This blog post was inspired by an event organised by Cavendish Inspiring Women; ‘Success: is it all in the mind? A panel discussion on women in science.’
There has been much discussion over the past years about getting young people, particularly young women, into science and the effect of positive role models on young peoples’ decisions. Three young scientists, discuss how they got to be where they are, the people who played the most influential role in getting them there and what their influence meant to them.
Only at university did I realise how lucky I’d been with the science teachers at my school: outstanding teachers with very clever and strong personalities. It wasn’t unusual for people from our school to continue into physics and I remember being slightly surprised to find out the teachers were simply expecting me to do a physics degree; it stopped it feeling like such a strange option. As far as my mum was concerned, there was nothing I couldn’t do. I went in pretty blind though: I had no idea what a scientist did beyond wearing goggles or teaching.
I wasn’t really inspired throughout university. With hindsight, there was a real lack of role models there. Not until I went to do an industry placement did I find out what research and problem solving were all about and, again, I had role models and a support network.
I could speak to people who had done PhDs in fields I was interested in, see how they got there and see that it wasn’t anything I couldn’t be with time and effort. I could learn almost as an apprentice from a colleague I worked closely with. The manner in which she conducts her research: always checking, proving and disproving hunches with little side experiments, providing a really thorough understanding. It sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often people charge off on a hunch without checking fully. It takes some time and confidence to start but quickly becomes a real pillar of your approach to experimentation. Additionally, the ability to always be coming up with new ideas, organising and applying them, trying different approaches and taking something from every meeting, conference and training was a real lesson in what it meant to be forward thinking and innovative. I’m very lucky to have had such people to guide me. I wouldn’t be here now without them.
Whilst I had always been inclined towards science, Mr Furlong teaching Year 10 Physics was the point at which physics became my central focus. When we started-out with him he couldn’t have been out of teacher training very long, looking fresh-faced and having a certain enthusiasm different to our other teachers. He was tall, skinny, pale (perhaps there was some unconscious internal bias predisposing me towards him there), and made his lessons genuinely interesting. His presentations were simple yet effective; TV theme music over mini exercises to break the lesson up, Pokémon with speech bubbles explaining the finer points of electromagnetism, jokes and silliness peppered throughout for comic relief, and a boundless energy (perhaps induced by the pure sugar he sometimes ingested) that kept him lapping the classroom continuously. I recognised traits in him that I wanted to bring to other people, and I suspect is some, if not most, of the reason why I am still considering teaching in some form today.
Coming to university there was a very obvious change of tone in the style of teaching (obviously, it is further education after all), but it is fair to say that the ‘dryness’ of the lessons increased too. To say that all lecturers are bad or not engaging would be wrong, however it’s fair to say that any university has its share of lecturers with ‘undesirable’ characteristics. Equally I have found new people to be in awe of, but that is essentially preaching to the choir. I’m already hooked, and took very little persuading to make the jump into a PhD.
As an undergraduate, seeing a staff comprised of the same mould of incredibly dedicated, fantastically intelligent lecturers with less than desirable communication skills subconsciously puts across the message that to deviate from that mould is to not fit in or not be right for a role in academia. While this ‘mould’ is conceptual, it could almost be something physical – the number of old(er), white, male roles could lead you to believe it is a private club in and of itself. First hand experience tells you that diversity brings a fantastically varied set of ideas and approaches to problems that ultimately benefits everyone. My BSc dissertation supervisor was one of three active female lecturers in a department of roughly thirty – you don’t need a Physics degree to see some correlation between the lack of initial diversity, and the lack of diversity in progressing students.
As a physics undergraduate, I often thought about what I wanted to do after finishing my degree. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a physicist and what kind of work and life I would have. Unfortunately I knew so few women that were established physicists that I found it hard to imagine myself as one. At my department, there was really only one woman who was a professor. Unfortunately, I did not particularly like her and could not identify with her at all. So I turned to history to help me imagine my future.
In Germany, where I was studying, the most famous woman in physics is Lise Meitner. She is great. She worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics and discovered and explained nuclear fission. A true pioneer in her research she was also a social pioneer, becoming the first woman to be appointed as a full professor of physics in Germany. I admired her and found her example encouraging and uplifting. But as is often the case with historical heroines, using her as a role model was also deeply intimidating. Could I ever be as brilliant as her? Did I need to be as brilliant as she was and overcome as many hurdles to become a successful physicist? After a while, I had to realise that turning to such a praised heroin as a role model was not really helpful. I needed role models whose lives and careers were less removed from mine and more attainable.
Luckily, I got the opportunity to attend the annual German Women in Physics Conference. For almost a week, I was surrounded by hundreds of women who were passionate about physics and worked as physicists in academia, industry and beyond. I was one of the least senior attendees with most of the other women being PhD students, postdocs, professionals and professors. They talked about their science, but also about their lives, challenges and strategies to living a successful and balanced life. I was thrilled. Finally, I had a large variety of personalities and approaches to look up to and learn from. I had practical role models that I could really use as example and from whose experiences I could learn. Attending this conference and similar local events helped me to see myself as a physicist and to take more confident steps on my own path.
Recently, I volunteered at a similar event with a somewhat younger audience. The UK Conference of Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) was taking place in Oxford and I happily helped out with the running of it. I was astonished by the number of undergraduates who approached me to ask for advice and to enquire what life as a graduate student is like. It was then I realised that they were using me as a role model to help them imagine their future in science.
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