"We all need to press for progress, in science and beyond"

The female scientists taking their fields by storm - and using International Women's Day to encourage others to do the same

In 1915 Norah Schuster reached her first important milestone when, as a student at Newnham College, she achieved first class results in the Natural Science Tripos. She went on to earn a medical degree from Manchester University in 1918, and then became the first female doctor to be employed by Manchester Royal Infirmary.

Schuster later became a founder fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, and, in 1950, was the first woman to be elected President of the Association of Clinical Pathologists. 

It is women like Schuster who helped pave the way for millions of women to pursue education, training and careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) - and whose achievements are celebrated around the world today.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to recognise the successes and accomplishments of women from all backgrounds and professional fields, while also drawing attention to the ongoing campaign for women's rights around the world.

With the World Economic Forum's 2017 Global Gender Gap Report revealing that gender parity is still another 200 years away, the theme of this year's International Women's Day is 'Press for Progress' - and women scientists across Cambridge are supporting the campaign for gender equality.

[Photo: Dr Norah Schuster pictured with colleagues at the first meeting of the British Pathological Association, 1928.
Credit: Wellcome Collection]

Among them is Chloe Gamlin, a fourth-year Cambridge medical student and President of the Lucy Cavendish Medical Society. Gamlin is this year's winner of the Norah Schuster Essay Prize, awarded annually by the Royal Society of Medicine for the best essay on a topic relating to the history of medicine.

Gamlin is also the recipient of the Marie Lawrence Prize for her first class results in the natural sciences tripos; and the Myson College Exhibition Prize for Outstanding Personal Achievement. She has particular interests in public health, and when she graduates plans to be a general practitioner.

She said; "The gender pay gap raises questions over whether the contributions of women are valued, especially in traditionally male dominated fields, but it also has practical implications. While the legalisation of same-sex marriage brought discussion of family units to the fore, households and families without a bread-winning male are not a new phenomenon, and it is grossly unfair that a woman or indeed a female couple should be financially disadvantaged as a result of their gender. 

"We are fortunate to live in a society that is making great strides towards equality, however, I think that until this happens as a matter of course we all have a responsibility to push for progress in STEMM fields and beyond, as women deserve to be measured on their own merits and not be confined by their reproductive potential."

Chloe Gamlin and Theresa Marteau

Chloe Gamlin and Theresa Marteau

Her comments are echoed by Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of Cambridge's Behaviour and Health Research Unit and a Fellow of Christ's College. She said; "Moving towards gender parity means tackling the pay gap which reflects how we continue to value women less highly than men."

Marteau became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire last year, in recognition of her service to public health. "It's a huge honour, that recognises the contributions the teams I've led have made to generating evidence with the potential to improve population health," she said. "I'm also proud to be a role model to more junior women scientists."

To mark International Women's Day she was interviewed by Gamlin to discuss her career and ongoing work in behavioural science.

"I have opportunities to explore places beyond our world"

Strong female role models have played an important role in inspiring and encouraging many women in STEMM careers. As a child, Dr Jenni Sidey was inspired by Canada's first female astronaut, Roberta Bondar. "She was a true trailblazer in an intense and competitive profession where she was in a clear minority. Her success sets an outstanding example."

In 1992, Sidey was in the audience when Bondar, recently returned from a successful mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery, spoke at an event in Calgary.

“I remember looking up to her, being excited at the idea of being a scientist, being a Canadian and having the opportunity to explore places beyond our world. I'm grateful to have had that role model."

Last year, following an intense and highly-competitive year-long evaluation, Sidey followed in her hero's footsteps when she was selected to join the Canadian Space Agency, joining a new generation of space explorers and sending a strong message to budding female scientists around the world. 

Sidey is passionate about supporting more women into engineering, and was encouraged by the number of women who joined her in the race to become Canada's newest female astronaut.

"A third of the potential astronauts on the shortlist were women. This speaks volumes about the progress women are making in the fields of science and engineering, and shows how much can be achieved though dedication to a goal."

