Lessons and advice from women in STEM

Selin Zeyrek

Women in STEM are inspirational, broadly, for one of two reasons. They either act as role models with their actions providing lessons in and of themselves, or they are people who know you well, and help you realise that you can do whatever you set your mind to. These lecturers, class-mates and teachers stand alongside the scientists I have happened upon because of their fame, and their words of encouragement have stayed with me since.

The very first lesson I learned is perhaps the most important: do science well, because it is firmly within your capabilities.

 My Biology teacher was the sort you tend to only read about and are never lucky enough to come across in real life. She taught us science instead of the syllabus, refused to let us take notes because it ‘stops you listening and absorbing information properly’ and, for the first time, we were made to actually think in Biology class instead of just learning the CGP book. Those were the lessons I looked forward to the most; the lessons where we were made to think our way through concepts by ourselves, from basic principles like the properties of water, until we had figured out an explanation as to why ice was necessary for life to develop at the Arctic. She was strict but fair, demanded excellence but only because she believed we were capable of it, and was enthusiastic about practicals: in short, she was the first person I had come across who seemed like a scientist first and a teacher second, rather than the other way around.

A year and a half later, in March 2018, I came across somebody who embodies this principle.

Jennifer Doudna was the first to suggest that a bacterial immune system could be reprogrammed for gene editing and spoke about the revolutionary CRISPR/Cas9 system she pioneered. It was held in the B-MS, the largest scientific lecture theatre in Cambridge; despite attending lectures there for over a year, I have never seen that room that full. There were people watching from a balcony I hadn’t even realised existed; there were people sitting on stairs; there were people sharing seats – all to see this eminent biochemist. Not because she was an exceptional female, but because she was exceptional full stop, and would have been so no matter her background or gender. She was more than a good scientist; she was an engaging speaker and I remember thinking: ‘this is who I aim to be. I could do that, I can do that with a couple decades of hard work and a bit of luck’. Seeing her speak made me believe I had a chance of becoming like her. It is much easier to put yourself in the shoes of someone who resembles you, and that is why representation is important. Believing you can do something is the first step towards achieving it.

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Press conference with Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, pioneers in CRISPR technology. Source: fpa.es

The next woman who inspired me is perhaps an odd choice because she is not principally known for science: Natalie Portman, who did in fact study a STEM subject at Harvard University, and 12 years after graduation, returned to give the commencement speech. She imparts a wealth of good advice, but her focus is on the fact that if she had been aware of her supposed limitations, she never would have taken the risk to learn ballet for Black Swan, or to study what she did. The sense of realism we develop as we grow older about what we are capable of doing is something she regards as a great loss and encourages the students to remain idealistic about their abilities. Ignore what your limitations are supposed to be, because that information is no more than a burden. I came across this talk during sixth form, but I was not to realise how much it would mean to me until I started at Cambridge. My seven years in an all-girls school had had made me unable to see, in the best possible way, what my ‘limitations’ as a woman in STEM were supposed to be. Participation in STEM subjects was encouraged, and it was never even a discussion that we may struggle with it or perform worse than the boys school across the road (we didn’t, by the way). I never considered that women were worse at science, because (bar a few male teachers) all of the scientists around me were female.

 The importance of science communication is best demonstrated by Rachel Carson. She taught me that nature is beautiful, so tell the world about it! The marine biologist is known for Silent Spring, her book on whether humans have the right to control nature; more specifically, on the environmental effects of the use of pesticides. The popularity of this book led to a ban of the use of DDT (a pesticide) in the US and put in motion a series of events that resulted in the formation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. If you read any of her writing, Silent Spring or otherwise, you can see why: she is a master storyteller, and seamlessly blends science with beauty and wonder. Her books on the ocean inspired a country to become more conscious of the environment, and instead of studying the oceans with the aim of answering the question ‘what can humans do with this?’, she encouraged their investigation from the perspective of the creatures that inhabit it. She fulfils what Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in the US, called for 150 years ago: ‘We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but is somewhat beauty and poetry.’ Carson saw the poetry in nature with perfect clarity and communicated that to the rest of the world.

Ada Lovelace is a figure I admire immensely, and amongst her achievements is being the world’s first computer programmer. She began a correspondence with Charles Babbage after observing his calculator prototype, ‘The Analytical Machine’, and was dubbed by him to be ‘an enchantress of numbers’. She was asked to translate an Italian paper about Babbage’s machine, and her comprehensive notes on it are now considered the foundations of modern computing. She realised what Babbage failed to: his computer could do far more than calculate mathematical tables, it could be used for pretty much any function (she even predicted that it would one day compose music) and would see in the birth of a new field of science. Oh, and she also happens to be Lord Byron’s daughter. Lovelace shows that you can be defined by your own achievements, and not by your relation to someone else.

A final, very important source of encouragement comes in the form of my course-mates: the girl with whom I shared all my supervisions last year is an inspiration from her sheer dedication and hard work, but also her unstinting willingness to help me whenever I come knocking on her door with yet another question.

I owe my motivation in science to the women who came before me and led by example, but also to those who helped me to believe that I could be successful.

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Margaret Hamilton, NASA, standing next to the software she and her team wrote. Source: news.mit.edu

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The 1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics. Marie Curie on bottom row, third from left. Also pictured are Einstein and Planck. Source: ETH Zürich 

Cover image – “Forces of nature” with Ada Lovelace, second from right. Source: womenyoushouldknow.net

 

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