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:
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:
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.
hilary.lappin-scott March 8th, 2018
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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:
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 protected].
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 [email protected].
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
hilary.lappin-scott October 10th, 2017
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I have been thinking a lot lately about ecosystems. As a microbiology undergraduate at Warwick University I learned that microorganisms largely do not exist as individual pure cultures in natural environments but rather as dynamic, complex, interacting communities, frequently benefiting from the presence of the others in the ecosystem. These microbial ecosystems carry out many of the key processes of life on Earth, for example nutrient cycling, water purification, or within our bodies for example, our gut microbial ecosystems aiding food digestion and overall health.
I applied this to my own research, starting with my PhD. At Warwick University an interdisciplinary research approach was emphasised right from the start – for my part using plant sciences, soil microbiology, biochemistry, physiology and biotechnology approaches to my research and I’ve broadened this further since then. A further benefit of ‘growing up’ as a researcher at Warwick was there was very much the attitude of ‘if you need something for your research then go and find a way to source it or raise the funds yourself’ and I have found these skills very useful.
I have been participating in the FEMS (Federation of European Microbiology Societies) meeting in Valencia in July and this meeting has brought together more than 2,500 from the international microbiology research community, forming an ecosystem, albeit of researchers. Research conferences play a key role in fostering the sharing of data, ideas and collaborations, so it was heartening to note that more than one third of attendees were early career scientists and from such a broad range of countries the researchers are working in. This diversity within the researcher ecosystem, from Australia, through South Korea and the Middle East; countries all over Europe to North America – is a highly unusual mix and this was reflected in the discussions, exchanges of ideas and exciting new collaborations that result. I encourage early career researchers to break away from those researchers that they already know at the conference and strike up fresh discussions and make new acquaintances, as this can greatly benefit our research agendas and widen collaboration worldwide.
Such meetings remind us all of our own earlier career and what it felt like to be at your first few scientific meetings, happily FEMS seeks to support early career scientists to truly be part of the conference. Undoubtedly too, attending conferences reminds us too of our love of our subject and for me the fascination of microbiology – playing a key role in addressing many of the global challenges, for example the need for clean water, a safe food supply to feed a growing human population, microbes undertaking environmental biotechnology processes etc. The fascination certainly returned for me when some of the researchers reminded us of the shear scale of the microorganisms within our bodies, not solely in terms of numbers but that the combined microbial genome within our bodies is greatly in excess of our own human genome!
The FEMS biennial meeting in Valencia is my first since I was elected as the Vice President. For me this means looking at the event through a different lens, one of considering how we can build on the good work of others, ensuring a ontinual healthy ecosystem of researchers, fostering a diversity of views and fresh ideas, to help us better use microbes towards resolving many of the global challenges and ensuring that we encourage the research ecosystem to keep working on the microbial ecosystems seems a great place to start.
More information about Professor Lappin-Scott and her work can be found at the following links:
hilary.lappin-scott July 12th, 2017
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