Tomorrow (Tuesday 8 March) is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, we asked our female Editors a few questions about gender equality (and other issues) in STEM and we’ll be posting their answers over the next four days.
We begin our International Women’s Day posts on a positive note, finding out a little more about our Editors. The first question that we asked them was: What made you want to pursue a career in science and were there any female scientists in particular who inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Jana Vamosi: I had no idea what I wanted to do until I was well into my twenties. I took a class in Evolutionary Biology at the end of my undergraduate degree. I loved learning the unifying theories and applying my nascent skills in biomathematics. I went on to start graduate studies with Dr Sally Otto at the University of British Columbia and her mentorship inspired me to consider a career in STEM.
Rachel McCrea: I always loved mathematics at school but never realised you could make a career out of it. I didn’t think about my career path as such when choosing what to study at university but just chose a subject that I enjoyed. My two (female) A-level maths teachers are to thank for me not pursuing medicine or veterinary science as they really supported me and taught me double-maths at A-level, even though only myself and one other student chose to take it. I was inspired by Simon Singh’s book on Fermat’s Last Theorem and whilst at university I discovered that even though pure mathematics was not for me I really liked statistics so decided to study for an MSc. Since then I have never turned back!
Tamara Münkemüller: My main motivation is the kind of problems that we are confronted with in science. Mainly working with a computer, I often feel like a ‘detective’ who tries to solve mysteries by – piece by piece – putting a puzzle together. Seeing the full picture in the end is a great reward. I also enjoy the social aspect of my work a lot. Talking with students and colleagues and meeting new people at workshops and conferences opens the mind and is great fun as well. One of my early supervisors was a woman and I think she did an amazing job educating, motivating and supporting me. However, I had male supervisors and enjoyed working with them a lot as well. Overall, I do not think that the gender of the people I worked with had a strong effect on my career.
Satu Ramula: To me a career in science was an obvious choice after first trying a career outside academia.
Luísa Carvalheiro: I grew up surrounded by science and closely followed the career of one particular successful female scientist, my mother. I was by her side during her Masters and PhD in Chemistry, and many hours of my school holidays were spent trying to understand what those people in white coats and funny glasses did for so many hours in front of lab benches. So pursuing a career in science seemed a natural path to me: I was curious about the functioning of nature, people around me did not have the answers for all my questions and I liked to spend time searching for those answers. Also during my graduate and post-graduate studies in Biology, I had the luck to get to know several excellent female (and male) researchers, so I never saw my gender as an issue for pursuing a career in science.
Louise Johnson: It’s probably an obvious answer, but what made me want to be a scientist was wonder. Living things are constantly, jaw-droppingly amazing and I wanted to know all about them, even when I didn’t really know what a scientist did all day. Being told about the work of Barbara McClintock or Mary Mitchell at university was certainly inspiring, but as great as role models are, it’s just as important to have women around you, in your classes and your lab and your peer group, who make you feel that you belong. So I’d say the female scientists who’ve inspired me most are the ones who are also my friends.
Jana McPherson: Why did I pursue a career in science? In part out of sheer curiosity: I’ve always wanted to understand how things work and distinctly remember being fascinated throughout school how with every advance in grade some previously omitted, fascinating detail would emerge as teachers yet again explained pollination or the Krebs cycle or whatever other natural phenomena we revisited from year to year. That instilled in me a deep sense that there was more to know, more to find out, and I wanted to go out and discover whatever it was.
The other important motivating factor in my case is an ingrained desire to make the world a better place. I’m a conservation ecologist because I really want to help all of humanity take better care of this one planet that is our home. Perhaps because I had the privilege to travel a lot and encounter a lot of nature’s wonders from a young age. The overwhelming multitude of tropical biodiversity that just makes you marvel, or those awe-inspiring places in the middle of a desert or on a mountain top that impress on you just how small and insignificant humans are despite all their technological savvy. Or perhaps because I spent two years of my schooling at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College surrounded by young movers and shakers from 52 nations who all shared an enthusiasm for a better, fairer, more peaceful, equitable and greener world.
Have there been role models along the way? Definitely. Women (and men) who I wanted to emulate because what they do is inspiring; and women who helped me persevere because they provide living proof that (a) it is possible to combine a science career with family and (b) you can do valuable research without necessarily being an enormously prolific super star scientist. In addition, there might have been instances and occasions when I felt inspired to persevere simply so as to spite those negative role models who had no respect or understanding for either (a) or (b).
Diana Fisher: I always wanted to do some sort of biology. I think that some inspiring lecturers when I was an undergraduate influenced what field this ended up being. They were not women, there were few women researchers in the department. It’s important for men in STEM to inspire female students too!
Carolyn Kurle: I camped and hiked widely on the coasts and in the forests of the western United States and Canada with my family growing up and really fell in love with natural history and being outside. Those childhood experiences led to an interest in biology, then ecology and conservation, and it was really a field quarter at the University of Washington‘s Friday Harbor Laboratories that cemented my determination to be a field biologist. The two professors who taught our 10 week course on Marine Botany and Marine Invertebrate Zoology were Dr Terrie Klinger and Dr Megan Dethier and they were highly inspirational. They were and are terrific scientists, excellent teachers, and great mentors to the many students who pass through their classes. Dr Dethier frequently brought her then 4-year-old son to the lab, clearly demonstrating the possibility of having a child and being a successful academic. A lesson I never forgot. Another early mentor of mine was Elizabeth (Beth) Sinclair who is a Research Biologist at NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, the lab I worked at after graduating from college. She was one of my bosses and a wonderful example of how to do great science, lead successful projects, work in the field, and be a mom.
Susan Johnston: I pursued a career in STEM because I have loved science for as long as I can remember. My biggest inspiration was watching Helen Sharman, the first British person in space, on children’s TV when I was 7 years old. I was amazed to see that an ordinary woman (who looked like my mum) could be an astronaut. From then on, I was sure I would be a scientist when I grew up. When I look back on it, it highlights the importance of raising the visibility of female and minority scientists, not just within STEM, but also to the wider public – to show girls and young women that pursuing a career in science is possible.