International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Why do we need women and girls in science?
Our scientists, from Oxford to Vietnam, discuss why we need women in science, share their stories, and offer inspiration and advice to the next generation of women and girls.
“I dream of a society where equal opportunities are given to all, where there is no discrimination on gender, orientation or race and where contributions to science are viewed equally and fairly.”
From Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie to Maryam Mirzakhani (1st female mathematician to be awarded the Fields Medal, the most prestigious prize in mathematics), women have been and continually are the agents of change and champions of science. However, designated gender roles and lack of opportunities make numerous others abandon their passion for science and research. In low and middle-income countries this scenario is exacerbated by the existence of a hugely patriarchal society.
My journey through science has been hugely challenging. However, I am determined to serve as a source of inspiration and encouragement to many. I continuously mentor young people, particularly girls, across West Africa and motivate them to find their unique path and pursue their dreams.
I dream of a society where equal opportunities are given to all, where there is no discrimination on gender, orientation or race, and where contributions to science are viewed equally and fairly. More importantly, I hope that in finding science we do not lose sight of our humanity.
“I think it is far more important to get to the right place rather than get there quickly.”
At school I wasn’t encouraged to do science or medicine — in fact, I had a maths teacher at school who told me to be a housewife and not to go to medical school! Undeterred by this advice, I trained in medicine at Guy’s and St Thomas’ medical school in London and obtained an intercalated BSc in 1988, followed by a degree in medicine in 1991 (both University of London).
I then moved to Brighton for my junior hospital jobs. Brighton had a large gay community, and I was working here in the early 1990s — at the beginning of the HIV epidemic in the UK; it was a terrible time because at that time AIDS was a terminal disease. There was a lot of palliative care, but at the same time, the infectious diseases side of this were fascinating. This is what really hooked me on to focussing my career in infectious diseases.
In 1997 I was awarded an MRC Clinical Training Fellowship to undertake a PhD with Adrian Hill in Oxford, and was awarded a PhD in 2001 (University of London). In 2001 I was awarded a Wellcome Clinician Scientist Fellowship, allowing me to complete my clinical training and subsequently awarded a CCST in HIV and GU Medicine in 2003. I have led the TB vaccine research group at Oxford University for 17 years and I have many wonderful women scientists working within my group.
I do think it is possible to ‘have it all’, for men and women. But that might not mean everything at the same time, and having it all might take a little longer. You have to be prepared to work hard, and be understand that not everything can be perfect all the time. It might take you a little bit longer, just because you are trying to fit more in. When I was training as a junior doctor, I was often told ‘you have to become a consultant by the time you are 35’. But life is long, and it is much more important to create a career and niche for yourself that is fulfilling, where you still want to get out of bed excited about your work every morning. I think it is far more important to get to the right place rather than get there quickly.”
“I go out of my way to let people know that being female, being transgender, being of any minority, is not a barrier to being a scientist.”
During 14 years in science and engineering, I was never able to really focus on my work. I studied in various labs, worked with many different groups and came up with many theories around my work. But always I held back, never achieved what I should have. This was because I was transgender, and no one else knew. As such my work suffered.
Once accepting who I was and coming out, I was greeted with widespread support in the field of material science, making me regret those wasted years. Now, with the support of Oxford University, MPLS and the Department of Materials, I live my life authentically and to the full. I go out of my way to let people know that being female, being transgender, being of any minority, is not a barrier to being a scientist. I do what I can to inspire young people to be the next generation of Marie Curies or Rosalind Franklins.
You can be yourself and have a scientific career. And science can only be stronger for that. I came to material science by accident, having initially completed an undergrad degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering, followed by a position working with roll-to-roll vacuum deposition machines in industry.
Clara is the vice-chair of the LGBT+ Advisory Group at Oxford University and runs the local LGBT+ youth group TOPAZ (and TOPAZ Parents) in Oxford as well as being a member of an Oxford County Council anti-LGBT+ bullying group and the Oxford Pride Committee. Clara also writes blogs about diversity in STEM, and the world in general, and talks about these subjects to anyone who will listen, including various local schools. She was also a volunteer on the Out in Oxford project. She recently received a Points of Light award from the Prime Minister for her work with LGBT+ youth.
In her spare time Clara climbs, writes music reviews for an online punk magazine and plays D&D.
