Portrait exhibition unveiled in new Café at the heart of St John’s to celebrate the life and work of women

“Difference brings real power, a different perspective, a different voice and a different means to influence and shape things around you”

Eight path-beating Johnian women, whose diverse careers have spanned the heights of government, the hidden worlds of human cells and the wild expanses of the Southern Ocean, are celebrated in a new exhibition of photographic portraits marking 40 years of women at the College.

Each alumna portrayed in the series, unveiled in the College’s new Café, has transformed the world around her, whether by using storytelling to advocate for minority women, researching the ground beneath our feet to improve building safety, or leading change within the spheres of law and the senior Civil Service.

The portraits, which capture the eight subjects in their daily surroundings, provide a contemporary counterpoint to the historic artworks displayed in Hall at St John’s, allowing the spirit and achievements of women and younger alumnae to be recognised. In their own words, below they talk about their lives and careers. 

Eight specially commissioned portraits of women are now exhibited in the College's new Cafe 

Fiona McIlwham – Social and Political Sciences (1992-1995)

I was the first in my family to go to university. I still remember how awestruck I was by the College buildings and history when I first visited John’s, but I went on to enjoy a blissful, carefree few years. It was a chance to experiment, study and have fun – as well as dabble in tortuous 5am training on the Cam and the madness of the Bumps.

I always knew I wanted to do something international as a career, and after leaving John’s I volunteered with some NGOs in Bangladesh and Sudan and did a Masters in Development Economics. I joined the Foreign Office in 1998.

My first posting was to war-torn Sarajevo. International soldiers were patrolling streets and diplomats were trying to help restore the peace and rebuild a country. It was raw, personal, brutal, but also in a way a hopeful time. The war was over. It was a very activist, unconventional type of diplomacy, but one that shaped my diplomatic career.

From Bosnia, I went on to work in Iraq and in the Middle East, was seconded to the US government and European Commission, negotiated peace settlements in the Balkans, worked in the Royal Household and then ran the Foreign Affairs team at No 10, orchestrating the Prime Minister’s engagement on Ukraine, before returning to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

I’ve worked in war zones and crises, often in male-dominated environments, whether in Iraq or training with aspiring generals from around the world at our Defence Academy. Tirana in Albania felt pretty daunting as a young, female Ambassador in 2009. But I have learned that difference brings real power, a different perspective, a different voice and a different means to influence and shape things around you. Successfully battling a brain tumour in 2007 has given me added conviction and determination. 

My advice to any student or aspiring diplomat? Enjoy your student years – they’re golden. Career wise, do what interests you, what you’re passionate about, and you’ll do it well. Don’t plan too much, you don’t know what life will throw at you and you don’t want to miss the detours and adventures. 

Fiona Mcllwham.
Fiona Mcllwham


“In the life sciences, there are fewer women than men in leadership positions. Women have great ideas and will play a significant role in the next century of biology”

Julia Fan Li – MPhil, Bioscience Enterprise; PhD, Engineering (2008-2012)

St John’s, like Cambridge in general, does a great job of inspiring its students to really put their minds to problems and think about solutions, not be afraid of them, even if they have not been explored before.

Arriving for a one-year degree, I saw a problem around how drugs and medicines are financed for developing countries. I became fascinated, and didn't quite understand why there wasn't a solution, so I ended up staying for a doctorate to investigate.

My one-year detour to St John's turned out to be four, but I had the resources to really explore the problem in depth and try to solve it, and that’s what happened afterwards. My PhD turned into the world’s first global health investment fund for diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries.

Now, I’m co-founder and CEO of Micrographia Bio. We are a London-based deep tech bio company, applying machine learning to microscopy, to open up a whole new world of what is known as spatial proteomics. Our bio imaging platform is named ADA, after [mathematician and computing pioneer] Ada Lovelace. It gives us the ability to see, or to visualise, protein - protein interaction networks inside human cells at a scale that has never been seen by human eyes.

Within our cells, there are over 20,000 proteins in action, and these are really the workhorses that determine healthy versus disease states. When you have a disease, it’s most likely that some of your proteins are malfunctioning, so we’re looking for drugs that can reverse that malfunction. The ability to see hundreds of proteins at the same time enables us to find disease signatures that can match drug signatures and hugely accelerate drug discovery.

In my career I’ve always worked in the life sciences, first in finance and now in operating roles and founding a company. My first undergraduate degree was a double major in finance and immunology and I have loved blending the two worlds together ever since.

