A young woman in science
Today I was approached by STEMinist, a website which aims to show the world that there are women, great women, working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. They have asked me if I would like to take part in a short email interview that will (hopefully) feature in their Women in Stem series.
By posting short interviews with women in science, the website (and it’s creators) hope to “promote and elevate the perspective of women in these traditionally underrepresented fields”. They want to create realistic role models and ambassadors for young women, and I think this is a noble goal. I am honoured to have been asked to be a part of this. I will feature alongside Cambridge physics Professor Dame Athene Donald and other inspiring women.
Professor Donald is a leading figure when it comes to promoting women in science; as well as exploring this in her blog, she chairs a great project called Athena Forum who’s mission it is to improve the development of women in science. She has been analysing and working tirelessly to improve the chances women have to succeed as researchers. She has looked into why some women fall by the way-side when it comes to staying in academia, a phenomenon nicknamed the leaky pipeline.
I have been doing a bit of reading on the subject of women in science, and the majority of things I have come across are very encouraging. Some start out with a negative experience, but turn towards a more positive ending when trying to get more women to go into science. The negatives tend to veer towards why women don’t stay in science – this leaky pipeline issue. Athene sums up the issues nicely in her document Science and Gender in Academia: Obstacles and Interventions. It tends to be related to family, work-life balance, bad experiences at school, and lack of confidence.
It is common practice to consider, generalize and compare one’s own experiences to those of the general population. I do like to think about my own stance on topics like this, so I thought I’d tell my story.
My story in science (so far – it’s not very long…yet) is very positive. I have never had any one try to put me down or tell me I am not capable. In fact, I have had more encouragement than anything else to stay in science.
My biggest influence in science was my physics teacher at secondary school. He taught with flare and enthusiasm, and his love for the subject made it impossible not to get excited about it. Since then, the physics department at Cardiff University has been my home for the last four years.
In the first year, we had about 120 students, of which about 20 were women. At the end of the fourth year, only 32 remained. Out of these 32, only eight of them were women. Out of these women, four were in the top five of the end of year rankings. Just saying…
The power of hindsight has also lead me to notice that there are only four female members of academic staff teaching there out of 35. In the summer of 2011 I attended the 4th Micro-resonator Workshop in Grenoble, only 2 out of 24 speakers were women.
I could not fail to notice that I was in the minority. But that never stopped me, and never will. I was actively encouraged by the department to create my own 4th year masters project. I looked outside what the university could offer to learn about a different aspect of physics, medical physics. It was a great experience and it lead me to present my results at a conference.
Over the four years that I was there I had great support from lecturers, family, friends and especially my personal tutor. He was there to listen to my change my mind a hundred times about what I wanted to do once it was all over. He wasn’t the only one; one of my lecturers in my final year said that I was underestimating myself, and that whatever route I take in life I would flourish and could be great.
I had people telling me left right and centre that I should stay in physics and do a PhD; I got a few offers too. But in the end I decided I needed a break to explore my more creative side. Whilst I was umm-ing and err-ing about my life, I never had anyone tell me I couldn’t do what ever I wanted.
This endless support is something that has given me the self confidence that I am perfectly capable of doing science. It gives me hope that I won’t have any difficulties establishing myself in a male dominated field, and I know that people like Athene Donald will make this easier for me. Inspiring women like her are role models for me.
I know that I will stay in science; and maybe I will go on to do a PhD after this year. Even in these last few weeks I have missed physics. I miss the constant challenge, the problem solving and the endless fun it is to make a discovery about the world. I have found some great recommendations for women who want to stay in science, and I hope to follow them. As for what part of physics I may go into, I’m not sure yet, but my story will be good. I know that women in science, even though we are outnumbered, we are valued.