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Women in science

June 30, 2012

If you work in science then unless you’ve been stuck in a cave (actually this is possible in science!) for the last few weeks you’ll have seen the EU video about women in science and probably heard the furore that erupted from the community as a result. Some considered it horrendously sexist, some even suggested that there aren’t “hot” girls in science! The response has generated a lot of (generally worthwhile) discussion of the place of women in science including: How do we attract more women in to science? And how can women manage family life within a competitive academic environment?

The main debate seems to have revolved around disagreements over what sort of women go in to science. From my experiences, science attracts all sorts of women and I think there already exist fantastic role models to inspire young girls to consider a career in science. In fact, it’s a shame the video generated so much negative press as the accompanying EU website contains lots of great examples of woman with careers in science. Following this, I thought I’d introduce a few of the “women in science” that I know by telling you a little about what they do and why I think they’re each uniquely awesome on both an academic and personal level.

Lauren: International, mature student who basically has an army of seals with laser beams!

Giving Dr Evil a run for his money, is my very good friend Lauren. She’s recently moved to Scotland from Cape Town to pursue her crazy sounding PhD project which involves using Southern Elephant seals to collect oceanographic data in the Southern Ocean. La shows that you can follow any interest when you have passion for it and can travel the world in the process! All of this after making the decision to come back to study as a mature student after running her own company!

One of Laurens seal minions! Follow her and them at

Cathy: Oceanographic friend from way back, runs marathons, knits tea cosies and studies hydrothermal vents!

Cathy and I lived together during our masters year and I’ve enjoyed a couple of stays with her in Southampton since. She’s working on the biogeochemistry of deep-sea hydrothermal vents – truly unique and absolutely fascinating ecosystems that are still largely unexplored. A very multi-talented lady, Cathy recently ran her first marathon and in her spare time paints, knits and bakes delicious cakes!

Lisl: Data processing whiz and mum!

After a long day of the hard slog that is data processing, I want nothing more than to go home, chill out and have a little time to myself. So I have nothing but admiration for Lisl who is not only my go-to person for data processing advice, but is also raising the very cute Alice alongside her PhD research.

She provided me with such a lovely piece about managing a baby and a PhD that I thought I’d share it with you here:

“Bringing up a small child while doing a PhD is like working 2 jobs. (Or possibly having 2 babies?) The trouble with the working mum/full-time mum distinction is that even if you work, you’re still a full time mum too. Babies don’t keep office hours, and have a definite tendency to keep you up nights. And as anyone in science will attest – so does research! Grappling with the complexities of radiative transfer theory is not something that can be done on just a couple of hours’ sleep, and burnout is simply not an option. So I have to be kind to myself, which frequently means working at a pace I find frustratingly slow. The strong pull towards home and family at this time also means I feel unable to pursue workshop and conference opportunities as aggressively as I might have, once upon a time.

That being said, I’m under no illusions as to how extremely fortunate I am to tackle these two most challenging of enterprises. My small one has opened my eyes to the wonderment of life all over again, and her presence has brought me to philosophise deeply about the observation that what’s best for me, is ultimately best for her. And vice versa. (I think!) It’s so tempting to focus solely on her amazing little self as she grows and develops, but my work allows me a sense of self, purpose and achievement other than as her mother. Which, I believe, will continue to benefit us both.

I hope to teach my daughter by example that which I learned from my own very capable mother – that fulfillment comes from many sources and that the empowerment gained by making a contribution to our society gives us strength for all our roles as women – be they researcher, decision-maker, teacher, provider, mother, partner, friend. Every day I acknowledge that working mothers perpetually chase a balance that may exist only in theory. My job is not to prove it either way, but just to do my best at both.”

Inspiring stuff I’m sure you’ll agree.

Sarah: Plays charango, stays up all night watching her computer, epic surfer.

Sarah is one of those delightfully eccentric people who have the stamina to work with computer models. Now, for her PhD, she’s also busy babysitting a set of ocean gliders – expensive toys which get thrown overboard in the hope they will collect ocean data and eventually return. They don’t have much in the way of their own propulsion, so steering them requires constant (often 24 hour) vigilance. My lasting memory of Sarah will be her explaining the glider control to me at a party one evening, where despite being sleep deprived and not drinking, her passion and joy was easily equivalent to that of a drunk person given a greasy burger at the end of a long night out! When she’s not monitoring the global oceans with her flock of robotic minions, she can be found surfing the waves off Cape Town, playing her awesome little charango (mini guitar-like instrument from South America) or rock climbing – total action woman 🙂

Koli: Inspirational part scientist, part business woman.

