Welcome to my blog!
I’m Hilary Lappin-Scott, Professor of Microbiology. I’ve been working as a research scientist for decades, running my own research group and training lots of women and men as the next generation of scientists, industrialists and entrepreneurs. My postings cover my world of higher education, all STEM subjects, global conferences and travel, leadership in universities, equality and diversity. Comments welcome and all views my own.
More information about Professor Lappin-Scott and her work can be found at the following links:
Linkedin, Swansea TedXTalk, STEM ‘Pioneer’ Award 2017, WISE Award 2016, Womenspire Award 2017, Soapbox Science, Swansea Uni PVC profile, Research Gate
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This time of year it’s exam results, clearing and student recruitment that’s on my mind. My role is leading, on behalf of the Senior Management Team, the University’s student recruitment process, working with all relevant academic and Professional Services staff to ensure we meet targets set, quite a task! For those outside of the UK higher education system, this is about the exam results that (largely) 18/19 years old get and how they are matched up with a University place.
As often happens when it’s this time of year, I reflect back on waiting for my own A level results and trying to find out whether I had been accepted into University. I recall that I was in Greece at the time and it wasn’t possible to find out my results from Corfu (oh how times have changed!) so I had to travel by bus to the main post office in Athens to phone home. Happily, Warwick University had accepted me and so began my life in higher education.
Fast forward from August 1977 to August 2018…. and I’m in Swansea University. Happily it has been a highly successful year for the University; our recent rankings, UK top 5 for overall student satisfaction, top 10 for graduate prospects, Gold TEF award, UK REF Top 30 and highest ever ranking in the Guardian University Guide, are certainly proving their worth with students confirming acceptance of our offer or record numbers applying through the Clearing process.
Clearing is challenging for all universities, but I have to say that my colleague’s right across the University have really pulled out all the stops and have been amazing! It never ceases to amaze me that, for an institution that delivers teaching, research and works with businesses, we cleverly produce a huge ‘call centre’ for results day and the days following to deal with all of the queries and calls. I spend much of these days in our call centre or walking around some of the Colleges (great for my Fitbit steps) to get updates and to be as encouraging as possible. It’s always very moving to hear the stories of the prospective students that are calling in and wonderful to hear when there are happy outcomes too.
Clearing is the culmination of many months of hard work, this year has been no exception with hundreds of our staff, and volunteers working relentlessly over the weekend, since the A level results were announced last week. In the first two hours of clearing alone, we received twice as many calls as in the same period last year, with over 3000 on the first day, a record number for the University. Quite an achievement as this year, because of the demographic dip, there are 4% fewer 18-year-olds in the population of Wales and UK figures are down too. Of course, the Open Days are key to increasing interest too. We’ve made a lot of improvements and, together with an impressive recruitment campaign for home undergraduate market and international and postgraduate students, brought about a 30% increase in attendance, helping to sustain the growth of the University too and the clearing campaign has ensured that we are continuing to flourish.
Student recruitment is still underway but we’ll soon finalise this and then focus on ensuring we can best support students with their learning, growing their employability skills in preparation for the world of work, with our staff enabling them to be the best person that they can be.
So, thank you to all of my colleagues for all that you have done.
And to all of those joining us soon, welcome to Swansea, see you in arrivals week!
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I am on my travels to my favourite international conference, the biennial conference of the International Society of Microbial Ecology, ISME, this time in Leipzig. As often happens on a long trip (by train) I think back over other conferences and ISME meetings.
I didn’t really have a firm understanding of the place that learned societies and academic conferences played in research whilst doing my PhD at Warwick University. Academic advisors/supervisors can have very different attitudes on whether to encourage or otherwise such an activity for postgraduate researchers. So it wasn’t until my final year that I noticed that others were talking about a forthcoming meeting of the then Society for General Microbiology (now the Microbiology Society), that Warwick was hosting the meeting and that the Society was encouraging researchers to submit abstracts to present research. I submitted an abstract and was picked to give a talk – and I loved the whole experience (other than the natural nerves /adrenalin that giving a talk can bring). Just as I was about to start my talk, friends from across the university joined the audience and sat right on my eye-line, so every time I looked at the audience I kept catching their eyes!
