This Cambridge Life

The microbiologist who cultured a strange and beautiful career

Dr Miriam Lynn by Nick Saffell

Dr Miriam Lynn by Nick Saffell

Dr Miriam Lynn heads up Cambridge University’s Equality and Diversity team. She describes what led her from a love for microbes to discovering she had a knack for talking to people – and why she is passionate about making everyone feel at home.

I asked my teacher how to spell kneidlach she replied: “I don’t know – just make it up.” I was seven or eight at the time and had just returned to school after the Easter break. We’d been asked to write about our holiday and while my classmates were writing about Easter-egg-hunts, I wanted to write about the Passover, which I’d recently celebrated with the Jewish side of my family. 

That experience had such a profound impact on me. My teacher’s disregard for my question felt like a disregard of my heritage. Still to this day I think what an amazing opportunity she missed to talk about diversity, inclusion, beliefs, religions and the world. This happened in a primary school in North Wales in 1978, but similar scenarios may still be happening up and down the country today. 

The importance of equality and education was instilled in me from a young age by my parents. My mother in particular was a great advocate of women in STEM. I decided to study microbiology and, after I completed my degree, studying for a PhD felt like the next natural step.  

I began volunteering for a non-profit organisation supporting people living with HIV and AIDS in the 1990s when I was a postgraduate in microbiology. At the time combination drugs were not yet available and people were dying from AIDS-related diseases. As a microbiologist I had a good understanding of viruses and wanted to help if I could. 

In fact I realised that I got so much more enjoyment from working with people than doing bench science. I found that I was able to explain viral transmission in a way that was easy for those supporting people with AIDS to understand and to break down stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS through training.  

This experience ended up kick-starting a new chapter in my life. I decided to take a course in public health and health promotion. I went on to work for a local authority where I put programmes in place to train social workers to help prevent looked-after-children having teenage pregnancies or becoming involved with substance misuse. 

Later I moved into the voluntary sector, working for an arts organisation that enabled the voices of vulnerable people to be heard. Our programme members included individuals who are often overlooked – mental health service users, disabled people and children in care. In time I became Creative Director, managing millions of pounds worth of budget and travelling hundreds of miles a week.

And then, quite suddenly, I became seriously ill. I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and began an ongoing course of treatment to manage my symptoms. For the past 12 years I’ve been receiving excellent care from the incredible staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

As I adjusted to a new pace of life, I realised that I couldn’t return to my previous hectic work life and responsibilities. I began working for a local charity called the Kite Trust who support LGBT+ young people. I stayed for almost ten years, becoming manager of the Youth Service Wing.

Today, I head up the Equality and Diversity team at the University. Our goal is that everyone working or studying here is treated fairly and feels they belong. We run initiatives, events and training courses designed to promote inclusivity. We also oversee the institutional Athena SWAN Charter which focuses on gender equality, and the Race Equality Charter for which we’ve recently received a bronze award.  

Equality and diversity shouldn’t be a tick-box exercise or seen as an extra that’s just ‘nice to have’ – it’s essential. We must take inclusion seriously – not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because we will all be culturally and societally richer as a result.  

We are a small and powerful team however we can’t create widespread change on our own. Everyone needs to recognise that they have a part to play in shaping an environment that is fair. This will only happen when people realise why biases exist and what to look out for. Inclusivity can be influenced by something as subtle as the wording on an application form, to something as overt as who is chosen to sit on important decision-making committees.

February marks LGBTQ+ History Month. While Cambridge is generally considered a safe place to be out, we know that many students and staff at the University do not feel that they can refer to their sexuality for fear of prejudice. 

Flying the LGBTQ+ flag over the Old Schools, the administrative centre of the University, was a simple yet hugely significant statement. It was the result of staff, students and academics coming together to ask for the flag to be flown from the heart of the University, and endorsed at the highest level, sending a clear message: “you are welcome here.” 

I always think I’ve had the strangest but most beautiful career. Looking back, I can see how all those pieces of the jigsaw made me who I am today, and how the disregard of a teacher set me on a path to regarding difference as something both vulnerable and incredibly precious.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series, which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Cooks, gardeners, students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.

Words by Charis Goodyear. Photography by Nick Saffell.