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Professor Abigail Fowden: A trailblazing career in fetal physiology

Abigail Fowden

In 1972, when Professor Abigail Fowden arrived at the University of Cambridge as an undergraduate to study biological Natural Sciences, you might assume that at the time there would have been very few women in her daily life as a science student. However, at Girton College, all her peers, her Directors of Study and most of her supervisors were women. 

“My living environment was all women during my undergraduate days. When I went off to lectures and practical classes, there were more men of course at all levels from fellow students to lecturers and demonstrators, especially in subjects like chemistry. But by the time I got to my third year, I was studying physiology with the vets and medics and we had a much more mixed population than in many other subjects.”

During her research-focused final year, Abby began exploring fetal physiology, primarily in animals. From then on, she was hooked, and knew she wanted to continue onto a PhD degree. Staying on in Cambridge with a scholarship from Girton, she began supervising NST students for College from her very first year of postgraduate study. 

Alongside teaching Abby continued with research into fetal physiology for her PhD. She began by investigating the role of insulin in fetal growth, which kick started a career-long interest in the endocrine mechanisms controlling intrauterine development and its long-term, postnatal consequences.

In the final year of her PhD, Abby took a temporary teaching position in the Department of Physiology covering for a demonstrator on a year’s research leave. When he left the Department at the end of the year, a full-time demonstrator position was advertised and she knew she had to apply. 

“In a way it was serendipity, being in the right place at the right time. But it was an extraordinary opportunity. Because I had been doing the job for a year, I was appointed to the post, even though I has only just been awarded my PhD degree. This put me firmly on the academic career track. So, for nearly 15 years, I was the only woman teaching officer in the Department.”

With a long career in academia, Abby found it difficult to identify a specific ‘career highlight’. There was obtaining her first tenure track academic position, her Doctor of Science degree, sabbatical visits to laboratories in America and Australia and working with such talented collaborators to advance perinatal physiology.  A key achievement for her has been uncovering the role of the hormones like insulin, cortisol and thyroxine in fetal development. Though commonly thought of as a stress hormone, in fetuses cortisol also acts as a signal of impending delivery and prepares many of its tissues for the new functions that they must carry out after birth, such as breathing, digestion and temperature regulation.  These discoveries have had major applications for perinatal medicine: 

“Now when a baby is likely to be delivered prematurely, doctors can administer a synthetic type of cortisol to the mother that crosses the placenta and kickstarts maturation of the fetus in preparation for birth. This improves premature babies’ chances of survival. The basic mechanistic research that we have been doing in experimental animals over the years has shown why this type of treatment is successful in improving neonatal viability."

“Equally, however, if you give those drugs too soon, or fetal cortisol levels rise early due to stressful stimuli we’ve now seen this can lead to long term adverse consequences for metabolic and cardiovascular function in later postnatal life. If a woman with threatened early labour received the drug but does not deliver, the fetus will have been switched from growing to maturation early in relation to its transition to postnatal life with potential consequences for its life-long health. It’s about finding the optimum moment of administering the synthetic hormone, or not, in clinical practise. So, we still have much more research to do.”

The clinical applications of the research go beyond human medicine. In veterinary medicine and livestock farming, the endocrine regulation of maturation before birth is just as important to neonatal survival as in human pregnancy, perhaps more so particularly in mammals carrying more than one fetus. 

“Twin lambs are very common but the cortisol signal for maturation before birth is not always well co-ordinated in the two fetuses, which results in different consequences for neonatal survival and postnatal development in the two lambs. So, we are interested in whether there are treatments that can maximise viability of the whole litter, thereby improving productivity." 

Her extensive work on these topics since her PhD studies saw Abby awarded a professorship at the Department of Physiology in 2002. And through all these years at Cambridge, she has remained affiliated to Girton.

“I originally applied to one of the three Colleges taking both men and women undergraduates for the first time. Girton selected me from the pool so I’ve remained loyal to the College since then because they gave me that chance back in 1972. When I got my first full-time tenured position in the University many colleges had gone or were going mixed and were trying to recruit women Fellows, but I didn’t move. Since Girton became mixed, I think it’s one of the only colleges that has committed to being truly gender balanced – in terms of undergraduates, postgraduates, and Fellows.”

After achieving many career highlights, Abby is now semi-retired, giving her more time to mentor women in earlier stages of scientific careers, and to think about the challenges this next generation of women in science face:

“I'd like to see more women progressing through the academic career structure. It is happening, but you have to be extremely driven to make it through the system to the top. In fact, in some ways it's getting harder than it was when I started along the career track. You now need a good track record of publications, grants and of well received teaching at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels to progress up the career ladder. The job is not as well paid in relation to other professional careers as it was 20 or 30 years ago, particularly at the junior levels. Plus, you may be trying to fit all this activity around having a family as well. So, good time management skills as well as drive are needed for a scientific career in academia in the current competitive environment.”

For her, there are also challenges in the earlier stages of education to be tackled, particularly when pupils in school are choosing their GCSE and A Level subjects. 

“To ensure more women and girls keep the option of science open, I think we ought to broaden our education system up to the age of 18. By that age most people have an idea of their strengths, but delaying the need to specialise and offering students a more diverse curriculum for longer seems like a good approach to ensuring a better gender balance by discipline in later life.” 

This feature was part of International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2024.