The whole experience of this conference and giving a talk changed my perceptions of what I wanted to do – hey if there were wonderful things like learned societies and conferences then I would do my damndest to have a scientific career.
Fast forward several years and I was preparing for my second ever international conference, the ISME conference in Ljubljana where I was presenting a poster (I didn’t have a clue how to make these but at that time it involved a lot of ‘arts and craft’ work with coloured cardboard and glue…I overdid the glue and found I didn’t need any pins to stick it on the poster board). That was ISME4 and through Kyoto, Barcelona, San Paulo, Halifax Canada, Amsterdam, Cancun, Seattle, Cairns, Copenhagen, Seoul and Montreal we are up to ISME17 in Leipzig. I have played many different roles in various learned societies over these years too, speaking at conferences, organising sessions or entire conferences, growing exciting research collaborations too. The most enjoyable part though for me is always my research students, from undergraduate, Masters and Doctoral research projects and encouraging them to be active in learned societies, presenting research at conferences and networking to establish their own scientific ‘circles’.
So I’m delighted once again to be presenting a session at the start of the ISME17 conference that is entirely about supporting early career researchers at the conference, especially those new to ISME. I’ll cover the friendly nature of the conference, why it is important to branch out away from people from your lab, network and why it’s important and the importance of a mentor. I challenge all of the audience (and likely there will be 400+ people from 60+ different countries) to make at least three new acquaintances, perhaps with research skills or facilities that would benefit them. Then I generally walk around the poster sessions (there are over 2000 posters over 4 days!) and meet the ECRs again and ask of their progress. I’m really looking forward to hearing all of their answers, watch for this in the coming week on twitter!
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Over the last few days I have attended two research conferences for our PhD students that are designed to increase students’ skills in communicating their research to others, whilst improving their networking skills and meeting researchers from other disciplines too. My role tends to be to make introductory speeches and occasionally hand out prizes too, happy occasions!
The two conferences included the PGR Showcase which is a series of events over one day, open to all PhD students, from the early morning ‘Porridge with the Professor’ (a great event to encourage PhD students to meet and chat with some of our Profs on any topics they chose) to a poster competition and finally the three minute thesis (3MT) competition. The second was the Medical School’s PGR conference, organised and run this year entirely by the PhD students themselves. Both were very enjoyable and I really supported the concept of the latter as the students learned so much too. Being able to support our early career researchers to advance their work and demonstrate their skills and expertise to a wide audience is something that I am passionate about. It is a testament to our research students, too, that they actively engage with opportunities to share and promote their excellent research and their research findings to wider audiences.
Undertaking postgraduate research is truly challenging; yet at the same time it is also immensely rewarding. It requires a unique combination of commitment, inquisitiveness, a thirst for knowledge and dedication in order to become an independent researcher.
Both of these events showed the diversity of cutting-edge research taking place. For example the topics for the final of the 3MT competition ranged from ‘The Artistry of J.K. Rowling’s work’, the ‘China-UK free trade agreement’ and ‘Stress whitening in pre-coated steels’; and the posters encompassed ‘Tackling Teenage Inactivity…’, blood tests for the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and the causes and origins of corruption in Europe to name but a few!
Events like this of course do mean that we reflect back on our own experiences as postgraduates, for my part at Warwick University where our Microbiology research laboratory was actually a converted toilet! I did try to make the most of every opportunity that presented itself to me – like learning new skills, presenting my research to others including my industrial sponsors, publishing my research and networking at conferences – in order to be able to contribute to my discipline, try out new experiences and learn new techniques.
Below I’ve included much of the speech I made at the opening of the PGR research conference for the Medical School, in case this is of interest:-
“Thank you for inviting me to open today’s Swansea University Medical School PGR Conference.
This has been a week of celebrating outstanding research and achievement amongst our PGR student community; yesterday I hosted the award ceremony of the University’s first annual PGR Showcase, where the winners of the University’s poster competition and 3MT were announced. These opportunities, as with your conference today and tomorrow, to promote your research, the passion you have for your discipline and develop your skills to communicate and engage diverse audiences with your findings, are paramount as you strive forward in your careers.
