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Life lessons: Professor Sian Harding

It’s been 12 months since Sian Harding hung up her lab coat.

The emeritus professor of cardiac pharmacology, who led the cardiovascular division of the National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI) at Imperial College London and the British Heart Foundation Centre for Cardiac Regeneration, retired last April following an illustrious career spanning more than 40 years.

To mark this first anniversary, Hospital Healthcare Europe caught up with the cardiac scientist to reflect on her career, the hurdles she overcame as a young graduate in a profession largely dominated by men and her top tips for female scientists hoping to follow in her footsteps.

At what age did you know you wanted to become a scientist?

I remember being at primary school and one of the dinner ladies asked what I wanted to do for a living. “Cut up dead bodies,” was my reply as I was being mischievous. I knew I wanted to do something with biology, but I didn’t want to be a doctor. I used to read encyclopaedias when I was eight or nine.

Were you born into a family of scientists?

No, both my parents were artists. My mother went to Saint Martin’s School of Art in London and studied fashion. She met my father who was at the Guildford School of Art, and he later became a photographer. He had an element of scientific thinking in terms of focusing and lenses and would talk to me about that. I was desperate for a chemistry set, which he bought for me, along with a microscope and a telescope. He indulged all my whims.

You obtained a PhD in pharmacology from King’s College London in 1981 before joining the Cardiothoracic Institute – now NHLI. How hard was it for women to break into the field of heart science back then?

When I was younger, it was not quite so normal for women to go into science. When I applied to Oxbridge there was only one place out of five for women; the rest were earmarked for men. Similarly, I got married at 18 and the college I applied to did not take married women. I thought I would not tell them and would apply and try and get in. I passed the exam but did not get a place, however I was very happy to go to King’s so it was not too much of a problem.

What challenges did you come across as a female cardiac researcher?

I’m quite capable of defending myself, and I’m not easily bullied, but it was mostly being ignored and underestimated at every turn. It wasn’t until later in my career – probably in my fifties – that I was in positions of authority.

As well as her work at Imperial and the British Heart Foundation, Professor Harding has held roles including past president of the European Section of the International Society for Heart Research, special advisor to the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee on Regenerative Medicine, fellow of the AHA, ESC and ISHR, and she was also on the board of the British Society for Gene and Cell Therapy. Professor Harding was also named scientific PI for the UK’s first clinical trial on myocardial gene therapy.

Your primary work focus was the cardiomyocyte function in the failing heart, which then extended to gene therapy to modulate cardiomyocyte function. Most recently, you investigated the characterisation of cardiomyocytes derived from embryonic stem cells and their use in cardiac repair, tissue engineering and drug discovery. It is quite an achievement. What has been your proudest moment?

Perhaps the insight that came to me like a eureka moment in 2013 – that beta blockers were not just blockers but also involved in activating protective pathways.

Also, learning how to make cardiomyocytes from human skin samples. One of the problems with cardiomyocytes [cells responsible for the contraction of the heart] is that when they are outside of the adult heart, they lose that stimulation and start to atrophy and decay. You can only keep them for a couple of days in petri dishes to study them. 

Now, we can make human cardiac cells – genetically matched to the donor – by taking a tiny biopsy of skin and converting that to stem cells. They can then be induced to develop into beating cardiomyocytes by growth factors that would be present in the early embryo. 

In the lab we would make billions of these cells, which can form contracting sheets of engineered heart tissue, that would beat away in the dish for a year. We even had birthday parties for them! 

Potentially, they could be transplanted back into the donor. There are a couple of very early trials of this now, so that has been amazing. These can also be used as a model system to show faulty genes and have the same abnormalities in beating as a patient’s own heart. Drugs could then be tested on these cells in the petri dish.

How do you think the culture and attitude to women in the speciality have evolved over the years?

Men are extremely happy to have a lab full of women who are great workers and very cooperative, but there is always a point when those women try to become independent. It can be difficult for women in the lab to establish their work and be recognised for what they have done, not just an appendage of their previous mentor or boss.

We try to reduce institutional barriers to that. Still, the habits, especially of older males, to think of people like themselves when they’re considering who to promote or who to get onto a committee or who is going to get a grant is very ingrained. If you don’t keep pushing at it, they’ll just relapse and choose of the first person they can think of – often a man.

What advice would you give young women hoping to have a career in science?

Pay attention not only to science but also to your career. Make sure you’re asking about the fellowships and pushing for the next stage when trying to get on the academic ladder or working in biotech.

Turn up to corporate events and things like evening receptions when someone is leaving. Just be around. When my daughter went to college, we moved closer to my work and I started doing more things. If people have seen you and understand you, they are more likely to think of you when they need someone.

Get onto committees – the way to do that is by being interested in the institution you are in. Understand your institution’s goals and nuts and bolts and match your behaviours to those.

Start on a small committee. If you show the right behaviour – that you can work in that environment, that you’re reliable and you understand what you’re supposed to be doing – then you’ll get on other bigger committees and important people will think you’re important because you’re on the same committee as them. They will have seen you operating. You don’t have to be a genius; you just have to do things properly, and then you’ll get into that world and work your way up.

Also, be around and informed. If you can introduce your institution or department to a person they could recruit, or a potential source of income, you will gain the attention of the committee or people in the higher echelons for being an interesting and useful person to know.

What do you do personally to protect your heart health?

I’m still too big, really. I always have been, unfortunately. I do 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week. I’ve got an exercise bike and I lift weights – resistance, rather than pumping iron – do intermittent fasting and try to look after my gut health by eating fermented foods.

A few years ago, my cholesterol was creeping up and I took statins as soon as I could. I was told I didn’t need to go on them, but I think statins are good drugs – much more effective at lowering cholesterol than any lifestyle intervention you can do. Plus, they have other effects on blood vessel health over and above the cholesterol. I had pre-eclampsia when I was pregnant, so I have been on blood pressure tablets all my adult life.

Are you organised, and do you have a routine?

For any given day I’ve got Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. I don’t always tell my husband how finely planned everything is to avoid alarming him.

How have you been enjoying your retirement?

I published my book, The Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the Heart in September 2022. As a scientist, you must write in a very specific controlled way, you can’t use vivid language, and I wanted to learn how to write differently. I started it the year before Covid arrived, though publishing became slow during the pandemic with bookshops closed. 

I’ve also gone back to my roots. As mentioned, my parents were artists, so I’ve been messing about taking several art courses on colour composition and painting. I thought I’d choose the easy one first – acrylic paint. It’s been very enjoyable. I was inspired by the Grayson Perry Art Club. You don’t have to be good at art to do it! 

Explore the latest advances in clinical care, delivered by renowned experts from recognised Centres of Excellence, at the HHE Clinical Excellence in Cardiovascular Care event on 10 May 2023. Find out more and register for free here.

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