“There are a number of things we still need to do to ensure the scientific community is truly reflective of the world it is meant to improve.”
International Day for Girls and Women in Science is a good opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the progress we have made towards making the field of science a more inclusive and diverse environment. But it’s also a chance to think about how far we still have to go. From incorporating historical female scientists earlier on in the school curriculum, to dismantling the stereotypes and barriers that keep women from reaching the highest tiers of science, there are a number of things we still need to do to ensure the scientific community is truly reflective of the world it is meant to improve.
“My message to young girls is that science is for everyone, including you!”
Working in scientific research means working in the exciting business of discovery. As a scientist, any discovery you make, however small, is important because it contributes to an accumulating knowledge base. I believe that good science is dependent on diversity. This means diversity of ideas, diversity of scientific methods and, most importantly, diversity amongst the people who are actually doing the science. My message to young girls is that science is for everyone, including you!
I am fascinated by viruses because they are relatively simple and yet are capable of causing such complex and devastating diseases. My PhD research is focused on investigating how viruses are detected and dealt with by the body’s immune system.
“Never let anyone talk you down, and believe in yourself!”
Before moving to Oxford I graduated in two bachelor’s (Biomedical Sciences and Psychology) and two master’s programmes (Neuroscience & Cognition and Neuropsychology) from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Our research group in Oxford aims to understand how genetic factors impact on brain functions relevant to psychiatric illness. We focus in particular on the catechol-O-methyltransferase’s (COMT) gene. COMT influences the function of dopamine, a chemical messenger in the brain which is implicated in a number of psychiatric disorders but is also critical in healthy brain functions.
When I was still in school, one of my teachers told me I should not go to university as I would most likely fail. I was not clever enough — and definitely not clever enough to become successful in science or medicine. That made me insecure about myself. But with the support from my parents I decided I would try and go for it anyway. Not only did I successfully finish university — I even graduated from two bachelor and two master programs, and am now a successful scientist in Oxford. Therefore never let anyone talk you down, and believe in yourself!
“You are all out there. Share your experiences to inspire and be inspired.”
Passion for discovery, intellectual prowess, perseverance and focus are scientists’ qualities and are blind to gender. Opportunities to discover and nurture those qualities should be accessible to all. As a research scientist, a champion for innovation and technology, and most importantly as a mother of two girls, I make it my mission to be involved in activities that contribute to offering opportunities to all, to share the challenges and triumphs of my journey with the people I can reach. I also strongly believe that we are not short of role models for Best mum, Best sister, Best wife, Best friend, Best partner. Perhaps we need to shift the focus and showcase women as Best academic, Best researcher, Best CEO, Best inventor, Best engineer. You are all out there. Share your experiences to inspire and be inspired.
My research is looking at how cells control the way their genes are turned on and off, and how this regulates the formation of blood.
“Though my dreams at that time seemed almost impossible to achieve, somehow I made it.”
My career in academia is too short to use my experiences as inspiration, but I am happy to share with you what inspires me. I worked in business and switched to academic career 5 years ago. I changed everything, including my place of residence and it was one of the best decisions in my life. But the beginnings were difficult. I had many doubts whether I manage to succeed and pursue my academic dreams. But I really wanted it. Though my dreams at that time seemed almost impossible to achieve, somehow I made it. First, I got a grant to carry out my PhD research, then I got a Fulbright scholarship to learn time-use research in the US, and finally I got accepted to Centre for Time Use Research at University of Oxford. As Mandela said, it always seems impossible until it’s done! Throughout the whole process I had several things in mind, and these, in fact, were some inspirational words from other people. First of all, do what you chose to and don’t compare yourself to others. Secondly, you must be aware that it’s only through hard work that you can achieve your objectives, so you need to make sure you enjoy the process! Lastly, you will get rejections many times (jobs, grants, academic journals). Don’t ever take it personally, and keep trying.
“I would like to encourage you to follow your interests and take the leap into something that you are curious about, no matter how difficult it may seem at the start!”
I have always been fascinated by life sciences, but a real important moment for me was finding out in high school that each cell of every living organism on Earth has an instruction manual, the DNA, that encodes the information required to build and maintain a whole organism. Curiosity for how things work at a molecular level have driven my whole career, and I now research how information in the DNA is read during blood cell formation, and how errors in this process contribute to disease.
