Supporting women working in STEM careers

By Emma Pettengale, Commissioning Editor, Portland Press

The United States Census Bureau says that although women make up nearly half of the working population, they remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) occupations. In the UK, the Women in the STEM workforce (WISE) campaign strives to achieve gender balance in the sector.  Recent figures from WISE (Nov 2016) show that while there have been some increases, women still only make up 21% of the Core STEM workforce in the UK. Globally, women make up an average of 28.4% of those employed in scientific research and development according to a recent report. There is a need to encourage and support women in STEM, and the Biochemical Society and Portland Press actively supports female members of the life science community in their goals. 

I asked a selection of female scientists from across a range of fields to talk to us about what drew them to science and the female scientists that they most admire.

What drew you to science?

Many of those we spoke to were inspired in their love of science by enthusiastic teachers early on.

Dr Claire Thornton from the Centre for the Developing Brain at King’s College London said: “I had two very enthusiastic science teachers at school, one in Biology and one in Physics, and this directed my choices into university. Once there I discovered molecular and cellular biology, taught by another inspiring lecturer, which has been my area ever since”.

Dr Claudia Tomes, from the National University of Cuyo in Argentina, was “always very curious and wanted to learn how the world works (cells and organisms I mean, I do not understand politics!)” and cites “an excellent Chemistry teacher” as having drawn her into studying chemistry.

Dr Cathy Tournier, University of Manchester, said: “[I] simply enjoyed studying and biology was the subject I enjoyed the most. In the end, I was extremely lucky to work with people who inspired me and drew me into a research career in academia”.

For Dr Kristen Lynch, Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, science was in the blood. She explained that “both grandfathers, an uncle and my father were all chemists or biologists. Between their influence and my natural abilities it was always assumed I would go into science. Happily, no one ever made an issue of the fact that I was breaking the mould by being the first female in the family to go into science”.

While for Dr Jeanne Hardy, University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA, it was love. “I love clean answers. I started out in the social sciences but found the lack of concrete answers uncomfortable. In chemistry class you get clean answers to questions and get to do lots of fun brain teasers (calculations). I became a structural biologist because I love seeing what a protein looks like and being able to understand on a molecular level how and why it functions”.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

Gaining independence and a lab of their own was a theme that was repeated by several of the women.

Dr Tournier said “Having my own lab to develop my own projects and hopefully having contributed to the future career of my students and post docs by providing them with the tools to think critically and the confidence to becoming independent scientists [is my greatest achievement]”.

Dr Thornton said her greatest achievement to date was gaining a Fellowship from Research into Aging, “[it allowed] me to conduct my own research on the link between AMP-activated protein kinase activation and early events in Alzheimer’s disease”.

Being able to help develop and grow the next generation of women in STEM was also a key achievement. According to Professor Graham, training “the next generation of bioscientists at undergraduate and postgraduate level, including 15 successful PhD students”, is her greatest achievement. Dr Tomes agrees, “Having trained graduate students, see them mature to become professionals is an achievement and great satisfaction”.

Which female scientists do you admire most?

History offers few female scientists whose work was not misappropriated by her male colleagues, however Professor Martina Muckenthaler, Head of Molecular Medicine at the Medical University of Heidelberg, admires the anthropologist Jane Goodall, and Dr Tournier chose Marie Curie for her dedication to research, and for having won the Nobel price – twice.

Dr Thornton has been inspired by the tenacity of Prof Jocelyn Bell Burnell. The lone woman in her year to read Physics at Glasgow, she discovered pulsars during her postdoc, but was not given first or senior author status on the subsequent paper. “Missing out on a Nobel Prize and other accolades, which were given to her male colleagues, she made incredible advances that significantly impacted her field of research and I hope that her example is changing the perception of women in science”.

Dr Tomes has a hard time thinking of an answer to this question because there are not very many women working at the frontier in the membrane-fusion-during-exocytosis field of research. “I would like to state that I admire my thesis advisor, Dr Silvia M Moreno, from the School of Sciences, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Silvia is brilliant and equally devoted to research and to training graduate students and junior scientists. She started one of the first protein sequencing projects in the country, I admire her as a person as well as a scientist. She is kind and nurturing and never neglected her family, which is important for me. Somehow she manages to do it all right. She is a role model”.

Professor Carol MacKintosh, University of Dundee, says she admires “the smart female scientists around me in our College of Life Sciences in Dundee. I admire their energy in tackling ambitious science, steely determination to drive through problems, pleasure at new discoveries, and commitment to building a culture that will enhance the lives and work of the next generations of scientists”.

Dr Hardy mentioned the struggles female scientists face in balancing their lab work with family life – she admires Frances Arnold – “because she is a mother and a highly successful scientist who works in an area I am really fascinated by. She also takes time to mentor younger female faculty.” Dr Hardy also mentioned Susan Marquesee “because she constantly makes excellent contributions to the scientific community and enterprise without a lot of fanfare”. Dr Lynch highlights the many female scientists who are creative, fearless and breaking open new fields. “They are fiercely smart and pioneers who are more concerned with doing something interesting and untried than following whatever field is “hot” at the moment. Many women who fall in this category are also devoted mothers, spouses and friends, often they don’t have the time or energy to promote themselves in their fields as much as some others do, but ultimately these women will have tremendous impact on our knowledge of how the world works”.

We look forward to supporting the next generation of female scientists in their education, discoveries and publications.

As Dr Thornton says “there is the feeling you always get when your hypothesis is finally proven and your paper published, which can’t be beaten”.

One comment

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