Jenni Sidey, Canada's newest female astronaut [Credit: Canadian Space Agency]

"Our passion is
worthwhile only if
we can help others"

Another Cambridge graduate with a remarkable personal and professional goal is Nikita Hari. Hari, along with fellow PhD candidates Stefano Martiniani, Martin Geissdoerfer and Paulo Savager, founded a social enterprise start-up company, Favalley, to train young people living in India's slums as computer programmers.

Hari said; "My vision is to provide youngsters with a social platform where they can be change makers and I’m definitely on the path towards that goal."

Favalley was set up with the mission of 'turning slums into the next Silicon Valleys', by engaging, training and matching marginalised youth in slums with coding jobs. The team have created a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), which equips learners with the skills to enter the digital job market. When they complete the course, students are actively matched with employers, with the potential to secure a job and a 10-fold increase in expected salary.

Hari said; "We aim to provide a better life and stable income to millions of young women and men living in over-crowded urban spaces in the world.

"Though I’m a scientist by profession, I'm a Social Tech Entrepreneur by passion! Somebody has to set the ball rolling at some point.  Over the years, I have realised that our passion is worthwhile only if we can use it to help others, be part of a bigger mission to change the world for the better.

"In the age of racism, fascism, sexism and terrorism devouring humanity, the world needs us youngsters to act - we need to pledge to have a compassionate heart that seeks and strives to make a positive impact in this world for a safer and sustainable tomorrow."

Engineer and Favalley co-founder Nikita Hari

Engineer and Favalley co-founder Nikita Hari

Judith Bunbury in Eygpt

Judith Bunbury performs fieldwork in the Sahara

The importance of encouraging young girls is a topic close to Dr Judith Bunbury's heart.

Bunbury began her career as a geologist, in a heavily male-dominated environment. She said; "I wasn't daunted by the company of men, but I did find it difficult to get a word in edgeways with so much machismo on the rock."

Later this year she will return to Eygpt to join an international team studying irrigation works from 3,000 years ago. When she is not travelling the world helping to uncover the secrets of ancient civilisations, Bunbury is also Senior Tutor at St Edmund's College, and leads her local Girl Guide group, and is passionate about the positive role that teachers can play.

"I love to see faces light up with the sheer joy of learning. Being female and not very tall, and keen to join in everything going, I quash any ideas they might have about Cambridge academics being scary," she said.

The need to change the perception of what a 'typical science professor' looks like is something Dr Renske Smit is also passionate about. Smit is a Rubicon Fellow at the Kavli Institute for Cosmology. Last month she was awarded the 2018 MERAC Prize for the Best Doctoral Thesis in Observational Astrophysics. Her work using the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescopes has helped astronomers to identify the most distant galaxies known to science.

She said; "I never imagined myself being a scientist or a physicist, I just couldn't picture it. I first tried to pursue a degree in architecture. Unfortunately I didn't enjoy the degree as much as I hoped and I really missed my physics classes from high school. Fortunately, I attended a University of Technology, where I met women that were pursuing many different science and engineering degrees, including applied physics and aerospace engineering. These were women I felt were 'just like me' and it changed my idea of how I would fit in with other physics students. 

"In the UK and worldwide women are terribly under-represented in science and engineering and as a result, people may feel women either don’t have the inclination or the talent to do science.

"My advice to young women in high school would be 'Don't tell anyone you are planning to go into STEMM and then just do it'. I remember it being quite difficult when I expressed the ambition to study physics and astronomy; a lot of people either asked me 'Are you sure you're up to it? It's really hard', or else expressed that they thought I would find physics 'boring'. Both these (very common) opinions made me doubt and questions myself unnecessarily.

"I hope that one day I will teach students that don’t feel they represent the professor stereotype and make them believe in their own talent.”

As campaigners around the world continue to press for progress towards gender equality, the work and examples set by so many successful women in STEMM can only help the movement towards a more balanced and diverse scientific community. As Judith Bunbury noted, and Norah Schuster proved -

Rubicon Fellow and astronomer Renske Smit

"Girls can go anywhere..."