When I was growing up girls were taught cooking and needlework at school rather than physics, metalwork or chemistry. In my early 20’s I was particularly interested in nature conservation and emerging environmental challenges. I was a vociferous reader and when I read the seminal book ‘Silent Spring’, by Rachel Carson, I became aware of a number of opportunities that I thought I’d like to pursue. I took A-levels at evening class and then enrolled at Warwick University. I sought out every opportunity I could to promote my research and develop my skills as a researcher and communicator; and that’s the approach I’ve taken throughout my career – to make the most of every opportunity that’s presented itself along my science journey.
I say this because it’s at conferences just such as yours today that you can take your own steps as part of your career journey. Taking part in delivering a poster or paper is important but don’t forget to make the most of meeting new people, sharing new ideas, discussing new opportunities. All of these aspects help you to build your contacts and your network.
As many of you will know I am a prolific user of Twitter, which is just one way I choose to reach many different people with the breadth and variety of things (not all scientific), which interest me (and which I hope will interest them). As someof you may also know I have a blog –The Disruptive STEMinist! I am passionate about the involvement and promotion of women, in particular in STEM and in taking an open and inclusive approach. I was interviewed not so long ago by the Federation of European Microbiology Societies, of which I am currently the Vice-President, for International Women’s Day, and was asked for advice I’d want to pass to today’s postgraduate and early career researchers. This is how I’d respond for you today:
- Do join learned and other academic societies as it is great to be a part of a research community from an early stage and contribute to your discipline
- Take every opportunity to learn the skills of how to present your research to others and try this out at conferences and to others whenever possible
- Public outreach is important, especially in communicating your research to others outside of your subject area
- Network, network, network – be that at informal College and research group gatherings or conferences beyond your own group; and invite yourself to other labs to learn new techniques
- Publishing your research is essential to progress in an academic career, so discuss with your advisors when is the right time to consider this
- Work hard but do get some balance with a social life too – I have always played a lot of sport, which I find helps give perspective to my research!
If any of these tips are as helpful to you as they have been to me in my career, then we’ll be on the right track. Thank you again for asking me to open your PGR Conference. For all those participating, I wish you all the best of luck!
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International Women’s Day with Prof Hilary Lappin-Scott
Today we celebrate International Women’s Day to celebrate the amazing contribution women are making to scientific research. This year’s theme is Press for Progress. There are many groups and individuals championing women to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) and to address the gender imbalance in these fields.
One such champion for promoting women in STEM is our very own Vice-President and FEMS Expert from the European Academy of Microbiology (EAM), Prof Hilary Lappin-Scott. She was recently awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2018 New Year’s Honours list for her services to microbiology and the advancement of women in science and engineering. Her continuous efforts to promote women in STEM have also been recognized with the 2016 Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) HERO award and the 2017 Womenspire ‘STEM Pioneer’ Award.
What is the current situation for women in STEM?
“For many countries the situation is now starting to improve, but there is still a long way to go! I know the data for the United Kingdom best, so I will use this. In UK universities, 25% of Professors are now women and more women are being promoted to the most senior levels in universities. But there is still a gender pay gap, which is substantial in many organisations.
In terms of attracting more women into STEM, the UK published data to show that the numbers working in STEM careers had increased in the last months, yet the overall percentage of women in such jobs did not increase as the numbers of men had also increased! So, some steps forward but the pace of change is still so very slow.”
As an advocate for promoting women in STEM, what can we do to support more women in STEM?
“There are lots of actions that organisations can do that really make a difference, many of these are very low cost too. Some of the most effective involve changing the culture to raise the visibility of the women and celebrate their contributions and achievements to make women feel more valued. Examples of what has been done towards this includes:
- joining in lots of international events – such as International Women’s Day (IWD), International Women in Engineering Days and Ada Lovelace Day – and holding some workshops that highlight the achievements of women or inviting in an external speaker to share some best practices to support women in STEM can be very effective
- By widely publicizing, for example, that your organisation will be celebrating IWD this year and highlighting the contributions of some of the talented women in your organisation really can make a difference.
