Women in Digital: Dr Laura Gilbert

Dr Laura Gilbert shares her journey from bully nuns to becoming chief analyst, director of data science at 10 Downing Street, via finance and firebreathing.

Posted 5 December 2022 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?

Hmm. I loved learning. We came back from Brunei when I was about seven and it was an immense shock. I remember we used to get Christmas cards from England when we were out there with snowfall depicted as balls of white falling from the sky, and I was very surprised the first time I saw it in real life. We arrived part way through the academic year and my parents struggled to find a school that would take us, so my younger sister Cassandra and I went to a catholic convent junior school. The children were all very rich and cool and a lot had famous parents, and they had mostly had their first holy communions. We hadn’t and couldn’t take communion so we were strangely singled out and came under ‘nunly’ pressure to conform. The school wasn’t known for its academic standards. I didn’t really know how to relate to the other girls, I didn’t have any designer gear and I didn’t watch Neighbours so I was wildly unpopular. I remember one of the nuns used to hit us on the back of the legs with a ruler as we went past.

My parents didn’t really know whether my sister and I were bright, but had been told it was a “caring school”. It became clear that it wasn’t all that caring, and I was very, very bored (I was once punished for doing too much maths homework), so at secondary they moved us both to a highly academically selective school where I gained a music scholarship, and my parents were very surprised that I and my sister were among the highest achievers there. Everyone still hated me though, I was a “swot” and was very badly bullied, particularly by the self-titled “Awesome Foursome” (shoutout to them wherever they are, they shaped my character for better or worse). I really loved suddenly having challenging work and feeling a sense of achievement in it (in retrospect – “swot” was probably fair) but spent most of my school time vaguely terrified and eating lunch alone under some stairs, or sometimes with a couple of other unpopular girls.

Then I went to university and found my tribe – midnight maths parties; playing Mao with that one dude who had to make everything about prime factors with everyone else throwing crisps at him; Nutty Earnest cocktails; dodging the chap who insisted on travelling to lectures on a unicycle and was a complete menace with it, and nobody was interested in Neighbours or even had a TV. It was absolutely transformational. People like me who liked me was a revelation.

What qualifications do you have?

Undergraduate Bachelors in Natural Sciences and Master of Science from University of Cambridge; Doctor of Philosophy in Particle Physics and Grid Computing from University of Cambridge; Fellow of the Institute of Physics; a range of musical qualifications; Moniteur level instructor in Savate Kickboxing (people don’t bully me anymore; I also ranked 3rd in Europe and 4th in the world as a middleweight).

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road or a combination of both?

A rollercoaster I think. It’s been absolutely fascinating. I was briefly bored (three years in finance had its slow days). But otherwise it’s been really very challenging and just incredibly interesting. After undergraduate I went briefly into the MOD as an intelligence analyst, then I went back to university, did my doctorate whilst holding down a range of side jobs (one of which gave me a free college room, where I hid my pet meerkat Jack from the authorities), and stayed on as a postdoctoral researcher. In 2009 there was a huge funding cut and a lot of early career researchers lost their jobs. I was offered a post at Fermilab with a bursary of $800 a month (about £400) and a free room in a student dormitory in Chicago, and was told I was one of the lucky ones. I realised that the part I loved most about the work was undergraduate teaching and I wouldn’t be able to do that, and I wanted to build a family life, so instead I went into finance for three years.

I worked in hedge funds that ranged from the depressingly pedestrian to the dangerously insane, where I learned a range of interesting analytical techniques. From the classic timeseries analysis to machine learning for market sentiments to building genetic algorithms that try to “inter-breed” (generating better algorithms that perform better when trading the markets), I picked up skills that would stand me in great stead later in life. I didn’t feel proud of the outcomes, though, focusing on making more money for people who have a lot of money already, largely under people with a very tenuous grasp of causality and statistics, didn’t feel like much of a life. So I joined a friend’s brand new startup in medical technologies. The two of us took it from inception to SME to acquisition over a decade, and I was able to lead on some absolutely fascinating research and development – including helping to figure out how to disrupt the functioning of the malaria parasite to detecting in real time whether people have undiagnosed heart arrythmias to predicting in advance which soldiers would become badly injured over the next few days. After we eventually sold the company, a non-compete on exit barred me from medical technologies for two years, so I applied for (and was very surprised to get) the job of director of data science in Downing Street.