I met Koli when I was teaching on a workshop she attended. I was really impressed when I found out that she co-runs a clothing business alongside her science work. The designs from Ndingu Mxhosa (meaning “I’m a Xhosa”) celebrate her and business partner Mtethos cultural heritage – and look damn cool too, definitely check them out! I love this picture of them both in matching style – her dress is her own design, featuring a stylised silhouette of her face.

She’s now teaching on the workshop where we met and I’m sure her passion and drive will come across to inspire the new group of attending students.

Emily: Truly interdisciplinary scientist and the one I always go to for a cup of tea and a chat (or fabulous cocktail/foodie adventure!).

Emily and I share a passion to communicate science and her work brings her in to direct contact with the people who will most benefit from it. She’s working on indicators for ecosystem management of fisheries and spends a lot of her time working on how best to communicate her findings to the people who matter – the fisherman themselves and fisheries managers. She also has a cat that actually speaks (it says hello when I arrive!?), has great taste in clothes, art, tattoos and food and is my usual companion on market visits in Cape Town.

Ffion: Ridiculously creative and beautiful inside and out, makes the best carbonara, biological modeller.

I remember when we heard we’d be getting another girl to join our already female dominated research group. I think we were all a little apprehensive – we already had a great group of women, could our luck continue? I don’t think we realised the Ffi shaped hole that must have existed, because it was certainly filled when she arrived. I love Ffi’s zest for life. She’s always keen to be involved in everything, whether that’s surfing, hiking, teaching or learning new science stuff. She speaks (and sings and writes songs in) several languages, always straight from the heart. She’s tackling a very difficult PhD and I’m definitely inspired by her determination.

Raïssa: The one who’s always in the lab, vegetarian and lover of good comedy.

Raïssa comes from Mauritius, so pursuing her career in oceanography meant a move to Cape Town – an international trek that I can identify with. Like me she was also drawn to Cape Town for its proximity to the sea, the mountain, and the culture. Now, she’s a self styled “chromatography nerd” and describes her work as follows: “Chromatography is a way of separating compounds. It can take a whole lot of different forms from little portable cartridges that can be used to store only the compounds you want to super fancy machines which cost a million rand and can see the difference between isotopes”. She’s recently spent 2 months in my home town of Plymouth, working hard to process samples from the waters of the Benguela – giving us a great opportunity to see one of our favourite comedians (Tim Minchin) together!

Donna: Rock music addict, deals with radioactive stuff!

Donna and I studied together during our MSc year at Southampton. Her road beyond the MSc has not been easy, especially with the current economic climate limiting job opportunities. But she has persevered and returned to her interests in radioactivity to work in management of radioactive waste. In her spare time she is a tireless supporter of a number of rock bands, at various stages in their careers. Her promotional work and epic gig photos are well appreciated by many bands and science should be careful it doesn’t lose her to the music industry!

Janine: Singer and sustainable seafood guru.

I met Janine through voluntary work for the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI). Together we presented a sustainable seafood cooking display at the V&A waterfront – possibly one of the most terrifying things I’ve done, which would have been much harder without Janines amazing knowledge and charismatic presentation skills!

Janine is another musically gifted friend and has recently used her talents with her SASSI team to inspire Capetonians to cook sustainable seafood dinners for Earth Hour. The SASSI team offered a concert for everyone who took part. Here they are issuing their challenge! The concert took place last night and I’m terribly gutted to have missed it, but I’m reliably informed that it was brilliant!

Hazel: Breaks down borders for African animals, usually with a glass of wine in hand!

A secret oceanographer, Hazel couldn’t resist the call of conservation and now works for the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF). The PPF aims to address the problems caused when colonial powers divided Africa in to chunks without consideration for natural ecosystem boundaries and importantly, the pathways between them. They’ve managed to get 900,000 square kilometres of “transfrontier” parks secured so animals can migrate in a more natural way, making conservation of large populations much easier! Countries across the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) are now working together to conserve their natural resources. The Kavango Zambezi transfrontier park – part of which I visited during my trip to Botswana – covers 5 countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe). This year they also established the first transfrontier marine park between South Africa and Mozambique – important for the protection of leatherback turtles and the most southerly reef building corals in the world. Hazel is part of the team that fundraises to support this fantastic cause.

Marie: Epic problem solver, also doesn’t like planes but definitely loves conference adventures.