- Starting up a Soapbox Science event in your city or supporting this if there is one already. This takes women’s research to the public and challenges ideas of what scientists, medics, engineers and mathematicians look like and shows these are great careers.
- Have a look around your organisation to see what any imagery (photos etc) implies about your organisation and whether it is valuing the contributions of women as well as men. This has been remedied in many organisations where they have added a greater diversity of people on their walls and in their halls.
- Learned societies can also play roles to promote women in STEM, for example by having equality and diversity statements, setting ‘expectations’ for the participation and contribution of women in all Society activities (nominating talented women for prizes, to be invited speakers, to chair sessions etc).
As this year’s theme for IWD is ‘Press for Progress’ I encourage everyone to find ways to ‘reach down’ and help us others to achieve too. This greatly increases our talent pool and really supports greater success in the workplace.”
How did your science journey bring you to where you are today?
“I had a slow start with science, growing up in the 1960s in the north east of England in times when girls were taught cooking and needlework rather than physics, metalwork or chemistry. Instead my love grew through my interests in my 20s in nature conservation and emerging environmental challenges, including a very seminal book for me, ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson.
I soon realized the need to have formal science qualifications so I enrolled at Warwick University after evening classes to gain my A levels. From there I tried to make the most of every opportunity that presented itself along my science journey. I found relevant scientific conferences to present my research at, sometimes subsidizing these myself so I could attend (I always made sure that my own research students did not need to do this). Generally I attend these on my own so had to ensure that I met others at the conference. Just as well that I did as from one of these I was offered a post-doc at Calgary University whilst I was delayed waiting for a flight to a conference!
I returned to the UK to take up a lectureship at Exeter University and there followed nearly two decades, building up my research group and being promoted to full Professor via a Personal Chair (one of the first ever in women in STEM subjects at Exeter), Head of Department and then Dean, being elected President of the then Society for General Microbiology and the International Society for Microbial Ecology along the way.
I was looking for some fresh challenges so jumped at the chance of joining the senior team at Swansea University, working more on strategic development and research leadership for an entire university rather than only for my own research group.
Throughout my career I had ensured that everyone in my research team and I had taught, had opportunities to maximize their chances of successful careers and I have mentored a lot of men and women in their careers. I particularly encouraged women to step forward and take on leadership roles. As I gained more senior positions in academia and learned societies I grew to understand the dearth of women in senior roles. I found that, increasingly people were asking me to raise awareness of this, engaging others and taking actions. This has led to a ‘second career’ as an advocate for encouraging girls into sciences and attracting and retaining women in STEM careers. I am now seeing more women developing their skills to take on senior roles and leadership positions and am working to generate and share best practices globally to keep pushing this key agenda.”
What advice would you give to today’s early career researchers?
“I have quite a lot of suggestions so here are a few from my list, in no particular order:
- Do join learned societies as it is great to be a part of a research community from an early stage and contribute to your discipline
- Learn the skills of how to present your research to others and try this out at conferences and to others whenever possible
- Public outreach is important especially in communicating your research to others outside of your subject area
- Network at conferences beyond your own group and invite yourself to other labs to learn new techniques
- Publishing your research is essential to progress in an academic career, so discuss with your advisors when is the right time to consider this
- Work hard but do get some balance with a social life too (I have always played a lot of sport and it helps give perspective to my research!)
- Having a supportive life partner is key to progress as a researcher, so I encourage early career researchers to consider ‘don’t let the hand you hold, hold you back’ (quote from a washroom in Swansea University).”
You can discover more about Hilary and other inspirational stories of the women leading the way in microbiology in our Women in STEM special journal collection, as well as in our collaborative International Women’s Day Twitter collection with some of our Member Societies.
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We have invited our 2017 Womenspire Award Winners to reflect on their success. Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott (OBE) won our “STEM Pioneer” Award, here is her story…
Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott (OBE)
What did it feel like to win?
