After an afternoon spent training PhD students in Glasgow last Wednesday I was popped along to an evening presentation by space scientist and The sky at night presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock. This was last event of Strathclyde University’s Researcher Development Programme in 2013/14. The talk was entitled “Women in science: the challenge”. Its main theme was public engagement work related to attracting greater numbers, particularly of women, into science careers. This theme is of particular interest to me as Edinburgh Napier University’s Academic Champion for the Athena SWAN charter.
Maggie regularly meets school children to explain why she became a scientist, how she became one, and the kind of work that scientists undertake. Maggie’s invitation for the evening gave her a chance to share stories of her good practice with the audience.
Maggie started off by telling us about her own background. The clangers sparked Maggie’s initial interest in space. (Great news: some new clangers are currently being knitted in readiness for their return to television in 2015!) Another television programme – Star trek – also fuelled her career ambitions (in contrast with the school teacher who suggested that Maggie might try her hand at nursing – not that Maggie has anything against nurses, she made clear).
After school Maggie studied at Imperial College for a first degree in physics, and then a PhD in mechanical engineering. Following her doctoral studies she worked for a number of organisations on exciting space science projects (for example with the satellite company Astrium and at the Gemini telescope in Chile) before setting up her own company Science Innovation Ltd. Science Innovation Ltd provides a platform for Maggie to share her love of science and the wonders of space with school children and the general public.
Maggie highlighted in her presentation how science is misunderstood by the general population. She questioned why it appears to be acceptable to admit to not knowing much about the subject, especially in the light of the general reluctance to exhibit such ignorance about art and literature. She also argued that because we take science for granted, few people appreciate its importance. Equally, the opportunities in store for those who pursue careers in scientific subjects are not well known.
Part of the problem is the popular portrayal of scientists as very serious, sinister, and/or mad individuals (usually white men) who are engaged in difficult, boring, and/or evil work. Maggie stated that “We have to see science and engineering differently” to bring about change. Maggie therefore spends much of her time sharing the message that science careers are exciting, valuable to society, and open to all. “We should be selling the wonder of science to everybody” she enthused.
In her presentation Maggie gave numerous examples of importance of science from her own career, such as work on missile warning and landmine detection systems that save lives. She mentioned the excitement she enjoyed soon after the completion of her doctoral studies: “I’ve just finished my PhD and I’m flying business class to Australia!” She also emphasised that “You don’t need a brain the size of a planet to understand science”, but rather a “desire to aspire” and an understanding that “scientists and engineers are everyday people, just like you and me”.
There is a particular problem attracting girls into science careers, especially in Maggie’s own areas of expertise of physics and engineering. To illustrate the problem Maggie showed a video of school girls discussing their perceptions of physics as a career. Two main messages emerged from the footage: that girls are unaware of the relevance of physics to any career other than teaching the subject, and the only physicists of whom they have any knowledge are male.
In response to this Maggie highlighted the need for education in the opportunities offered by physics and other related subjects, and promotion of strong female role models such as Marie Curie and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell (as opposed to the “fluffy” female characters in the sitcom The big bang theory). Maggie called on the women scientists and engineers in the audience to play their part as accessible role models, and to readily accept invitations to sell the message of science as a career option for all (rather than routinely pass such invitations on to their male colleagues).
Maggie admitted during her presentation that given the chance she will speak science to anyone. From my own perspective, given the chance, I will gladly listen to experts on any subject. I was therefore really pleased to have the opportunity to hear Maggie speak publicly last week, and to chat to her after her talk. The staff of the Strathclyde University’s Researcher Development Programme at Strathclyde University are to be congratulated on organising such an excellent evening, as is the speaker on her inspirational performance. It was also gratifying for me to discover someone else who shares my enthusiasm for pink knitted puppets of the 1970s.