One of the fortunate ones: my experience as a Woman in Science

 

Toria Stafford is currently a Ph.D. student in the School of Chemistry at the University of Manchester. She has a passion for science communication, public engagement, and Women in STEM advocacy. Toria was named one of the 25 chemists to follow on Twitter in 2017 by C&EN alongside numerous well-known chemists, including Nobel prize winner Sir Fraser Stoddart. Follow Toria @ToriaStafford

 

Encouraging a love of science

I have enjoyed science for as long as I can remember. Ending up doing a Chemistry Ph.D. and proudly calling myself a scientist was just inevitable. I have never really imagined doing anything else. Growing up, I had a very supportive family that fostered a love of science in me. I went to a girls school where I was seen by my peers as a “science nerd” for questioning everything around me and always aiming to root the answers in science. I was never told I couldn’t do science or like science because that was ‘not the girly thing’ to do. It is in this sense that I consider myself to be very fortunate.

I am currently finishing my Ph.D. at the University of Manchester where my work looks at lanthanides, uranium and other radioactive actinide elements by emission spectroscopy. My colleagues and I are looking to further understand processes and fingerprint species relevant to the nuclear fuel cycle. I literally get to stick different molecules to uranium and shine a laser at it to make it glow – my very own ‘Homer Simpson’ moment as I like to call it – so we can develop a method to remotely detect leaks in radioactive waste stores in the future. If successful, this should hopefully enable us to store our nuclear waste stockpile such that we can easily monitor the condition and integrity of waste containers.

 

 

 

Pursuing a Ph.D. is not an easy task and my doctoral experience so far has been quite a rollercoaster ride for a number of reasons. I almost quit several times along the way, but what has kept me going is my innate passion for science, instilled in me throughout my childhood.

The ‘leaky pipeline’ of academia

The further along in my education I went, I realized that very few people – girls particularly – get the kind of upbringing and exposure to science I had. Furthermore, as I progressed through the academic career path, it was very evident that the number of women in STEM (and therefore role models for young girls) and especially in chemistry dropped significantly – the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ of academia. From almost equal numbers of male and female chemistry teachers at secondary school, I had only a handful of female lecturers during my undergraduate degree. My current Ph.D. supervisor is one of the very few academic members of staff that is a woman in our department.

Overall, although chemistry is almost equal in uptake by men and women at an undergraduate level (44% of students are women), representation at professorial level is only 9% with significant losses at each step on the ladder. This is an even lower proportion than the stereotypically male-dominated field of physics where 10% of professors are women (taken from ‘Diversity Landscape of the Chemical Sciences’ report produced by the RSC, based on data from www.hesa.ac.uk).

One thing that I feel is of vital importance to make progress is what I like to call the 3Rs of diversity: Relatable, Realistic Role models.

Getting involved to make a difference

Public engagement and outreach activities during my Ph.D. studies, particularly activities targeted at raising the profile of women in STEM, really struck a chord with me. I am a vocal advocate about Women in STEM on social media as well as raising the profile and understanding of science in general among lay audiences by taking part in a wide range of events all over the country. One thing that I feel is of vital importance to make progress is what I like to call the 3Rs of diversity: Relatable, Realistic Role models.

One of the things I personally strive to achieve is to show that people who work in science come from a whole range of backgrounds, that diversity is important and science actually benefits from a range of viewpoints and the input of a variety of perspectives. Scientists are not just old, white men in lab coats as the stereotype would have you believe. Equally not everyone who works in science is a genius. Some of us (myself included) are just genuinely passionate about the work we do. Science is for everyone. We need ‘real models, not role models’ as one of my women in STEM inspirations, Dr. Jess Wade, says in her latest guest blog post.

 

We should all be actively aiming to make science more accessible, open, and inclusive.

Since 2016, I have been involved in Soapbox Science – a public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. Soapbox Science runs events across the UK and internationally aiming to make women scientists more visible by making sure that ‘everyone has the opportunity to enjoy, learn from, heckle, question, probe, interact with and be inspired by some of the leading female scientists.’ My role was as a speaker’s assistant for the first event but then I took the plunge and successfully applied to be a speaker at the 2017 event in Newcastle.

Another campaign close to my heart is the Women of Science campaign set up by Ph.D. student Rhys Archer. This initiative demonstrates to people of all ages (parents and children alike) that women are contributing to revolutionary science and provides real, relatable role models.

 

 

Diversity in STEM suffers on many levels not just in terms of gender heterogeneity, something highlighted by a recent RSC report. We should all be actively aiming to make science more accessible, open, and inclusive. Even a small action can contribute towards progress and equality, something that can only be of benefit to the STEM community and the wider world.


Opinions in this blog post are that of the author and not necessarily that of Hindawi. The text is by Toria Stafford, the Soapbox Science photo was taken by Isla Watton. All other photos are the writer’s personal photos. The text and photos in this blog post are distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). Illustration by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.