Dr Marcia Philbin is making science more inclusive

1 Nov 2023

Dr Marcia Philbin. Image: © Richard Battye

Having been awarded an honorary doctorate at Aston University this year, Dr Marcia Philbin continues to pave the way for children from diverse backgrounds.

Science and STEM in general have long had a diversity problem and, as a black woman, Dr Marcia Philbin has seen this first-hand throughout her career.

In spite of this, her success speaks for itself. Having started as research scientist, Philbin went on to spend more than 20 years working for various agencies in the Ministry of Defence in both research and managerial roles.

In 2006, she was appointed as non-executive director of Queen Mary’s NHS Trust. In 2019 she took on her current role as chief executive the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, the UK membership body for pharmaceutical physicians.

Between 2020 and 2022 she was a member of the UK Department of Health and social care’s engagement board for the therapeutics taskforce, which was set up to review the emerging treatments for Covid-19.

‘As a black woman in a position of influence, I knew this was an opportunity to use my voice to promote diverse thinking’

And just this year, Aston University awarded Philbin with an honorary doctorate.

Her accolades are impressive, but her tenacity, ambition and hard work is no surprise when I learned about how her love of science began. “I loved science programmes like Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, Captain Scarlet Stingray and Space 1999,” she said. “However, it was Lt Uhura from Star Trek who was my heroine. She was a black woman who was a scientist and treated as an equal by her white colleagues which was at odds with what I had experienced and witnessed on TV, in newspaper, with neighbours and even at school.”

Another inspiration came from her father, who asked her one day what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I named a few jobs which were not that aspirational, so he said to me, ‘Why don’t you aim higher? You could do better than that.’ To this day, I always aim higher.”

Chemistry and healthcare

Philbin studied chemistry, physics and biology for her A-levels and focused on chemistry at university, leading to her work as a research scientist who specialised in the synthesis of functional materials.

“One of the areas I was working on was for a new type of rubber which could be recycled because rubbers are not recyclable. The aim was to use this rubber to make solid fuel for rockets and at the end of its life, break it down so that it could be recycled. You could say I was at the forefront of exploring green chemistry!”

Her current role is chief executive of the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine, which delivers postgraduate medical education to doctors who develop, regulate and deliver medicines.

But, while she took that role up in 2019, she also took another mantle during the Covid-19 pandemic – joining the engagement board of a taskforce focused on therapeutic medicines.

“I did not hesitate because it was a way for me to contribute personally at a national level to something positive to address the Covid-19 crisis. My role was to provide the perspective of our members who design, develop, regulate and deliver medicines,” she said.

“However, as a black woman in a position of influence, I knew this was an opportunity to use my voice to promote diverse thinking which took account of the views of underrepresented groups who were being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In the development of therapeutics for Covid-19, it was clear that those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds were not visible when it came to contributing to clinical trials and this was something that I made sure remained at the forefront of the discussions.”

Looking ahead, Philbin said she would like to see more capacity building in the global south, particularly countries on the African continent so that they can develop their own medicines for their specific diseases without having to rely on developed nations.

“We saw in the pandemic that those countries were last on the list to receive the vaccines so supporting them with education and training so they can have agency over their destiny is essential,” she said.

“The other big area in pharmaceutical industry is diversity in clinical trials. There is such mistrust between ethnic communities and the industry because of the unethical way companies have treated those communities in the past. We need more people from black and minority ethnic communities to take part in clinical trials to ensure that medicines being developed are representative of the communities which will use them.”

Facing prejudices

Ensuring that diverse voices are heard within the sector is something Philbin is emphatically passionate about, especially when facing stereotypes and prejudices is something she has endured all her life.

“I remember once early in my career walking across the site where I was working, wearing my lab coat and being called the N word. I received misogynist abuse from former colleagues who were clearly jealous of me judging by the bile they spewed,” she said.

“Another stand-out incident was when I was an assistant director in another organisation. I had organised a meeting with senior people, including directors, to discuss a key strategic project, which I was leading. I turned up with an administrator, who was white, entered the room and someone went straight up to the white woman and said, ‘You must be Marcia.’ And I said ‘No, I’m Marcia.’ You could see they were thinking, there’s no way this black woman could be in a senior position.”

She also recalls a time early in her career when she won an extremely prestigious grant, but was graded ‘average’ at her end-of-year review while her white male colleagues who had not achieved anything similar were graded as ‘good’.

“I complained and I was upgraded to ‘good’ even though I and others believed I should have received ‘excellent’. I learned then that being good or excellent was not good enough to receive the recognition which would go without hesitation to white people who had achieved far less.”

When she started her career at the Ministry of Defence, she was the only woman and the only black person on her team. “There is far more diversity now than when I started but more still needs to be done to help those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to aspire to careers in research and science.”

Now, Philbin is a STEM ambassador and has a particular passion for speaking at schools that have diverse populations. “I recently spoke at a secondary school with a diverse population and when I was packing my things away after my presentation, a young black boy came up to me to say how much he had enjoyed my talk; it had inspired him and he wanted to be a chemist too. It was so moving because you could see that a light had been ignited and he knew with a certainty that his dream was possible.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic