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Christ Church Women in Science: Sam Giles

Written by Sam Giles and Eleanor Sanger, posted on Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sam GilesDr Sam Giles is a Junior Research Fellow in Biological Sciences at Christ Church. She uses fossil data to understand the evolution of modern groups of vertebrates. You can find out more about her on her Christ Church website profile.

Tell us a bit about your work, and some of your proudest achievements

I use an innovative technique called computing tomography (CT scanning). This uses x-rays to build up a three-dimensional picture of the internal features of animals – both living and extinct. These techniques have only been developed in the last couple of decades, and have only become widely accessible in the last few years. This allows me to understand internal features (such as the brain) of fossil fishes, and reveal novel aspects of their anatomy. My work has led to new discoveries about some of the earliest animals with jaws, as well as the evolution of a group of fishes that includes half of all living vertebrates (animals with backbones). I also get to do fieldwork, searching for fossils in amazing places such as Mongolia. 

What inspired you to study science?

I have been interested in science since I was a child – I have always loved finding out how things work. At school, my favourite subject was geography because it explained how the things we see in the world around us formed, how they have changed in the past and will continue to change in the future. I had a great teacher who was very enthusiastic and encouraged me to pursue geography and geology through college and university.

What is your favourite thing about the work you do?

My favourite thing about science is making new discoveries: I find it fascinating to understand how animals that were alive hundreds of millions of years ago interacted with their environment. I might be the first person to understand the structure of the brain in a 400-million-year-old fish, or work out how a set of living and extinct animals are related to each other, or discover a new species. Because I find my work so exciting I love to communicate it to other people, whether that’s undergraduates who are studying for a degree in the subject or school children who are just starting to explore science.

What advice would you give to girls considering studying science?

Getting into science as a woman is hard, and staying in is even harder. Through my career, I’ve experienced a handful of people who have directly told me that women can’t do science, as well as a huge amount of indirect discouragement. Girls are discouraged from pursuing interests in science from childhood, and this has major downstream effects in minimizing the number of women scientists who hold senior positions or sit on committees and panels. In turn, this means that women in science are less visible to the public (including girls and young women), perpetuating the idea that women aren’t good at science. My interest in science started when I was a child, but girls are discouraged from being good at science from an early age – so many of those who are interested disengage and stop participating. I loved reading science books and carrying out experiments – things that are typically marketed towards boys. I was lucky that I had some teachers who encouraged me to pursue my interests. The only way to resolve these challenges is to prove them wrong!


Sam has had a paper published in the international scientific journal Nature, and in 2017 was awarded a prestigious Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship by the Royal Society for the period October 2017 to September 2022. She was also awarded a 2017 L'Oreal-UNESCO International Rising Talent Fellowship for her work on examining vertebrates' braincases to find out more about their evolution. The prestigious Fellowship is awarded annually to fifteen of the most promising female scientists from around the world.