayers, particularly if you believe something with gut instinct. This was related to personal experience, rather than a business decision, where she and her boyfriend at University got engaged after 3 months. And 30 years of marriage later it was most definitely the right decision. She talked more about her personal life and made that a key point: Take time to enjoy your life. Seize the moment, be with the people you love.

Sarah looks back on University thinking she could have made more of it, but also made it clear that nothing in life is a waste of time because you can learn from everything. She ended up in a role that meant she was bored, frustrated and unfulfilled, but she also worked with some great people, and learned to budget, hire and fire, and run events – all key to running her own business now.

She took a leap to a role as Editor of an in-house magazine – she really wanted it, even though it was new. It was great. Sarah was allowed to fail – although perhaps not twice! They were allowed to try new things and had a manager that encouraged growth. From this she said “Jump in at the deep end. You can swim.” It’s exhilarating. Don’t overthink.

Getting made redundant from a PR agency was a shock, only 9 months into that role, and although she had ideas about setting up her own, she wasn’t sure she was ready yet. So, Sarah joined another agency and very quickly realised she wasn’t learning anything new. It was time to go, and time to start! From this, “believe in yourself – don’t lose your confidence.

17 years later, Hot Tin Roof is most definitely a success. Now she’s jumping into the deep end again, establishing a new venture – Ping Go – with 2 co-founders joining her. She’s learned she can’t do it alone, and needs other skills, and just more time. Tenacity is one of her strengths, and she believes that is truly going to make Ping Go work. As Sarah concluded: “overnight success takes time”.

There were a few key points in the panel discussion after too:

  • Amplifiers are key. It’s not always easy to blow your own trumpet, and sometimes you are not in the right audience to do so. Find allies who believe in you and can amplify you, even when you’re not around.
  • Vicky felt it’s far easier to build a big company than a small one – aim big with your ventures.
  • After some discussion it became clear that sometimes we forget the lessons we’ve learned! And that’s ok too.

If you didn’t make it along to the event – and even if you did – we hope we get to meet you at a future one.

About the author: Sharon Moore is BCSWomen’s Deputy Chair and leads the ever-increasing BCSWomen activity in Scotland. She has a passionate team that makes these events happen and is always happy to welcome more to that team – the more of us the more we can achieve!

This blog is a re-post from Sharon’s original blog post on the BCS Women website.


Schiehallion Adventure!

By Claire Fitton and Gabriele Matilionyte


Are your New Year’s resolutions still active? In case you are in need of some motivation, we thought we would share this inspiring story by two ladies from our 2018 IWS group, Claire Fitton and Gabriele Matilionyte, who climbed Schiehallion at the end of 2018!




We had a very chilled out night in a pub catching up on personal and professional news, discussing ingenious ways of how we are winning in life, listening to Irish live music, petting and trying to steal random dogs (me).. On Saturday morning we set off to conquer a Munro that was a 40min drive from Pitlochry. We chose Schiehallion because it is categorised as one of the easiest Munros to bag (not so true..). As we started driving we could already see this mighty mountain from far away. Claire and I just couldn’t stop laughing as we got closer to it – it was just there sticking out of all hills and it was obvious what we got ourselves into.

As you can see from photos, we conquered Schiehallion in phases of excitement, disbelief, denial, trust, encouragement, excitement and proudness. As we got to the entrance we were so excited to be hiking that big mountain. Literally 5mins into the hike I was giving up. I told Claire that this happens to me all the time – I am very over-ambitious and set incredibly high goals. At that point I was so upset and disappointed. But I cannot thank enough Claire for being amazing and encouraging me that we should keep on going and just see what we can achieve. We decided to do the hike in small steps – I had to catch my breath very often (lifters do not have stamina!). But after a certain stage into our hike I started believing in myself.  And 3hours later we were there – at the summit of Schiehallion! My first ever personal Munro and we did it for all of IWScot2018! It took me almost the entire week to recover from muscle pain but I am all hooked up now and I am definitely going try and bag my second Munro soon.




You can’t help but notice its exactly like the metaphors people use as motivation for life’s challenges; the task that seems so unachievable is your mountain, but taking it just one small step at a time, you surprise even yourself on what you can achieve! Using the support of others around you, learning to be proud of the small achievements that are mounting into a big achievement, you start to see the summit is in reach! But it’s a false summit and you have to keep pushing, and again, and again, but now you can’t stop until you get there because you’ve come so far, and eventually… your efforts are rewarded and you’ve conquered the mountain (or technically the munro)!! And like most of us ingenious women, we are guilty of not basking in our achievement at the top because it’s on to the next thing (or in this case getting out of the roaring winds at -5 degrees!).