Curiosity for science, knowledge and understanding led me to where I am right now. I would like to encourage you to follow your interests and take the leap into something that you are curious about, no matter how difficult it may seem at the start!
“Until you feel confident, go boldly forth with doubts, knowing that you are carried by your curiosity.”
Be curious and act confident. Curiosity fuels science so keep asking questions as well as searching for answers. Confidence isn’t something you necessarily feel in the process of asking questions, but it might come once you have answers. Until you feel confident, go boldly forth with doubts, knowing that you are carried by your curiosity.
Carla Fuentes Lopez
“The contributions of women and girls are invaluable.”
Gender should not be a barrier in the pursuit of knowledge and self-accomplishment. Whether it is science, engineering, technology or maths, the contributions of women and girls are invaluable.
“If you have a passion for science, you should be free to pursue that passion, no matter your gender.”
Stefania works on the evolution of multicellularity — how groups are formed can be a major influence on the evolution of cooperation, and whether cooperative groups make the major evolutionary transition to a higher level individual. The formation of clonal groups, by remaining with parents leads to a greater kin selected benefit of cooperation, compared with formation of groups by aggregating, with potential non-relatives. The freshwater algae Chlorella sorokiniana, Chlorella vulgaris and Scenedesmus obliquus form multicellular groups in response to the presence of predators as a defensive mechanism, but it is not clear whether they form groups by remaining together or by aggregation.
“Engineering isn’t about getting covered in oil and mending boilers — it’s about harnessing science to solve the world’s problems.”
Eleanor Stride is a Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford. She originally studied Mechanical Engineering at University College London where she was inspired by the idea that engineers could help to develop new and better medical treatments. Her PhD investigated how tiny bubbles of gas interact with the body when exposed to ultrasound. This led to her developing new microbubble agents to help target the delivery of very toxic drugs in order to minimise their side-effects and improve the treatment of cancer.
“I really wish I could encourage more young girls to get into science. It’s wrongly portrayed as boring facts and figures; it’s all about creativity.”
I was always interested in how things worked but I was so fortunate that I was really encouraged at home. My mum suffered endless questions from me as a kid to which she patiently replied “bring me a paper and a pencil and I’ll explain you how it works”. I went to an all girls’ school and was fortunate enough to have excellent teachers in science and maths which opened the door for me. I never considered that women might not be well represented in these subjects so it was a shock to get to university and discover (30 years ago) that I was just one of 4 women in a group of 100 studying physics. Thankfully things are a bit better but we still have so far to go.
I’ve spent all the time since my fist day in that lecture theatre wondering why we were, and still are, so underrepresented. The women I know in my field are not just good, they are outstanding! I really wish I could encourage more young girls to get into science. It’s wrongly portrayed as boring facts and figures; it’s all about creativity. The process of designing circuitry is creative. The steps to write computer code are creative. My whole life in science has been a huge adventure and it’s tested my creative skills to the max. If you enjoy working with people there is a massive opportunity in the STEM subjects to be out there with people and doing so many fun things. Studying the STEM subjects really opens so many doors to amazing careers. Let’s not let the guys keep this to themselves!
“All you need to decide is which area you are most interested in and go for it!”
Some of the most pressing problems in the world today can be better understood and addressed by us working in science and technology: such as understanding how specific diseases arise and developing therapies to treat them, or finding sustainable energy sources… You can have an impact in all of this. All you need to decide is which area you are most interested in and go for it!
I have had the opportunity to work in academia, industry and business in multiple countries; it has been extremely rewarding. Today, I help build new ventures that make use of technologies being developed at the University of Oxford and get to work with some of the best scientists in the world.
“I think being a good scientist has nothing at all to do with gender, and everything to do with curiosity, imagination and tenacity.”
Sallie is a Quaternary Scientist with a research focus on African drylands and landscape/ecosystem responses to climate variability over long timescales. She also has a particular interest in examining the impact of past environmental change on human occupation and landscape use in central Southern Africa over the last 200,000 years.
Following four years as a Leverhulme postdoctoral researcher and Junior Research Fellow at Hertford College, she now holds the post of Trapnell Fellow in African Environments with the Environmental Change Institute, taking up a National Geographic Global Exploration Award to undertake new research on long-term environmental change in the remote Makgadikgadi salt pans in northern Botswana. She is also deputy director of the Oxford Luminescence Dating Laboratory and leads a number of projects which seek to improve the accuracy and applicability of Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) in research on long term environmental change.
