‘Girls can do anything’

Insightful: Prof Lee introducing Prof Clarke to the audience.

Crediting a “privileged” upbringing in a Welsh mining community for her success, Prof Dr Jane Clarke said she was raised by parents who made “me believe that I could do anything”.

Speaking at a school recently, the Wolfson College president shared with her young audience how she was one of the most privileged people they would see.

“Of course, privilege often means you’ve got money and all sorts of resources but that was not the privilege I had.

“I had the privilege to be born into a family which believes that education is the most important gift you could give a child.

“It was the means by which their children would not have to go down the mines and live the difficult, deprived lives that they had led,” she recalled at a talk in Sunway University last month.

It was quite peculiar for the scientist and former teacher when she got out into the real world and realised that people didn’t think that girls could do things.

“I went to an all girls secondary school. My mother was the first of all the families (in our community) to go to university during the Second World War.

“She was a scientist who taught me to be curious.

“So when I went into the real world, I thought, ‘Of course we can do anything’.

“Mum was my inspiration.”

Lifelong learning

When Prof Clarke embarked on her PhD at age 40, she was told that she was too old and as a mother of two, that could prove distracting.

This despite her having a first class honours degree, a 4.0 GPA from Georgia Tech, United States, and a published paper.

“Somebody asked, ‘Who will look after your children?’ and I replied, ‘You have to suppose I’ve thought about it, and it’s none of your business’.”

It was her late mother’s voice that she heard saying, “Are you going to let them get away with that? Come on, Jane?”

A move back to the United Kingdom led her to the University of Cambridge and the rest is “her-story” (pun absolutely intended).

“When women don’t do well, we’re judged more harshly (than men).

“I hate it when one woman gives a bad lecture, and students say, ‘Women are lousy lecturers.’

“When it’s a man, they say, ‘Dr Smith gives lousy lectures.’

“People used to say that you’d only succeed as a woman if you behaved like a man but now you are allowed to be a woman and lead. You’re allowed to paint your nails and still be a serious scientist.”

At 73, she cites the college’s students as her inspiration to work harder, to do better and to create an environment which will enable them to thrive.

Wolfson, a constituent college of the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, she said, specialises in the return to learning.

“We have students from 99 different countries.

“All our undergraduates are over the age of 21. Some of our oldest undergraduates are in the 60s.

“How many 73-year-olds get to wake up every day and be challenged.

“These students don’t let you get away with anything, they’ll push you and tell you they disagree with you.”

Describing herself as a teacher at heart, Prof Clarke said there is no job that is more important.

“I can’t imagine a more important job than rewarding curiosity and encouraging investigation.”

Top traits


Let people you work with have their own successes. Give them opportunities to thrive in a way that doesn’t benefit you personally.

Learn from good leaders

Pay attention to what worked for you and what was helpful to you.

Realise your weaknesses

If there are areas where you don’t have the expertise, you need the confidence as a leader to say “I don’t know how to do it”. If a leader knows all the answers, they’re going to demoralise everybody who works with them. People “who know best” are never the best leaders.

About the president

Prof Dr Jane Clarke is the president of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. She started her PhD at the age of 40 with Prof Sir Alan Fersht in Cambridge, after teaching for several years.

She did a post-doc in biological NMR and was made a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in 1997. She was elected a Fellow of the National Academy of Medical Sciences in 2013 and a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2015. She was elected a Fellow of the American Biophysical Society and awarded the prestigious Stein and Moore Award of the Protein Society in 2016.

A professor of molecular biophysics in the Chemistry Department of the University of Cambridge prior to heading Wolfson, the biophysical chemist managed a diverse, multidisciplinary and multinational research team for two decades. She has a particular interest in widening participation in education in general and science in particular. A member of the Royal Society’s Education and Diversity committees, and of the Wellcome Trust Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee, she has worked extensively to encourage young women to stay in science as so many talented women are lost at the stage where they move between post-doctoral and faculty positions.

Prof Clarke was in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 29 to present a talk as part of the Sunway Education Inclusive Leadership Series (SEILS), organised in collaboration with the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (ASLI) and Sunway University.

Supported by the Oxford and Cambridge Alumni Society of Malaysia (Oxbridge Malaysia) and the UK Women Alumni (UKWA), the session, moderated by Sunway Education group CEO and Wolfson College Honorary Fellow Prof Datuk Elizabeth Lee, provided a platform for insightful discussions on science, leadership and mentorship.

‘What’s a good leader’

“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then you are an excellent leader.”

That quote by country music legend Dolly Parton is one of the best definitions of leadership, said Prof Dr Jane Clarke.

Leaders are not here for their own achievements. They’re there to bring out the best in everybody else.

“In my chemistry department, I have chemists, biologists, biochemists, physicists, computer scientists, engineers, and every single one of them was an expert in something and my role as a leader was to get the team to work together to bring all their respective areas of expertise to find solutions.”

Mentorship, coaching and sponsorship

A supervisor is your boss who pays you, and tells you how good your work is. They’re not necessarily your mentor, Prof Clarke stressed.

Unlike short-term coaching to give those stepping into a higher echelon of leadership skills they do not possess, mentorship is about supporting people to learn and to grow into the role they’re in.

At the heart of it is to develop their skills and confidence, to help them to think about their career trajectory, and to support them when they hit a barrier, she added.

“The driver of that relationship should be the mentee but you have to click. I’ve had mentees who saw me once and never got in touch for a second meeting.

“Maybe they didn’t like me and that’s okay. I wasn’t giving them what they wanted and they shouldn’t feel obligated to come back just to make me feel good.”

In a good mentoring relationship, mentees have to trust your insights because there will be times when you’ll need to say things which are a bit harsh and have difficult conversations with them, she said.

Prof Clarke, however, is anti sponsors, describing sponsorship as an old-boy network.

“Traditional sponsorship is to say, ‘You should give this person a job because I know him or her.’

“It’s what has held women back for decades and we shouldn’t be replacing an old boy network with an old girl network because it perpetuates privilege and excludes minorities.

“One form of sponsorship I like is when people nominate others for prizes. In such a situation, the nominee must list the reasons they are suited for a prize and I will sign the nomination. So if they win, it’s not because of me but because they are truly deserving –it’s evidence-based,” she said.

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