But reflecting on it I think what an adventure and what an achievement! I’m so glad we did it, and more importantly I’m so glad we bought gloves before going up there!



Sticky floors, glass ceilings and Vote100

As you may be aware, 2018 marks 100 years since women in the UK were first given the vote (though not all of them, only women over the age of 30 – it would take another ten years until this was extended to all women over 21). This is being celebrated via the #Vote100 campaign.

The final rush to finish everything before the holidays is now in full swing, but if you can free up some time then there are two really interesting events coming up before the party season gets underway.  An event being held as part of a St Andrew’s Day at the University of Edinburgh this week is inviting anyone to go along and join a Wikipedia editathon to help record the achievements of the Scottish suffragettes. Another event run by Equate next week will focus on sticky floors and glass ceilings and how to manage them. Details of both events are below.

If you can’t escape the lab/ office/ field/ site/ library to attend an event then you may wish to follow the #Vote100 hashtag on Twitter instead.

Scotland’s suffragettes: a St. Andrew’s Day Wikipedia editathon for Vote100

When: 30th November, 1.30pm – 5.30pm

Organised by: Digital Scholarship Centre

Where: University of Edinburgh Main Library, 30 George Sq, Edinburgh


This event is part the 2018 celebration of one hundred years since the Representation of the People Act (1918) when women were finally given the right to vote. It is an opportunity to see archival material about Scotland’s suffragettes and a chance to learn about & celebrate the role these notable women have played in the campaign for Votes for Women through researching, writing & illustrating Wikipedia articles & timelines (full training is provided).


Sticky Floors and Glass Ceilings

Organised by: Equate

When: 4th December, 10am – 4pm

Where: Edinburgh Napier University, Craiglockhart Campus


There is a considerable body of evidence which shows that women can encounter structural barriers to their progression in the SET professions – the glass (or sometimes concrete) ceiling. This workshop will address these issues, help you to examine your abilities and leadership potential and consider your priorities. Open to all women in working in STEM and construction.



Inspirational, strong, badass women

Women in STEM have been trailblazing for centuries and their achievements include writing the first computer program (Ada Lovelace), discovering the structure of penicillin (Dorothy Hodgkin) and discovering pulsars (Jocelyn Bell Burnell).

Therefore, on #AdaLovelaceDay we thought we would share this brilliant video by Ingenious Woman and postdoctoral researcher Alejandra Aranceta (@aranceta) highlighting the amazing scientific breakthroughs of some of those badass women in STEM who experimented, discovered and developed before us. The video is based on the Beyond Curie project, a design project that focuses on women in STEM, by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya.

The Enchantress of Numbers


“A new, a vast and powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis.”

A.A.L., 1843

The history of modern computing is filled with stories and Hollywood films about geniuses such as Alan Turing and enterprising pairs like the two Steves of Apple, but a century before any of these famous inventors were born, Ada Lovelace was burning the midnight oil to write the first ever computer program.

In a time when women were rarely given opportunities for a scientific education, Ada had the advantage of being born into an upper class family and her mother arranged for first class education for her daughter. Demonstrating a strong aptitude for mathematics early on, Ada subsequently developed an interest in machines, designing a steam powered flying machine at the age of twelve, 15 years before a similar design was patented by two engineers many years her senior. This interest in machines and mathematics was encouraged by her mother, who was also concerned that Ada might develop the madness exhibited by her father, Lord Byron, if she did not have an appropriate outlet or distraction. Byron left his family when Ada was one month old and died when she was eight; despite having an interest in her father’s poetry and life, Ada never saw him after he left.

Ada’s health was often poor, but she continued to explore mathematics and machines and was encouraged by her tutors, even if they worried sometimes that she studied too hard or thought certain mathematical problems might be beyond her;

“The very great tension of mind which they [maths problems] require is beyond the strength of a woman’s physical power of application.” – Augustus De Morgan (one of Ada’s tutors)

Ada proved him wrong.

Ada met Charles Babbage, an early pioneer of computing, in 1833, when she was 17 years old. They were introduced by the Scottish astronomer and mathematician Mary Somerville, Ada’s tutor and friend. Ada was fascinated by Babbage’s machines and worked with him on the “analytical engine”, a design for the first general purpose computer. The two became friends and Ada continued to work with Babbage on the engine. In 1842, she translated notes on one of Babbage’s lectures that were written by the Italian engineer Luigi Menabrea, expanding and correcting the document as she translated. Her additional notes on the lecture were three times longer than Menabrea’s original and in them Ada penned several computer programmes; the notes were published in Scientific Memoirs under her initials AAL in 1843 and are thought to be the first ever computer programs to be published.

Although the analytical engine was never built due to a lack of funding, the designs and work that Lovelace and Babbage pioneered influenced scientists and engineers of the 20th Century including Alan Turing, who used Lovelace’s notes when he was working at Bletchley Park in World War II. The US Department of Defense named the computer language, Ada, after Lovelace in 1980.

Ada Lovelace’s life was tragically cut short at the age of 36 when she died of cancer, but her legacy and place in history as the first programmer is now celebrated on Ada Lovelace day, an international event that celebrates the achievements of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. This year, Ada Lovelace Day (#ALD2018) will be on 9th October and a range of events will be held all over the world. At the University of Edinburgh there will be short talks, an edit-a-thon, a data hackathon, an introduction to supercomputing and Women in STEM inspired cake decorating. If you would like to attend then there are further details here.


Further reading

Charman-Anderson, S (2015) A Passion For Science: Tales of Discovery and Invention. FindingAda, 2nd edition. Amazon

Fuegi, J, Francis, J, “Lovelace & Babbage and the creation of the 1843 ‘notes’”, Annals of the History of Computing, IEEE, vol.25, no.4, pp.16-26, Oct.-Dec. 2003. Link

X-Factors, leaders & being high-potential

While listening to the radio in the car this morning , I heard that The X-Factor would be returning to our screens this weekend, marking the start of autumnal TV. I haven’t watched it since it first started, so most memories I associate with the series are fragmented, including Simon Cowell rolling his eyes frequently and performers such as Darius (or was he on Pop Idol?) crooning into the microphone, remember him?

 The reason I it stuck in my mind today is that I went to an event last week entitled “Have you got the Leadership X-Factor?” The event was presented by Gail Logan of Kore Transformation and organised by Sharon Moore MBE through the BCS Women Scotland and RBS Women networks and it was held at RBS Gogarburn just outside Edinburgh. The audience included women from large organisations such as universities, the NHS and banks, coders, team leaders and entrepreneurs.

The title was inspired by a book called The High Potential’s Advantage  by Jay A. Conger and Allan H. Church that focusses on how to be seen as a high potential leader in your organisation. As Gail highlighted during the session, most large companies have a talent list comprised of promising individuals that the company aims to develop and promote within their ranks. The list, and how to get your name on it, is usually a well kept secret: what are the criteria they are looking for in a future leader? What do they expect from people on the list already? This is where the X-factors come in.

Initial discussion in the room about the elements of inspiring leadership centered around authenticity, being visible and having a positive impact on those people around you. The session expanded to describe the five X-factors that differentiate those who make it on to the talent list:

  1. Situation sensing
  • You figure out what your boss needs from you and deliver it;
  • You understand how your boss operates so that you can be complementary and easy to manage;
  • You seek new opportunities and problems to solve, even if they are outwith the scope of your role.
  1. Talent accelerating
  • You motivate the people that work with you and manage them well, optimising your team’s performance;
  • You spot talented people and help them to develop, giving them relevant opportunities.
  1. Career piloting
  • You accept tasks that stretch you, give you broader experience and expand your skillset;
  • You are comfortable with ambiguity and ask for help to perform;
  • In pressured situations, you remain calm and help others to focus.
  1. Complexity translating
  • You are aware of how to communicate with everyone effectively at all levels of the organisation and others engage with you, no matter how complex or technical the subject matter.
  1. Catalytic learning (underpins 1 – 4)
  •  You regularly reflect on your career and how you can improve and develop.
  • You look to the future, are a lifelong learner and have a personal action plan based on your past experience.


Though these will not all necessarily apply to academic roles or entrepreneurs (who might be the creators of their own talent lists) as the book targets a more corporate setting, I found them interesting to reflect on and discuss with the other participants. In particular, complexity translating: entrepreneurs are frequently asked to communicate with customers or pitch to investors and this often requires putting together a more succinct, clear and easily understandable message; academics regularly do the same, explaining their research to a variety of audiences including undergraduates, policymakers, the public and interdisciplinary colleagues with the aim of educating, inspiring and collaborating.

With regard to X-factor 5, lifelong learning and personal action planning, this is something I’ve been thinking about more this year. Being self-employed, I find that I need to take more time to plan my own learning and development, as opportunities to do so are not necessarily as accessible as they were before. Attending events such as this is always helpful and makes me realise I should be doing this more regularly, not just for the subject but also because of the people you meet and the insightful discussions you have there.

Hopefully this short post has encouraged to think about your own X-factors. Alternatively, if it’s Darius that has stuck in your mind as you were reading, I believe you can find him performing in musicals these days…