Julia Fan Li.
Julia Fan Li


“Going to Cambridge was liberating for me because at school you’re defined by what you were like when you were 13, and I was able to reinvent myself”

Sarah Stallebrass – Engineering (1982-1985)

I began my engineering degree at John’s in 1982, the first year the College admitted women undergraduates. Going to Cambridge was liberating for me because at school you’re defined by what you were like when you were 13, and I was able to reinvent myself. In my first year I had a great social life, but the work was quite hard. I wanted to do a practical science, but I wasn’t the sort of person who had tinkered with cars all their lives and I found it a bit difficult to get into it. In my final year, when I specialised in soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering, I discovered things I really got on with.

Soil mechanics was magic to me because I really understood how it worked. I didn’t realise it at the time, but geotechnical engineering was quite a recent development, and at Cambridge I was taught by the people who had made the big advances, which was so exciting.

For the whole of my professional life, what’s been important for me is characterising the soil and having a coherent framework which will allow you to predict, as precisely as you can, how something that is a natural material will behave. In a way I was in love with the soil and I’ve remained in love with this concept of trying to make the soil work and then, when I started to teach at City, University of London, helping other people to understand it too.

A lot of what we do, because we're in London, focuses on urban problems, such as excavations in built-up areas. Over the last decade I’ve been involved in the development of hollow cast in situ concrete piles that offer new possibilities. If you put pipes through the centre, you can use heat exchange to cool your building in summer and heat it in winter. At City, we’re currently working on an innovation called a HIPER pile, which has nodules on its surface that help to harness the strength of the soil.

I love the collaboration we have here, the bouncing ideas off things, building a group that can solve problems and make advances. And I’m proud of the students I've taught, people going out and making a success of being a civil engineer from City.

Sarah Stallebrass.
Sarah Stallebrass


“In a 2003 by-election I was elected as the youngest MP in Britain, overturning a huge Labour majority. It was the first election Tony Blair had lost as Prime Minister and made international news”

Sarah Teather – Natural Sciences (1993-1996)

I’m hugely grateful to have had the chance to study at St John’s. I arrived at Cambridge having missed almost all of my schooling as a teenager owing to ill health and I was a bit at sea educationally, and in retrospect socially too. I was initially intimidated and very conscious of my missing years.

The two people I met first at St John’s are still important friends to me 30 years later. Generosity and good humour in both cases was the defining feature – one helped me lug my cases around College when a mix up meant no room was available; the other rescued me the day after when I let the door slam shut on route to the shower on the shared landing, draped only in a towel.

I came into my own at Cambridge eventually. I threw myself into the musical life of Cambridge and thrived, and found my feet academically when I found pharmacology. I loved the course and really enjoyed my final year research project.

I was so enthusiastic that I thought I should become an academic scientist and began a PhD. But it eventually dawned on me that my character was better suited to debating the big ideas of science than the lonely methodical practice. I took a role in the science policy team at the Royal Society and, outside of work, I was also looking for a way to make a difference in the run-down community where I lived. Suddenly I saw that politics might be the route to bringing change locally as well as a way to address the bigger systemic issues of the day.

Curiosity about politics quickly gave way to a passion. I became a local councillor for the Liberal Democrats in Islington in 2002, then in a by-election in Brent East in 2003 I was elected as the youngest MP in Britain, overturning a huge Labour majority. It was the first election Tony Blair had lost as Prime Minister and made international news.

Going from being a local campaigner to the front page of every national newspaper was a seismic personal shift, certainly. But I had such a sense of purpose in my new role, and my constituents taught me the next steps. All the issues that became my life’s passion were brought to me in cold, draughty advice surgeries as people told me their harrowing stories of injustice. For me, it was an awakening.

No one expected me to hold the seat, but I recruited an energetic team who thrived on being the underdog. There are many things I’m proud of now, looking back. The campaign we ran to get the government to change its policy on the British residents held in Guantanamo Bay remains one of my biggest achievements, and I’m also hugely proud of the work I did in government as an Education Minister, particularly negotiating the end of the practice that led the Home Office to hold so many children in immigration detention.

I left parliament in 2015 having served for 12 years, and currently run a refugee charity supporting destitute asylum seekers and people held in immigration detention. The decision to leave parliament surprised many people, but I wanted to work for change in a way that was more congruent with my values. And I wanted to explore how you might create services that are genuinely holistic and human-shaped and develop an organisation that treated its teams in the same way.  

