Summarising our Women in Science event

Blanca Schofield-Legorburo

On the evening of the 18th January, Cambridge students gathered at a Robinson auditorium to hear from three amazing women in science: Patricia Fara, Patricia Lebre Alireza and Barbara Sahakian. Interviewing them were Bea Carpenter, co-director of Cambridge Girl Talk, and Roa Powell, co-founder of Cambridge Women in Science Society. All five women gave the audience so much for their time, with the guests giving honest accounts of their careers in science and personal reflections on their lives, prompted by poignant questions from Bea and Roa.

The evening began with Bea asking them to give a brief personal introduction. Though, as is inevitable, these took ten minutes each, there was no point at which the audience lost interest, as the biographies were extremely engaging.

Patricia Fara started with the important premise that she was going to give “two versions of her story”, i.e. that it is vital that we do not simply hear a list of successes as it can be discouraging in its dishonest, unrealistic nature. Thus she told us of her incredible career, starting with a Physics degree from Oxford, where she was just 1 of 8 women and over 200 men. She then went on to work in computing with her husband, but at the age of 40 decided on a sudden career change and decided to do a PhD in the History of Science. She is now a science historian academic and has written many books such as Lab of One’s Own: a history of science and suffragism. Yet the other side of this story is that her father being an immigrant brought many difficulties in their lives, she became bored of Physics at university, and was discriminated against in the very male-dominated department. She also suffered in a turbulent marriage for 20 years and became ill at the age of 40, which prompted her career change. Moreover, as Patricia pointed out, being a college employee, a sphere which is dominated by women, makes it difficult for her to get promotions. Thus, she gave us a realistic, and actually more inspiring picture of her life, with its ups and downs and a drive for passion.

Patricia Lebre Alireza also did not achieve her position as experimental quantum physicist easily in the slightest. Beginning by saying “I love what I do and I always wanted to be a scientist”, she went on to tell us about her young marriage to her Saudi Arabian husband, their move to Saudi Arabia and the impossibility of her doing her degree there. She had children at a young age and had to study online. Finally, after they moved to California when she was in her thirties, she managed to do her degree in physics and work part time, juggling it with her dedication to her children. Finally, in her fourties, she was accepted to do a PhD in physics at Cambridge and received it at 45. She said being a mother and homemaker made it much more difficult, but that she had a lot of support from her husband and Cambridge supervisors. Interestingly, she noted that being a minority was much more of a problem in the US than it was in the UK. Ultimately, she concluded that everyone needs support in their career!

Barbara also highlighted the importance of having a supportive partner. She is a psychiatrist and works on treatment for conditions such as OCD and depression, and also on government policy for mental health. She spoke of the inspiration given to her by her all-female school and university, spaces where a woman’s ability in any subject was never questioned. Her determination to help people drove her, even in her position as the only woman in labs or departments, and she is still passionate about finding new treatments.

Barbara even handed out a sheet with advice on it, and I caught up with the other two at the end to ask for their most vital pieces of advice:

  • Keep learning!
  • Have confidence in yourself! You will not get a job if you don’t apply for it.
  • Focus on achievements, not failures. Remember all the work you did to get where you are, don’t just thank luck for it.
  • Stay resilient and keep positive.
  • Follow your dreams and goals and work at what you love.
  • Try and make the future better.

They also spoke about how much better the environment is for women in science than it was 20 years ago, and how much it is improving each year. However, the point that they all collectively agreed on and stressed is the importance of cheap good childcare for women to be able to partake in STEM careers, or any career. A work-life balance and drive is vital too, as well as passion, but a woman cannot be made to feel guilty about having a desire to work and be at home and network and also spend time with her children. This is the question that we must answer and solve in our generation, as well as losing the taboo around women in maths and engineering and around men helping with homemaking and sacrificing some of their career.

Thank you to everyone involved and to everyone who came! It was certainly an inspiring and memorable evening.

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