This week I went to a talk launching the new year’s programme of ScienceGrrl Swansea which included a really great recap of everything they had done in the last year in partnership with Soapbox Science, Athena SWAN, Materials Live and the Swansea Waterfront Museum. Anyone who knows me personally knows I believe in equality of opportunity for everyone but in the case of STEMM subjects in academia there is an alarming dropout rate for women. (Which strikes me as odd as I know several very successful academics who take full advantage of flexible working hours and the option to work from home when needed so they and their partners can raise a family and continue to work). Clearly something more is at work than child-baring and working conditions.
I think the tides are turning as those women who were the vanguard of female academics are now lecturers, professors, even heads of departments and pro-VCs. Many might say, “ok, you’ve done it, women have broken the amorphous silica ceiling of academia” but this belies the still slightly insidious thought still in the back of girl’s heads: “science isn’t for girls”. I know I’ve had those thoughts when wondering if I’d ever make it in academia.
As part of the talk my Engineering Supervisor read out a piece he’d written for a newspaper about a woman in science who inspired him. That person was his sister. He encouraged us all to think about those women (and men!) who inspire us and got us into science.
So here goes:
There are a good many people that got me interested in science. Adam Hart-Davis’ Local Heroes taught me about British scientists from Humphrey Davie to Mary Anning. The days when I was ill were spent watching the education slots on BBC (do they still do that?). I hungrily ate-up the Open University material that used to have to be recorded at four in the morning and anything else that was about science on telly. I’ve had some great science teachers, university lecturers and supervisors. The wave of educational content on YouTube such as SciShow, ViHart and Notthingham University’s channels such as Periodic Videos and Numberphile has continued to fuel my curiosity in the natural world. Indeed, before YouTube I read my mother’s rocks and minerals books, my school library didn’t have one science book I hadn’t leafed through and my DK children’s Encyclopaedia must be my most read childhood book.
But I think there is one person who inspired me most, one person who I think always knew I’d become a PhD student and that was my High School Geology teacher, Mrs H*.
Mrs H over the years had taught me RE, Geography and Geology (it was that kind of school). Her form room, which was my form for Lower and Upper Sixth, was the geology lab. And. It. Was. Awesome. Specimens everywhere, geology posters on the walls, old OU tapes we could borrow to revise from, textbooks, microscopes, even a small sample cabinet containing tourmaline and opal (amongst other things). Best of all was Mrs H herself. She did her degree in geology and geography and was the daughter of a miner who worked the Pennine Orefield. She got interested in geology through him when he’d bring her home samples of fluorite (at the time a waste product of the galena mines).
She frothed with enthusiasm for geology and as a result her’s were some of the most engaging lessons I had in Sixth Form. She also encouraged us to pursue our own interests in the subject. During a fieldtrip me and J-Ro* (our other geology teacher who helped out with fieldtrips) got talking about how an outcrop we had seen had formed. By the end of the drive I had the bare bones of what would become my lab based coursework experiment (maybe I’ll talk about that in a future post). A teacher wanting an easy life marking coursework would have suggested I do a tried and test experiment like others (some looked at porosity of sediments, others, the formation of desiccation cracks) but not Mrs H. (It paid off, my work got special mention in the examiner’s report, something I am more proud of than my final mark. She even phoned me up to tell me).
There are many great women in science, the above mentioned Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Ada Lovelace, Beatrix Potter, Florence Nightingale, and they are all an inspiration within their respective fields (as are their male counterparts) but if it wasn’t for Mrs H, I don’t think that today I’d be calling myself a Geologist.
*these were my teacher’s nicknames but hopefully they wont mind being referenced in that form.