It was an honour and a privilege to receive the Chwarae Teg award, I was thrilled! It was so inspirational for me to get the STEM Pioneer award, reflecting the work being carried out that recognises, encourages and celebrates women in STEM careers. These awards, by way of celebration, encourage women who are often marginalised or isolated in the scientific arena and as women in science we need to inspire young girls and women to challenge the stereotypes around scientists and our lives.
What has happened since the awards?
Since the award, which was only a few months ago, many other challenges and opportunities have presented themselves, but challenge is good and is what spurs us on to fly the ‘women in STEM’ flag! In December 2017 I was appointed as Chair of the REF2021 sub-panel for my academic discipline, a very exciting and challenging role given the huge importance that assessing research excellence plays across the UK. A further significant event for me was to be recognised in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list 2018 by being awarded an OBE for my services to Microbiology and for the advancement of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. I am going to the Palace with my family in May for the award, such a career highlight for me!
What did you think of the Womenspire Awards event?
Last year I was the very proud winner of the Women in STEM Pioneer award for my work supporting women in STEM. It was actually really nerve wracking to be sitting in the audience waiting for the winner to be announced. When my name was called my colleagues made rather a lot of noise, clapping and cheering! Above all it was amazing to be standing on stage and to look out to see an auditorium full of women supporters and fellow award winners. There was such a buzz a in the air, lots of cheering and very happy, supportive people, all celebrating the achievements of the winners.
What would you say to someone who is thinking of nominating a woman they know?
Let me see…what would I say to someone thinking of nominating a woman they know? I would say, with hand on heart, JUST DO IT! The more women we can recognise for their work and their contributions, the better. In these ever changing times it is becoming more important for women to have a voice and to feel their voice is being heard and their achievements recognised.
See why Professor Hilary Lappin-Scott (OBE) won the 2017 STEM Pioneer Award >>> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncpCYIjhuic
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I was delighted to participate in discussions on supporting women in STEM in Canada House a few days ago, organised by Trade Commissioner Allison Goodings and with a colleague from Ryerson University, Dr Imogen Coe. Effectively there were two events, one was a small round table discussion over lunch, hosted by Janice Charette, Canada’s High Commissioner to the UK and involved people with a commitment to increasing gender equality in STEM subjects in both the UK and Canada, including Dr Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor. The second event was a live streamed, large, open forum with the High Commissioner, Imogen Coe and me (after an introduction by the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell) having a conversation about encouraging girls into STEM subjects and recruiting and retaining women in STEM careers. I was happy to participate as these are subjects that are close to my heart.
The evening discussion was wide ranging, including why it is important to increase the participation of girls and women in STEM subjects and careers and what works to encourage girls into such subjects and importantly to both attract and retain women in STEM careers. There was a very lively audience that really responded well to our discussions and had lots of questions for us too! Some of the audience were school girls, their teachers and parents so we emphasised the importance of role models for girls and the very useful adage that ‘if you can see her, you can be her’.
Some of the key areas that Imogen and I highlighted were the importance of the STEM sectors to the economies of both the UK and Canada. There are estimates that the UK needs to double the number of engineering graduates by 2020 to meet the shortfall of skilled STEM workers that is currently holding back our economic growth. A further area we discussed was to highlight some of the benefits of studying STEM to girls, including how they can access careers that generally are much better paid when compared with many, more ‘typical’ jobs that women undertake. Although the STEM subjects are discussed together, effectively both Canada and the UK still have low numbers of girls studying physics, computer science and engineering late in their schooling and at university. Many regions in the UK, including South Wales, have too few boys and girls studying these subjects or continuing into higher education too.
A further point that was well emphasised at both the lunch workshop with the High Commissioner and in the evening discussion was the importance of having a supportive life partner so that girls and women can succeed. This is a strong way to enable both men and women to play active parts in household work and childcare, so that women can in turn succeed in the work environment and have rewarding careers too (‘don’t let the hand that you hold, hold you down’).
(l to r) Imogen Coe, High Commissioner Janice Charette and HLS.
During the questions from the audience we were asked on whether we supported quotas for women as one mechanism to drive up participation in some specific roles. Our answers emphasised using ‘expectations’ for the participation of women rather than quotas, as a helpful way to make change happen.
