Hephzi Tagoe has spent her career alternating between academia and industry, with a healthy dose of science outreach on the side. After earning her undergraduate degree in biomedical science, she worked for a couple of biotechnology companies before completing a Master’s in pharmaceutical studies at Kingston University, London. She then returned to industry, working first at Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable then Abbott Diagnostics. Hephzi knew she wanted to pursue active research so, on the advice of her colleagues, she applied for PhDs. She started her PhD in Immunology at the University College London’s Institute of Child Health before moving to the Blizard Institute at Queen Mary University of London for her final year. She wanted to focus on something that could be translated into health care therapies, which led her to specialize in skin biology.
She researches a dermatological condition called Ichthyosis which causes severely dry and scaly skin. She’s using it as a model to identify the signalling mechanisms that lead to hyperkeratosis (a build-up of dry scales) in skin diseases more generally. She has identified two transcription factors that may play a role in in the signalling pathway that causes skin scaling. Charting this pathway in relation to other known factors is a significant step towards identifying treatment targets. If the signalling mechanisms that lead to scaling can be identified, targeted therapies (or even a cure) can be developed to improve the quality of life of skin disease patients.
Outside of the lab, Hephzi loves communicating her research to non-science audiences to give them confidence in science by helping them understand the potential impact her work. Outreach doesn’t just benefit the public, Hephzi strongly believes that these activities make her a better scientist. On more than one occasion she’s been asked a question during an outreach event that led her to investigate a new area of her research that she hasn’t considered before. It has improved her presentation and communication skills, which come in handy at academic conferences and networking events.
Hephzi is especially passionate about supporting women in STEM. “It is not a case of getting more young women involved in research, but rather retaining more young women in STEM research,” she says. “What we need are incentives to retain these young women.” Hephzi believes that the academic community needs to put better systems in place to support early career female researchers, particularly when it comes to maternity leave and child care. She had her first child while working in industry and her second while in academia. The two experiences were very different and she found that the non-academic community was more supportive of her and other women in STEM than the academic community. Hephzi feels this is an area that needs to be addressed to encourage more female researchers to move through the academic pipeline. “If the right work-family life balance is provided without women being penalized, I believe we will soon notice a shift in the numbers,” she adds.
She’s involved with several science outreach organizations that promote public communication of science and women in STEM. Her involvement is influenced by her own experiences and her belief in giving back. She is the leader of the Essex chapter of ScienceGrrl, which has helped her connect with other female researchers in her region. She also volunteers for Sense about Science as part of their Voice of Young Scientists program. In 2014, Hephzi used the outreach and public engagement skills she homed in the UK to give back to her home country of Ghana. She co-founded GhScientific to advance STEM through outreach and public engagement activities in Ghana. GhScientific is the voice of Ghana’s scientific community and helps scientists connect their research to the community. “Through my work, I can mentor and encourage other young girls, particularly those from the Black community, to be inspired and have confidence in their ability,” says Hephzi.