Marie has been a great help as I took on the steep bio-optics learning curve that was the first year of my PhD. A great teacher, she patiently explained the various instruments and lab methods to me during our first field campaigns and didn’t even murmur when I threw numerous samples away and contaminated filter pads! She’s been a great sounding board for my ideas and I hope I can be as helpful as she begins her own PhD journey – thrown in to disarray by the loss of MERIS. Anyone who can travel with me, with my plane based phobias, becomes a good friend and my adventures in Lisbon with Marie are definitely one of the academic and social highlights of my PhD time so far. Like most Capetonians, Marie is also a bit of an olympian – running and cycling her way around this beautiful city.

Raeanne: Culinary goddess and mountain runner who kayaks to work!

Another MSc friend, Raeanne shares my passion for good home cooking. She lives in Scotland, in beautiful Oban and studies at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS). It’s the perfect place for her, allowing her to fulfill her passions for doing sports in environments that would make most of us cringe! Whether it’s swimming in icy cold Scottish seas or running up snow covered peaks, she’s pretty extreme! During non-play hours, she studies the effects of renewable energy devices on marine habitats – particularly looking at larval dispersal and intertidal organisms – very cool interdisciplinary work.

Me: Where do I fit in here?

Contemplating wine – something new I’ve learnt about since moving overseas to do my PhD.

My mother despairs of my makeup application techniques and my propensity to have my hair cut only once a year and nowadays you’re more likely to see me with no shoes than in heels, so I’m certainly nothing like the girls in the video. Mainly, I just like to learn. It’s this curiosity that drove me in to science, inspired by wonderful teachers in the form of family, friends and school teachers/uni lecturers. Now, reaching further in to my studies, I’ve discovered that another way to satisfy my passion for knowledge is to share what I already know with others. Teaching on workshops, teaching at university, cooking for people and writing this blog are some of the ways I”m driven to learn more about my favourite subjects all the time. I like to hope that I can help inspire others to find the passion for science that my teachers have inspired in me.

You can probably see from these little profiles of my friends and colleagues that women in science can have very different lives, but I think it’s pretty clear that what they all have in common is passion, enthusiasm and dedication. I think these are the qualities we can use to inspire a new generation of women scientists without the need to dress them up in heels and lipstick.

Get in touch with the EU on twitter using @EU_Commission and add yourself and your colleagues to their list of #realwomeninscience.

Thanks to everyone who agreed to be part of this article and provided me with thoughts and photos.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Kolisa Yola Sinyanya permalink
    June 30, 2012 2:43 pm

    Wow! I love this, totally inspired to be even better in everything I do in life. Great work Hayley 🙂

  2. Violet permalink
    July 1, 2012 12:03 am

    I feel like I really needed to see this. It is really inspiring to know that these women do what they believe in,love it and that they are really passionate about it, I’m proud to say I’m am an upcoming young scientist, A WOMAN IN SCiENCE and I believe that this is one of the things I’ve been called to do.

  3. Raeanne permalink
    July 1, 2012 3:26 am

    Hi Hayley, LOVE THIS! Let’s all keep on working hard to pursue our goals – inside and out of academia. Women in science are amazing – the more women and girls we can inspire the better!

  4. Martyn permalink
    July 2, 2012 10:57 am

    You can have to have an (old) man’s view if it’s any good to you? I loved this exhortation to your gender to become more involved in scientific research and, I hope, it’s translational aspect of engineering. Of course the ‘purists’ disapprove of the video, I don’t. We have to imagine how people see themselves and if we do not see it as ‘cool’ and still feminine to be in science we could miss a large potential intelligence pool.

    I will send the article to Maisha my 16 year old (cool and feminine) daughter, not necessarily to go into science, but to see she can be many things in life and still be a normal human being.

    Actually Hayley, i think you are very well adjusted and ballanced. Some people manage work and babies, you manage work and my baby?

    • July 2, 2012 12:15 pm

      Well I think the article shows that there’s certainly girls in science who are definitely feminine – hence the use of those involved in fashion, music and wearing dresses and heels as well as other things, it’s more the diversity of genuine role models I wanted to get across. The community reaction to the video was probably too extreme and I don’t blame the EU for trying that sort of promotion to get girls on board. But mainly I think most girls would see through the superficial-ness of the video anyway, dressing science up like that just seems like pandering and I think they’d realise that. I’d rather supply them with genuine examples of confident women who are excited about their lives and careers – I think that’s more likely to get them involved. They can get lipstick and heels from the Kardashians 😛

  5. Rainbird permalink
    July 2, 2012 12:57 pm

    This. Is. AWESOME!

  6. jeneric permalink
    July 2, 2012 7:55 pm

    Good one ladies it makes multi tasking look like childs play



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