The day was a great platform to progress the shared commitment to gender equality across Canada and the UK and we’ll be following up specific initiatives such as Athena SWAN and sharing of best practice over the coming year too. I was pleased that Dr Imogen Coe and Eden Hennessey then visited us at Swansea University this week and really stimulated discussions with colleagues on our ‘next steps’ to increase equality, diversity and inclusivity. Part of our new campaign is how to ‘reach down’ and help others.
Post-Doc in North America
As someone in their ‘more senior years’ as an academic, I get asked to tell ‘my story’ about how I got from being a girl growing up in Middlesbrough to a Professor of Microbiology and Senior Pro-Vice Chancellor. This post covers how and why I moved to North America for a Post Doc and how this opened up opportunities for me and enabled me to get a faculty position at Exeter University three years later.
After my PhD at Warwick University I had a first post-Doctoral position at the Institute for Biotechnological Studies in London. The funding was running out for that three year post and I needed to secure a job fast. I had attended my first international conference near Copenhagen a few months earlier and had given my first talk at an international conference – but more about that experience in a later blog posting! I started to understand the benefits of networking at conferences in developing research and career opportunities so I submitted an abstract for the forthcoming ISME4 meeting in Ljubljana in August 1986. As for my first international meeting I went alone and had to raise the funding to go myself.
The flight to the ISME 4 meeting was delayed for many hours so all passengers were ushered into a room to wait (yes this was a different era in flying!) It was crowded so I had to share a table and sat next to a seemingly nice couple from North America. I quickly learned they were Bill and Vivian Costerton, and were Canadians. Bill was a leading figure in microbial ecology (whom I had never hear of before) how his research covered many, many diverse areas including petroleum microbiology and within 30 minutes he had offered me a post-doc working on microbes in petroleum reservoirs!
He took out a small card and drew out a schematic of the subsurface environment (I later learned that this is how he always worked in research discussions). He sketched out how this seemingly hostile environment was merely a combination of challenges for bacteria but some survived this high temperature, lack of oxygen, salty, high pressure, low nutrient combination, could grow within rocks (I found that concept utterly fascinating) and that some of their growth byproducts were a nuisance and spoiled the quality of the oil. This meant that many international oil and gas companies were interested in bacteria and sometimes funding such work – and so I started working in petroleum microbiology, bacterial growth on surfaces (biofilms) and the much broader field of microbial ecology.
I really didn’t follow a lot of what Bill was saying but I needed my next research job so I listened and agreed to meet him once the conference was underway. Eventually the flight landed in Ljubljana in the early hours of the morning, then the bus taking us to our hotels broke down in the country lanes but as we were all going to the same conference I had chance to meet and get to know some of them.
The next day I set off to the conference centre but inadvertently stood on the wrong side of the road and, as I couldn’t understand the language, caught the wrong bus and ended up in the outskirts of the city with just me and the bus driver looking at each other. He stopped there for a few minutes, then luckily for me, drove back into the city and I found the conference centre.
I attended the opening ceremony and watched the ISME President cross the stage and open the conference, little knowing that I would become the President of the Society and play that same role in Cairns 22 years later. I met Bill Costerton and he commenced the paperwork to formally offer me a post Doctoral research fellowship in his huge laboratory group at Calgary University.
I moved there a few months later and took on running part of his research group, broadening my skills and learning how to work with businesses too. Some aspects were very challenging, such as when you have to walk into a room full of engineers, geologists, chemists, mathematical modellers etc and put across our latest research ideas and progress to such an interdisciplinary audience. I learned that it’s about keeping calm when, for example, Darcys, turbulent flow, catholic protection, metal corrosion or oil souring were being discussed and read up on it fast later. We took some new concepts of how bacteria might aid oil recovery and scaled this up from small rock cores into large 3-D reservoir models, pulling in bacteria survival mechanisms and biofilm studies too. All of this helped me to prepare my first faculty applications and led to a job interview at Exeter University. I was the only female shortlisted but was thrilled to be offered and then accept this in 1989, joining Exeter in 1990, ready for my next adventure!
