Joanna Watson

I had a fantastic time at Glastonbury and came back to an amazing surprise. Thanks everyone that voted for me!!! I'm really looking forward to working on the lesson packs now.

Favourite Thing: Learning (and doing) new things all the time.



Thurston Upper School, Suffolk (1995-1997) and Tynemouth College, Tyne and Wear (1997-1999)


University College London – Immunology (1999-2002); Imperial College London – Masters in Epidemiology (2003-2004); University of Oxford – DPhil in Cancer Epidemiology (2004-2010)

Work History:

I got my first summer job when I was 15 (working in a factory putting meat into the plastic packets you get in supermarkets). Since then I’ve been a barmaid, worked in factories and shops, worked in a betting shop, been a medical secretary, a personal assistant, worked in marketing for 20th Century Fox videos and DVDs and even spent a couple of months working for the NHS on a project based in Brixton Prison.


Oxford University

Current Job:


Me and my work

I try to work out why some people are more likely to get cancer than others.

I work as an epidemiologist at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit in Oxford.

What is cancer epidemiology?

Epidemiology is a way of using real life data, from real people (usually living their normal lives) to work out what diseases they get and why they get them – and then to work out what we can do about it. The basics of epidemiology are all about statistics, but because it can be applied to a huge range of subjects (for example, finding the source of an outbreak of food poisoning, predicting flu outbreaks, finding the causes of diabetes, testing ways to help people stop smoking…) loads of other types of science can be involved too (psychology, sociology, demography, molecular biology…).

In cancer epidemiology we are usually trying to find out what makes some people more likely than others to get a certain cancer. For example, we might compare the risk of breast cancer between people who drink lots of alcohol and people who drink little or no alcohol.

About my job

There are two main parts to my job. One part of my job is to help set up a new study where we are sending questionnaires out to people who have been invited to take part in screening for bowel cancer. The other part is what you might call the “real science” where I analyse data about things that might affect your risk of cancer. Both parts are important to getting the results in the end though!

What I love about having two parts to my job is the amount of variety there is in my work. One day I might be sitting at my computer all day puzzling over some statistics, and then the next day I might be visiting the factory where our questionnaires are printed.

As well as needing to know about epidemiology and statistics, I have had to learn how to use desktop publishing software to design the questionnaires, worked with a printing company to get the questionnaires printed and mailed and with the bowel cancer screening service to make sure the questionnaires went to the right people. I even help with the finances for the study.

So far I have mostly worked on bowel (colorectal) cancer, but I am just starting to do some work on breast cancer too. When we are trying to work out what affects people’s risk of cancer we use information either from questionnaires or from medical records. I use some computer software that is specially designed for doing statistics (it’s called STATA) and often have to get help from statisticians to make sure that I’m doing everything right.

My Typical Day

I spend most of my time working on my computer or in meetings.

I usually start work between 9.30 and 10 in the morning and finish work at about 6pm. I’m not a morning person, so I have to drag myself out of bed! Then I throw some clothes on, have some toast and tea and walk (for about 10 minutes) to the office.

When I get to my desk I reply to any new emails before plan the rest of my day. I’m usually working on several different projects at a time, so my day can be quite variable. Most days I will have meetings with my boss or others in the office to talk about what we’ve just done, or what to do next. I also spend some time reading the results of research that other people have done or looking things up on the internet – there’s a really great database with nearly all of the medicine related scientific papers published since the 1960s which is soooo useful. Quite a lot of my day will be taken up with working with data, running analyses, drawing graphs and trying to work out what the results mean – and then I have to do the bit which I don’t like very much, which is writing the results up as a journal article.

Keep an eye on my status updates and you’ll get an idea of what I’m up to…



Lots of people have asked about where I work, so here is a picture of my office, and my messy desk:


What I'd do with the money

Help people understand the science (especially results from medical studies) in the news?

I’d really like to produce some materials which can be used in schools for lessons about understanding the results of medical research that are published in the news and quite a few of you have said you like the idea, so that’s what I would do with the money.

It would be good to have a mini conference where I work with scientists from around Oxford University talking to school students about their work but that would cost more than £500, so when this competition is over and I get some free time I think I will talk to some of the University people to find out whether there is any way to raise the money and get it organised.

It’s been great to hear your views about what you think should be done with the money.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Bouncy, inquisitive and resourceful.

Who is your favourite singer or band?

That’s just too difficult! Can’t I choose my favourite film or book or something? I love *LOADS* of bands, but my favourites are probably Ash or Belle & Sebastian. Oops, nearly forgot – I like We Are Scientists too :-)

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Going whale watching off the coast of California.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

My first wish would be to be able to arrive in any place in the world without having to travel there. I love visiting new places and meeting up with friends, but hate travelling. My second wish would be to have a horse and enough money to look after it. My third wish would be to have a garden so that I could sit outside and have BBQs in the summer.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A horse vet.

Were you ever in trouble at school?

All the time! I was always being told off for talking too much and distracting others in my class. I was never in big trouble though.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

Getting my first paper published!

Tell us a joke.

Two fish in a tank. One says to the other one “How do you drive this thing?”