To those studying at St John’s now, I would say you just never know where your life will end up. Your career also doesn’t have to be linear, and in the rather volatile world of today, flexibility born of breadth and different perspectives to the mainstream strikes me as a useful tool to be cherished.

Sarah Teather.
Sarah Teather


“Getting silk was undoubtedly the proudest day of my professional career: there is no higher official accolade at the self-employed Bar”

Annabel Darlow – English Literature (1988-1991)

What I remember most about John’s is being in such an exceptionally beautiful place. I've got so many memories of walking or cycling across The Backs, through the snow, through the daffodils in the spring.

I graduated into a recession and decided to do a law conversion course, after which I started my pupillage at 6 King’s Bench Walk, which specialises in crime, particularly prosecuting. I spent much of my pupillage at the Old Bailey watching murder trials and at Southwark watching fraud trials, then was lucky enough to be taken on and I’ve been at Number 6 ever since.

I remember in my early days being introduced to a very senior lawyer, who automatically assumed I was a secretary. I was lucky enough to be in chambers with Ann Curnow, who was a formidable trailblazing, female barrister, and an immensely successful and distinguished QC. She not only inspired me, she mentored me and she never allowed you to believe for one moment that she had broken any sort of glass ceiling. She put it all down to hard work and perseverance and not settling for what was offered to her.

I think things have changed enormously, but I’m still concerned about the attrition rate for women at the Bar once they have children. A lot of people, particularly those at the Criminal Bar who are mothers, struggle to combine the punishing hours and travel schedules with a happy, balanced home life.

Getting silk was undoubtedly the proudest day of my professional career: there is no higher official accolade at the self-employed Bar. A KC will be instructed in cases of particular gravity or importance, so it affords you access to a more interesting, rarefied field of work than being a junior barrister.

I’ve particularly enjoyed the breadth of my career: I’ve done cases involving very senior banking executives and their conduct in the 2008 crash; individuals going off to Syria to join terrorist groups; people who’ve murdered multiple members of their family. I sit as both a recorder in the Crown Court and a deputy High Court judge, so I’ve been privileged to see a huge range of walks of life.

I still love it. To find a career where you are challenged every day of your working life is fantastic.

Annabel Darlow.
Annabel Darlow


“This time is precious – the only time in your life when you are likely to have so few responsibilities and the space and time to spread your wings”

Hannah Carmichael OBE – Geography (2003-2006)

I applied to read Geography because my horizons at age 18 were definitely more expansive than my income, and I had always loved learning about the world around me. As a child with a very vivid imagination, I would often spend time imagining myself in far-flung corners of the globe, complete with polar bears.

Arriving at St John’s felt like being catapulted into a different world. I’d gone to state schools with 30 students to a class and had never experienced anything like the supervision system at Cambridge; the individual focus and attention, and the intense challenge. There was no avoiding the spotlight! I was also around people for the first time who had absolutely no limits on their horizons or their ambitions. The environment I found myself in had a powerful impact on the possibilities I felt were available to me.

I had no idea what I wanted to do towards the end of my time at Cambridge, other than knowing that I wanted to go into public service in some capacity. A year-long Master’s programme studying International Development proved to be exactly what I needed, and I joined the Civil Service Fast Stream shortly afterwards.

In the last 15 years, I’ve worked across three Departments in the Civil Service, in roles which have spanned social and economic policy, drawing on disciplines from project management to communications and organisational change. There aren’t many fields that offer exposure to such a wide range of potential paths at such an early point in your career.

For the last four years I’ve worked at the Department for Education on early years and childcare policy and delivery, which has been absolutely fascinating. Childcare is such a huge issue for parents up and down the country.

I think the transferable skills you build as a civil servant are underrated, even by civil servants themselves. I’ve done trustee and consultancy work with charities and other public sector bodies and joined the board of a leading youth homelessness charity, Depaul UK. I don’t think I would have been able to make those shifts as easily without the broad base of experience gained in the first few years of my career, and the unparalleled learning and development opportunities.

Most recently, I founded a small social enterprise offering advice, support and community to anyone starting to live alone for the first time. The Living Well Alone Project has taken off in all kinds of interesting directions – again, I credit the Civil Service for many of the skills that I now draw on day to day in taking the project forward.

For those studying now – make the most of every second! It will go more quickly than you think. This time is precious – the only time in your life when you are likely to have so few responsibilities and the space and time to spread your wings and work out where your real interests, passions and hobbies lie.