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Swansea hosted its 4th annual Soapbox Science event this summer. With this week featuring Ada Lovelace Day it is time to reflect on and celebrate our achievements as female researchers in these four years. Guest blogging for Disruptive Steminist Prof Hilary Lappin-Scott (Senior PVC at Swansea University) is the perfect platform!
We are Swansea academics Dr Geertje Van Keulen (Associate Professor in Biochemistry) and Professor Michelle Lee (Chair in Psychology) and we had never met before Hilary brought us together! Enthused and excited by Hilary’s Soapbox Science speaking debut in London in 2013, she immediately saw the benefits of expansion to Swansea and other cities.
The vision of Soapbox Science, the brainchild of Drs Nathalie Pettorelli and Seirian Sumner is brilliantly simple. Take science out to the public – literally on the street corner – and at the same time give women visibility as successful researchers across all science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) subjects. This novel format has been amazingly effective on both counts and this is our experience:
Q: Why did we get involved in Soapbox Science?
Geertje: When Hilary first suggested at the start of 2014 to become involved in organising Soapbox Science in Swansea I was not sure what to think as it was a difficult time in work for me. I knew I needed to be in a feel good community and Soapbox Science sounded amazing. I decided to take the plunge, throw myself in the deep end to explore horizons new. Looking back now it may have been the best decision I made, as Soapbox Science has been the most rewarding personal experience, giving me exactly those values and experiences I craved for in academia.
Michelle: At the time there was a loose collective of STEMM women around campus but we were lacking visibility. Soapbox Science Swansea (SBS) seemed to be the ideal opportunity to re-energise the group and provide a professional platform for STEMM women. I didn’t realise at the time just how successful we would in getting women involved with public engagement.
Q: What have we experienced so far with organising Soapbox Science?
Michelle: SBS is one of the most rewarding times of the year for me. The benefits of belong to a network are many but so often when women’s groups get together the focus is about the challenges of being a woman in the work place and how to balance caring and professional roles. This is of course an important topic and a valuable source of support and mentoring, but what I appreciate with SBS is the sharing of science and hearing about the fantastic work going on across the University. There is so much to know whether it’s the latest in solar cell research, invasive species, nanotechnology, microbiology or glaciology. On the day of the event I always get an attack of discipline envy and wonder what life would have been like if I’d been a chemist or an engineer!
Geertje: At first, it was a relief and great pleasure to work in a women-only team that worked well together, giving each other opportunities to develop and try out new roles and activities without demanding privilege and power in return. The team who got together and its new members are true collaborators, sharing the joy and jobs of running and organising an event. It is not only the organisation of the events that is joyful, the expanding networks and connections between women in STEMM across Swansea campuses, Wales and beyond has almost grown exponentially.
Michelle: I can’t deny that being an organiser takes effort but unlike some other roles that I have it is really good fun. Our all-women team work together really well and it is surprisingly easy to get things done when you don’t have to worry about male egos or hierarchies – we are from all levels from early career research to professor – none of that is important – only that we get things done on time. After four events it does feel like a well-oiled machine and we can roll up in the van, load up the soapboxes and hit the streets of Swansea with amazing science. On event day, it really is avengers assemble!
Q: Which achievements of Soapbox Science Swansea makes you proud?
Geertje: While the effect of organising such events has enabled women in STEMM to become more visible to the general public, it has also led to building up of confidence in speaking up, not only in public but also within disciplines, departments and higher education in general. The enthousiasm of sharing our female passion for STEMM with the general public has generated powerful voices:
SBS has been invited to radio shows such as the BBC Wales Science Café and has featured in politics and policy at national, devolved and EU level on gender equality.
Michelle: For me our proudest achievement is our diversity, we are not just women, but women of colour and of different faiths and nationalities. A highlight moment must be Professor Farah Bhatti, a Consultant Cardiac Surgeon, surrounded by an enormous crowd, demonstrating open-heart surgery (on pig hearts from the butcher’s I should add) in the middle of a busy shopping street! The public have given us an amazing reception especially considering many weren’t expecting to encounter women on soapboxes en route between Swansea Market and M&S.