I found I was much, much better at influencing outcomes than I would ever have expected and have made a great deal of what I believe to be very positive change in the way central government uses data and builds technology, which I feel great pride in. In short, I’ve never been bored. But I’ve also pulled more all-nighters than can possibly be healthy (I remember at one point in start-up world I got up on Monday morning and went to bed again on Thursday evening, trying to hit a massive deadline for delivering a piece of technology. Don’t do that, it’s almost never worth it). If I die young as a result, I would have to admit I did this to myself.

What is the best career advice you can give to others?

Life is short. If you want to work to live, do it calculatedly and really enjoy the life you make. If you want to live to work, make sure you find something fulfilling that makes you proud. Work wise, you get just the one life, don’t spend it all doing the same thing. I like to change careers entirely about every seven years, by that point I’m expert in whatever I’m doing and can bring that knowledge to something new and challenging, and it’s going to look great in my autobiography.

If you had to pick one mentor, that had the biggest influence on you, who would it be?

My current line manager is Dame Emily Lawson of vaccine rollout fame. She is – amazing. She is very inspiring but very human. She is always honest and authentic. She’s loyal and supportive but most of all she is brave. If the possible benefit is high – especially when it’s for the greater good – she will always take a calculated risk, give it her all, and handle the consequences without excuses or recriminations on the rare occasion it doesn’t work out. She’s trusted by everyone who works to her. I aspire to be the kind of person that so many other people wish they were like!

From where do you draw inspiration?

Firstly, my father. He died in 2012, but he’s the voice in my head, telling me if I’m making him proud. He was extremely interested in the natural world and had a mind like a vice, he was a university challenge savant and a master of the Times cryptic crossword. He died of acute myeloid leukaemia in 2012, and when he was in hospital for the last time my mother asked him what he wanted us to tell people he said about his life in his eulogy. He thought for a few minutes and then simply said – “I’ve had fun.” He also insisted that his coffin be brought into the church by pallbearers, stepping in time to the Pink Panther theme tune. The vicar tried to argue this as we arranged the funeral, saying that the organist wouldn’t like it, and my mother fixed him with a steely gaze and said, “Then take it up with my husband.” It was quite the entrance.

Secondly my team of about 20 solid gold superstars. On those days when things are hard, the fact I owe so very, very much to so few extremely excellent and extremely tolerant people is the thought that pulls me off the mat, dusts my gloves off on my shirt, and tells me to put my hands up and stand against the problem for round two. Particular shout out to Ben Henshall and Mallory Durran who are always there for me, always there to push and challenge me, always put the team first, and regularly remind me what’s important.

What is the biggest challenge you have faced to date?

Learning to let go when I feel a sense of responsibility to make something work, I really struggle to accept the limitations of time and energy. Especially in government where everything you do has the potential to make things better or worse for real people. If I don’t do more than my best every day I feel I’m letting people down and may even be harming them. I’m good at making decisions to cut one thing in favour of another but accepting I can’t fix something I think is very important where I just can’t find the levers – it weighs on me.

What qualities do you feel makes a good leader?

I’m extremely resilient, and nothing gets me down for long. I care about my team more than anything else. I dream big but always make sure I’m tilting at the windmills I am fairly sure I can actually beat, and I like to think I make people I’m responsible for feel seen.

From a work viewpoint what has the last 12 months been like?

Unsettling. But we have achieved, and continue to achieve great, transformational things in the digital and data space.

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

So many challenges (and solutions!)

There are always issues with legacy tech and interoperability, but where I am in government the top challenge is cultural. People simply don’t engage with digital or understand the art of the possible, making it very difficult to change things quickly. They also accept a very slow pace of change. We have to train people to be better customers of technology in order to make faster progress.

In the broader field: there are famous issues around the rise of AI and how to manage that well for the public good. Data management is also a challenge – better algorithms to automatically decide what is important can’t come too soon. For example there are now orders of magnitudes more intelligence related data (mostly open source) than the community could ever process. In some spaces we have so much data it makes it difficult to make decisions. Another interesting challenge is around how to keep up the pace of digital transformation without completely disenfranchising those who choose not to, or are not able, to engage digitally.

What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?

More visible female leaders who are prepared to mentor, more visibility, and I think crucially more praise for and acceptance of flexible working to prevent people leaving at early stages of their careers. I don’t think that the “establishment” leaders always appreciate the sheer demands on families these days – two parents working and schools that finish at 3pm makes for an incredible logistical challenge, jobs that allow you to pick up from school are crucial especially as childcare and housework still fall very unevenly on women. I do two-three days in the office a week, and my husband is roughly equally engaged with our three children (18 months, four, six). If I had to be in the office five days a week though I’d simply have to quit as I’d never see them.

Give us a fact about you that most other people wouldn’t know.

I am a qualified firebreather.