Hannah Carmichael.
Hannah Carmichael


“It was important for me to ensure that there was a space I could be seen in and thrive in, but also that I could make space for other people like me who would study here in the future to be able to be their full, complex selves”

Justina Kehinde Ogunṣeitan – English Literature and Social Anthropology (2011-2015)

I have always been intrigued by the relationship between culture, identity, politics and art. Books were the portal through which I began to discover my own history and identity, inspiring me to study literature. Anthropology was an obvious continuation of that exploration, opening worlds and ways of being that deeply transformed my understanding of what it means to be human. Both subjects were rigorous, and frustrating because there was no ‘right’ answer, but they taught me how to critically analyse and how to weave stories, so I feel very privileged to have been able to combine both subjects into my own, tailor-made degree programme.

While at university I co-founded FLY, a group for global majority women and non-binary students, which has soared into a beautiful and vital space for political activism and community among students and graduates. I also directed, acted in and co-produced the first all-black all-female production on a Cambridge stage, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. These are probably the two experiences I feel most proud of, because they centred and sought to uplift students who looked like me and came from backgrounds like mine.

Black people have been studying at Cambridge since the late 17th century, but our histories and bodies have long been erased, making every new global majority student feel like ‘the first’. The weight of that expectation is exhausting and sometimes destructive. I came from a state school where I didn’t feel like a minority. It was important for me to ensure that there was a space I could be seen and thrive in, but also that I could make space for other people like me who would study here in the future to be able to be their full, complex selves, and to do that safely, joyfully and with full agency. I wanted to ensure new networks and support systems could exist for students, especially as we work to re-imagine what this particular institution could and should be.

After graduating I worked in public health, safeguarding African women and girls’ sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights. But I’ve always been a storyteller and a few years later I transitioned into the creative arts where I now combine my passion for advocacy with the medium of creative storytelling. I act, write stage and screenplays and direct. I’d say to anyone else wanting to be a storyteller, you’re never too late to start. The stories within you deserve to be heard, and you can take unconventional routes to them – sometimes the less linear the more useful the life-lessons that will shape your stories. Move at your own pace, but keep moving, keep breathing, keep creating.

Justina Kehinde Ogunṣeitan.
Justina Kehinde Ogunṣeitan


“In a race you push yourself so hard that you live in an extreme state of exhaustion. It’s essential to look after my body so I can handle the physical challenges”

Sam Davies – Engineering (1993-1997)

I studied Engineering at John’s, and my initial career aim was to be an engineer in an ocean racing team – either a yacht designer or a structural engineer. A passion for sailing is in my genes from both sides of my family: my paternal grandfather, who is one of my heroes, became a submarine commander aged 26 and survived the war, while my maternal grandfather had a boatyard and raced powerboats offshore.

In the end, the sailing took over from the engineering: I took part in my first around-the-world crewed race for the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994, and have since competed in more than 25 transatlantic races, including three Vendée Globes, in which contestants aim to sail around the world solo, non-stop and without assistance. I now have a new boat – the first made specifically for me – and am currently preparing for my fourth Vendée Globe, in 2024.

Competitive solo sailing is highly challenging. The objective is to keep the boat sailing at 100 per cent of its potential all the time, so there’s lots of sail-changing and sail-trimming and working the boat to ensure it is travelling at the right angles compared to the seascape. I also need to react to the boat itself, tending to and fixing anything that is broken or weak, and plan my own route, making all the tactical and meteorological decisions myself.

In a race you have to push yourself so hard that you live in an extreme state of exhaustion, and it’s essential to keep well-rested, eat enough food and maintain good hygiene. That can be difficult on a moving boat with no bathroom, but I have to look after my body so I can handle the physical challenges of sailing the boat.

I’ve been involved with Initiatives-Cœur since 2015. The charity helps children from developing countries who were born with heart defects by flying them to France for life-changing surgery that isn’t available in their country. I spend a lot of time with the kids when they come to France to stay with their host families, and I’ve even been in the operating theatre and watched the open-heart surgery.

Each Vendée Globe I’ve taken part in has been a unique and incredible adventure. The first time I competed I finished fourth, and I was only an hour and 20 minutes from being third place and on the podium. I was in an old but reliable boat, which was easy to sail, and there was no expectation or pressure on me. I remember it being such a fun race, and it’s also the result I’m most proud of.

Sam Davies.
Sam Davies

Four decades of women at St John’s celebrated in new portrait exhibition

Published 10/02/2023

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