Geertje: SBS has enabled networking of women across disciplines (e.g. regionally Cardiff and Swansea SBS now share a training session on speaking in public) and across career stages, from PhD student to national scientific advisors to the government (e.g. access to Chief Scientific Advisor for Wales Professor Julie Williams led to further opportunities for SBS speakers and organisers). It has resulted in interdisciplinary and international collaborations and visits: SBS has gone global!
We deliver events and networking effectively through team work in a safe and reliable environment, with clear roles, value and impact of our efforts for ourselves and others. Interestingly, these kinds of attributes were recently reported as five key traits of effective and successful Google teams.
Michelle and Geertje: In summary, working with the many female scientists and engineers in Soapbox Science has truly strengthened our beliefs that women have a natural place at the forefront of STEMM, and should be more readily recognised for their amazing achievements.
If you have become interested in going to a Soapbox Science event near you, please check our current locations in the UK, RoI, Europe, Australia and North America at the main website. If you like to become a Local Organiser for our 2018 events, please email email@example.com.
If you have become interested in speaking at a Soapbox Science event near you, the next call for speakers will open around January time. Please follow the local and main twitter accounts for up-to-date info. For Swansea this is @soapboxsciSWAN or else email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to experience an event, why not sign up as volunteer by contacting a local event?!
Written by Dr Geertje van Keulen & Prof Michelle Lee
For October 10th 2017 Ada Lovelace Day 2017
See more about Soap Box Science in our video
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Guest blog by Dr Jenny Baker, Research Office, School of Engineering, Swansea University
I had the fantastic opportunity to attend a Newton RSC Workshop in India on Sustainable Energy in Rural India organised between Professor Neil Robertson and Dr. Sara Shinton (Edinburgh University, UK) and Professor Satish Ogale (IISER Pune, India). What attracted me to apply was the fact that this workshop was not just scientists and engineers (or physical scientists as we were labelled) but social scientists working on policy, cultural and societal problems.
The workshop was challenging, starting with a visit to rural villages in India before a formal programme of talks from experts who had worked in the area for many years. On the final three days we split into self-selected teams and chose areas to work on that focussed on the energy needs of the people of rural India. I thought I had no preconceived ideas of how the workshop would be before I left the UK but as the week progressed I realised I was wrong. I had thought that the social scientists would do their part and the physical scientists would do ours and the roles would be split accordingly.
However it soon became apparent that the teams had split along physical and social science boundaries and I realised I was far more comfortable working in a team comprised entirely of Indian male physical scientists than I was in a mixed sex group of British and Indian social scientists. I tried to move into the social scientist group but was frustrated that I didn’t understand where they were trying to take the project and I could not see how I could contribute. This was not a personal thing, the people in the team I respected professionally and enjoyed their company.
Eventually I moved back to my original team but realised we needed to attract some social scientists. Could they not understand that we had a really good project? Why did they not want to join the team? Was it because of personalities? From my point of view they did not see the project in the same way we (the physical scientists) could visualise the project. With that in mind I tried describing the project to the social scientists in a different way. The first two times didn’t work, however on the third time things appeared to change. I’m not saying everyone suddenly went ‘wow great project’ just that they finally recognised where we were coming from even if they still didn’t want to join the project!
I went into this workshop thinking it would enable me to design appropriate technology whilst factoring in cultural and societal factors. But I found out it was much more than that, key lessons that I will take away from this week are:
- Ensuring that technology meets the ‘real’ rather than perceived needs of the people you are trying to help is vital for success.
- Local ownership of any solutions is needed from the very beginning of the project at the ‘need’ stage not just after installation.
- Don’t equate illiteracy with lack of skills or old age with inability to learn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the barefoot college program in rural India: https://www.ted.com/talks/bunker_roy
- Consider your argument and examine how you can present it in as many different ways as possible. A ‘hook’ that gets one audience excited may leave a different audience cold.
- If the ideas from people from other disciplines don’t immediately grab you take some more time to understand their point of view, this not only helps you understand others but can be used to improve your communication to different audiences.
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