Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Ada Lovelace Day: Identifying my female role models

In the past I’ve repeatedly said that most of my mentors and role models in science have been men. It wasn’t something I’d ever really thought much about. Being in a male-dominated field I thought it was natural that my role models should be men. A while ago the idea dawned on me that perhaps my own subconscious bias means I just think of the men first. So I thought I’d make an effort to write down my female role models as well.

As I sat encased in a large metal tube in the sky over the Atlantic ocean while returning from a recent conference, my thoughts first landed on my high school maths teacher back in Australia – Carla Whiting. I did 'specialist’ maths which was widely regarded as the most difficult subject you could do in the whole of your school career in Australia at the time. Mrs. Whiting taught it in such a way that made it not just come alive, but made any grappling with difficult concepts seem worth the effort. She made me want to work hard to really understand things properly. 

The feature I admired most about her was the way she really used her brain and how she seemed to gain great satisfaction from thinking hard and solving a problem. She made me realise that I have a pretty decent brain and I owe it to myself to use it to the best of my ability.

At the end of the second year of my undergraduate degree I spent a summer working with Mahananda Dasgupta at the Australian National University. Nanda showed me what it was like to spend my days as a physicist. She was fantastic and knowledgeable both theoretically and experimentally. Over time I’ve come to realise she is also great at identifying questions in her field that need answering, and I recently learned she has been elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences, which has raised headlines for its lack of female Fellows in the past. 

She taught me that it is important to keep asking questions, to question accepted results, including your own. This is a key part of doing science and I am privileged to have learned this lesson at such an early stage in my career.

My next role model was a lecturer at my university, Rachel Webster. Rachel is a prominent astrophysicist who taught me several undergraduate courses. She particularly inspired me toward the end of my degree when I learned that she'd gone to Cambridge for her PhD. Speaking to her about this, it became clear to me that she had a dream of what she wanted for her career and she pursued it, never giving up. Of course, she made a (great!) success of it. Her ambition made it clear to me that as a woman in science it's OK to show ambition. 

Sure, not everyone will like you for it but its OK to put your heart and soul into what you do. Also, you have to come to terms with the idea that not everyone will like you. As women we seem to be socially conditioned to draw back in fear at the thought of someone disliking us. Sometimes we can be disliked simply for being successful. Odd, isn't it?

After that I ended up following my own dream to study for my PhD at Oxford and lo and behold things have so far worked out alright for me too. Without someone like Rachel to prove to me that it could be done, I'm not at all sure I would have even applied. 

During my PhD at Oxford I was pleasantly surprised that there were a number of women in my cohort. But I remember distinctly the first external meeting that I attended, where about 30 people were threshing out some of the details of designing ‘EMMA’, a world first in the field of particle accelerators. Not including myself there were roughly 30 people there but just one other woman.

I remember her distinctly, an American lady named Carol Johnstone who was heavily involved in the discussions. I soon discovered that Carol was the one who had actually suggested the whole idea of this type of accelerator. She invented it! Over time I’ve been privileged to get to know Carol and have realised what an absolute powerhouse of new and innovative ideas she is. She gets so excited in the design stages of accelerators and has so many new ideas that sometimes its hard to keep up! 

She taught me how valuable it is to have different types of people working together. You need the working bees as much as you need the innovators. You need the quiet ones as much as you need the vocal ones. 

I’m going to add this one to the mix too: you need the women as much as you need the men.

Toward the end of my PhD I also got to meet and chat to someone who is pretty high up many people's lists of female role models in physics: Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. She probably doesn't realise it but she left a big impression on me (thanks Jocelyn, if you happen to read this!) She taught me the importance of humility and perspective. She instilled in me (whether intentionally or not!) the idea that while the topics we work on as scientists may be lofty, in order to be successful we need to stay well and truly grounded. We need to focus on what is important and (to an extent) ignore the rest.

She re-instilled in me something that I feel has been slipping away from me over the years. Sometimes the system is wrong or you want to do something that you truly believe in but people stand in your way; just go ahead and do it anyway. No-one ever remembers a woman who spends her life toeing the line, after all.

When I think as a whole about the reasons why these women inspired me it is because they are all incredibly intelligent, groundbreaking in their own way and passionate about what they do. Yes, they are hardworking and often trail-blazing. But the absolute best thing for me is that knowing them personally I also know that as well as being brilliant scientists they are all real women, with all the quirks and imperfections that entails. They aren't superhuman. Most importantly what they have achieved is attainable. 

I’m proud to have identified my female role models, mentors and influencers and the lessons they have taught me. If like me your default answer about your role models is “they are all men” I implore you to stop and think today on Ada Lovelace Day and see if you can rewrite your own mental history book.