“Women are half of humankind — it’s essential that we play our full part in imagining and shaping the future, and bringing it into reality through science.”
Right now I’m sitting at a desk typing at a computer, using software, and my display screen shows a picture of my kid that I took with my phone. The same kid, having been born safely with help from some wonderful medics, thinks it’s his birthright to be able to watch on demand and to make a screen do what he wants by touching it. Both of us were vaccinated, so happily didn’t die of a childhood illness. Today I washed my hair with 2in1 so I didn’t need a separate conditioner, and my clothing is brightly coloured and the colours don’t fall out in the wash. My phone has way more computing power in it than the computer that occupied an entire huge room in my Dad’s work back in the 1970s. My food stays fresh for ages, and I get some of my electricity from solar power.
Science is everywhere in our world and affects every imaginable part of our lives. Women are half of humankind — it’s essential that we play our full part in imagining and shaping the future, and bringing it into reality through science. And also, knowing how the world works is empowering and far too much fun to leave to the boys.
Roxanna Abhari and Emma Bluemke
“We encourage young women to explore our field, and hope that you have as much fun as we do!”
“Science needs people who are inspirational, who are passionate, who are curious and creative.”
Imma’s research interests are to decipher how and why tropical vegetation structure and dynamics changes across abiotic gradients and what are the consequences of these changes at the community and at the ecosystem scale. As such, her work focuses on exploring how changes in the abiotic conditions driven by global change — and particularly increases in extreme drought events and modified fire regimes — affect plant functional traits and how this aggregates to ecosystem functioning.
“I love the adventure, and creativity.”
Cécile’s research aims to provide some insights into the effects of climate change on the carbon dynamics of South American tropical forests. Her PhD focused on the effects of climate change on carbon dynamics along an Andean elevation transect. It did so by examining the interactions between environmental factors (temperature, rainfall, light) and above- and below-ground forest carbon dynamics on a transect ranging from 3000 m (26.4 °C) to 220 m (12.6 °C), situated in the Kosñipata valley and Tambopata, Peru. The outcomes of this study are currently being published.
“What I love about science is that the results from my research get to change policies, and I get to eat Brazil nuts fresh from the tree!”
Erika works in the ECOFOR, BIORED and PELD-RAS projects. All of those are Brazil-UK consortiums looking at the impacts of human-induced disturbance, such as selective logging and understory fires, in ecosystems functions and processes in the Amazon. Her interests lie in developing a better understanding of how human-modified tropical forests function, assessing the resilience of these forests in the face of climate change. In addition, she is passionate about finding ways of effectively communicating scientific results to relevant stakeholders and policy makers.
“I get to share the passion that I have for science with the general public.”
Martha has been working at Earthwatch in conjunction with ECI since 2010, investigating the impacts of edge effects on temperate forest carbon cycling. Other current projects include genetic adaptation of ash to local climate, the impacts of beverage carton manufacture on forest carbon cycling and biochar as a soil amendment on a closed landfill site. Martha is interested in the impacts of forest fragmentation on wood decomposition and fungal communities, science communication and citizen science, and how we can best manage forests in the UK with increasing pressures of environmental change on a small island.
“Lovelace’s scientific legacy can be seen by the creative projects her work has inspired.”
As part of my research into theatre in heritage education I have come across some interesting work on the work of Ada Lovelace ( born 1816- died 1852) considered the first computer programmer. Her scientific legacy can be seen by the creative projects her work has inspired. A new theatre project produced by Poetical Machines, Ada aims to highlight her contributions to Charles Babbage’s early mechanical computer, the Analytical Engine, which had been ignored. Another play on this topic Ada and The Engine by Lauren Gunderson I saw performed at The Old Fire Station, Oxford September 2017 tells the story of Lovelace, the OFS website states that ‘she’s Since Become a Poster Girl for women in science, computing and engineering’. Lovelace also made a significant contribution to the development of digital music, this was inspiration for a short operatic work Ada Sketches composed by Emily Howard and performed in 2015 as part of a Lovelace Trilogy, this performance ‘engaged the audience in composition, turning numbers into notes’.
You can read more on Claire’s article Numbers into Notes — Ada Lovelace and Music here.
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