Sarah Martins Da SilvaSenior Lecturer in Reproductive Medicine and Honorary Consultant Gynaecologist
Sarah Martins da Silva is a Senior Lecturer in Reproductive Medicine and Honorary Consultant Gynaecologist within the School of Medicine. She’s originally from Cambridge, but studied at the University of Edinburgh – she’s lived in Scotland since 1990, and currently lives in Perth. In 2019 Sarah was included in the BBC’s 100 most inspirational and influential women in the world.
What is your role at the University? I run a translational research programme focussed around sperm biology, drug discovery and male infertility. Our research spans from basic science studies trying to find the answers to fundamental questions about how a sperm works and why they don’t (from both a fertility and male contraception perspective) through to clinical studies and randomised controlled trials. I’m also part of teaching faculty for MSc in Human Clinical Embryology and Assisted Conception. I’m a big advocate for women in STEM and part of the School of Medicine ATHENA swan group. I’m also part of SoM commercialisation group and university representative for TASC (NHS R&D) training committee.
So, what does that mean for your day-to-day duties? My time is split 50/50 between university research and teaching and the NHS. I am a consultant gynaecologist based in Ninewells Assisted Conception Unit. I love what I do, not least because no two days are the same. Our research group uses computer systems and AI to track sperm swimming, we measure intracellular calcium, PLC zeta expression, acrosome reaction and even study ion channel activity (electrophysiology) in single sperm. Clearly some of the technical lab skills are beyond me, but the collaboration between NHS Tayside and University of Dundee is our USP, because most of the research uses patient samples surplus to requirements on the day of fertility treatment so we can correlate our findings with real-time clinical and embryology data.
What gives you satisfaction in your work? Driving discovery, understanding and knowledge. Inspiring others.
There must be some challenges – how do you face them? Too much to do and too little time to do it.
What’s the best thing about your work? Making a real difference to patients – and using science and research to achieve that. It’s also amazing, and really humbling, how many patients consent and participate in our studies, often without obvious benefit except to advance science.
And the hardest? Finding out that an application for funding has been unsuccessful can be really hard. It’s never easy to fail. I don’t have any good tips about how to deal with it, except to say that it’s fine to be upset – for a bit. The path to success can be littered with setbacks. There’s always an opportunity to learn from failure. You just can’t give up.
How has the current lockdown/work from home situation affected what you do? The last 12 months have been pretty mad and the first lockdown situation unprecedented. As a medic, it was terrifying. We didn’t know what was coming and almost all gynaecology clinics and operating lists were cancelled in preparation for the worst. Fertility services and IVF were suspended. My research stopped. And my time was initially focussed on PPE donning and doffing training, reskilling in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, as well as creating parallel services for red (covid) and green (non-covid) pregnancy and gynaecology care. We did what needed to be done, but I really lost my sense of identity and purpose in those few months. It was hard. Really hard.
But after a few months fertility services reopened, my research group got back up and running and teaching online became the new normal. I guess it took time for us all to see the possibilities instead of being defeated by the situation.
Have you found working from home to be more or less effective in terms of work delivery and the job that you do? I’ve only been reliably working from home since New Year. Usually 2 days per week. I start much earlier (7.30am) but take a proper lunchbreak and get out to walk the dog and have lunch with my home-schooling teenagers. Obviously I have to be in Ninewells for clinics, theatres etc but I find that I can be more focussed (and there’s definitely less interruptions) working from home. It’s a pretty good hybrid of a working week. Our lab group meets online every week for Journal club (Tuesdays) and coffee chat (Fridays) to stay in touch.
How have the needs and demands of students changed and what are you doing that is notably different from normal in the current situation? I prefer live teaching (online) to pre-recorded but have tried a bit of both, as well as webinars and podcasts. This semester I’m meeting my MSc students every week for one-to-one project supervision. I also meet with my PhD student every fortnight, which works well. TEAMS makes things very easy. I’m not such a fan of blackboard, but I think Mentimeter is great! Sometimes I think we’re so lucky to have all this technology. But other days I can be absolutely exhausted and overwhelmed from back-to-back teaching and meetings! I’m sure I’m not alone. And I really feel for our students. But although online learning is imperfect, I have been really impressed with engagement from both medical undergraduate and postgrad students during this time.
Has there been a particular support? Thankfully there’s a lot of practical help and support online (how to record a PPT voice over etc) as well as helpful PIs!.
Is there anything new within the current situation that you hope will continue after we return to campus? Academia accounted for a big carbon footprint pre-covid. We’ve learnt to conduct effective meetings online, broadcast webinar educational events and virtual conferences. It would be really good if that could continue, some of the time, after full return to campus.
Do you miss the campus you work on? I’ve been in Ninewells and on campus most of the time, but I do miss face-to-face lab group discussions.
Campus hotspot? Ninewells!
Is there someone at the University who inspires you? Doreen Cantrell. She’s super-clever, a formidable scientist, an inspirational role model and yet genuinely kind and encouraging.
How would you describe the University of Dundee to someone who doesn’t know it? International yet proudly Scottish. Historic yet forward-thinking. Eclectic yet tenacious.
What do you do outside of work? Home life is really important to me. I am the proud owner of three teenagers (one at University of Edinburgh), a lovely husband and a black Labrador! I’m pretty fit and active. Most weekends are occupied by dog walks, cycling and perhaps a bit of gardening. I’m also an avid sports fan – particularly rugby, formula one racing and cricket. I would normally watch school/Perthshire rugby if I’m not working weekends. I’ve missed that a lot with lockdown.
Tell us something we don’t know about you? I played the bass guitar in a funk ceilidh band when I was a medical student.
Who would you invite to a dinner party? Michelle Obama, Julie Walters, Kevin Bridges and Simon Pegg,
Why Dundee? Scottish universities have a strong portfolio of reproduction research but Dundee is the place to be for male reproduction research. I wouldn’t be anywhere else!