"Remember that your way is YOUR way."

International Women's Day 2019

Today, on International Women's Day, we celebrate the achievements of women, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality.

Up to the age of sixteen, as many girls as boys study maths and science, but thereafter a gap opens up which continues to widen at each step of the career ladder. Women are still less likely than their male colleagues to advance to senior positions in academia.

Over the past five years, the number of female professors at the University of Cambridge in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) has increased by 31%. But the overall percentage of STEMM female professors still only stands at 18%. There is still a long way to go. Visibility and awareness can help drive positive change for women, but a cultural shift is required.

We spoke with several women working in STEMM fields at Cambridge about their research, their experiences and their hopes for a more gender-balanced world.

Dr Christine Batchelor

Scott Polar Research Institute
Newnham College
Norwegian University of Science and Technology

I first became interested in glaciers and ice sheets during my undergraduate degree in geography. I really enjoyed conducting fieldwork and original research as part of my dissertation, and I continued to study glaciation during my MPhil, PhD and post-doctoral research.

My research sets out to reconstruct the extent and behaviour of past ice sheets. I am interested in the dynamics of ice sheets over a variety of timescales, ranging from annual fluctuations to large-scale advances and retreats over tens of thousands of years. I hope my research will lead to a better understanding of the long-term behaviour of ice sheets and help to increase the visibility of female researchers in polar science.

An exciting part of my research is going on scientific cruises to collect new sonar data and sediment cores from previously glaciated regions of the seafloor. On a day to day basis, my work involves producing and analysing maps of glacial landforms and sediments. I often visit and work alongside collaborators in other countries, including Norway and Canada.

Collecting sonar data from the seafloor of a previously un-surveyed bay in Antarctica is one experience that really sticks in my mind. We were on board a small survey boat that belonged to the British Navy ice patrol ship HMS Protector. The conditions were challenging and we were in a very remote location, but it was exciting to be out in the field watching the sonar data being recorded in real time.

Cambridge is a great place to conduct research into glaciers and ice sheets. The Scott Polar Research Institute is home to a close group of students and researchers who investigate a variety of environmental and social science issues in the Arctic and Antarctic. There is also a strong emphasis on international collaboration, which is essential to conducting research in polar environments.

My advice to other women considering further education, training or a career in a STEMM field is don’t be embarrassed about putting yourself out there; be it approaching a potential PhD supervisor, promoting your work at a conference, submitting a funding request, or applying for your dream job. A key moment for me was submitting my application for a Junior Research Fellowship at Newnham College. I almost didn’t apply because I didn’t think I could win such a competitive source of funding! This experience taught me that fear of rejection isn’t a valid reason to not attempt something.

Dr Ghina Halabi

Institute of Astronomy

Wolfson College

I am the first person to obtain a PhD in astrophysics from a Lebanese institution. This is a distinction I am very proud of, and I hope my achievements will serve to inspire other women and girls into STEMM education and careers. I studied at the American University of Beirut, and also worked as a lecturer there before moving to Cambridge. I am an astrophysicist and a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College.

Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences and is engrained in the history of every culture. The rich space imagery inspires us to learn more about the Universe and contextualise our existence. Astronomy is also at the forefront of scientific research. Scientists across the field are constantly setting new records by imaging farther stars, exploring habitable worlds, witnessing the most violent explosions and charting stellar census.

My research focuses on the structure and evolution of stars, atoms of the Universe and driver of many of its rattling events. Beyond hydrogen and helium they create all the elements in the Universe as by-products of the nuclear fusion that keeps them alive, including the elements that make our own bodies and life as we know it. Stars are also the visible probes in the Universe, and they energise their host galaxies and the interstellar medium. They are the hosts of planets which are born in their discs and may harbour life in some form or another.

Space research is not as removed from everyday life as it might seem. Our theoretical exploration is inspired and motivated by observational astronomy, which plays a fundamental role in driving technological innovation which benefits humankind and the sustainability of our planet.

Cambridge is a nexus for international collaboration, and attracts visitors from all over the world. There are always opportunities to meet new people and establish connections. The University also has an outstanding community of professionals in every field, so one can always find an expert opinion on almost any topic! This is certainly the case at the Institute of Astronomy, which is also a very friendly and dynamic workplace. Wolfson College, where I’m a fellow, also gives me the chance to interact with people from a range of academic and social backgrounds, which creates a community that fosters opportunities for interdisciplinary research.

I am a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion. I am the founder and managing editor of She Speaks Science, an online platform geared towards raising the visibility of women in STEM by making science accessible and engaging with storytelling. This initiative was awarded seed funding from the University of Cambridge to develop its public engagement activities further. I am also part of the UN Space for Women project, and this has allowed me to contribute to an action plan formulated with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs and UN Women towards empowering women and girls and improving their participation in STEM and the space sector.

I strongly believe that tenacity, networking, resilience and ambition are crucial elements for success. These are some of the key qualities that have helped me along my career.  What has also shaped my journey was jumping into new experiences that were totally outside my comfort zone. To be able to do this, I had to consciously prevent myself from feeling like an imposter and own my work, my accomplishments and my journey. These ventures into unfamiliar territories helped me grow and establish myself and my reputation. I have also developed mental sensors that pick up messages of destructive criticism that is tainted with gender-bias, and learned to shrug those off. Sometimes, you just have to fight it off with a smile and carry on!  

Taylor Uekert

Department of Chemistry

Eight million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. What if we could produce fuel from that plastic waste instead of throwing it away? Hydrogen is a promising green fuel, but it is currently generated from fossil fuels in an energy-intensive process that releases greenhouse gases. I am investigating a process called photoreforming, which aims to address these two issues by taking advantage of two of Earth’s most abundant resources – sunlight and waste – to produce hydrogen.

Waste reduction and renewable energy generation are two global challenges, ones that I hope my research will someday help to address. It would be great to see this working on a larger scale with real-world waste (biomass, food, plastic, and so on) to produce usable quantities of hydrogen. There's a way to go until we reach that point, but it's certainly my goal for the future of this work.

I became hooked on nanotechnology during my first year at university. I went on to complete my undergraduate degree in Nano-engineering at the University of California, San Diego. During my four years there, I did a variety of solar energy-based research at the Laboratory for Energy Storage and Conversion, and completed summer internships at Oxford University and ZAE Bayern in Germany. These experiences enhanced my interest in the nano world and inspired me to apply to the Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Doctoral Training Centre (NanoDTC) for my PhD. I am now carrying out my PhD research in the Chemistry Department.

When I moved to Cambridge from California I quickly realised I was only disappointed by one thing: the weather. Everything else far exceeded my expectations. Cambridge is an incredibly diverse and international community, which means that you are exposed to an enormous variety of backgrounds and experiences. This is important not only for research, where novel ideas and views are always necessary for innovation, but also on a personal level. I have learned about so many different cultures, and have made friends from more countries than I had thought possible before coming to Cambridge.

One valuable moment was when I bought a plastic water bottle from Sainsbury’s, cut it into pieces, and used my photoreforming system to turn it into hydrogen. It is sometimes really easy to get stuck in a ‘lab’ mentality, where you become focused on the small details of your project and forget to look at the wider impact. Seeing this sample work was incredibly rewarding, because it made it clear that, as interesting as my project is for me personally, it could also have a real application towards mitigating waste.

One of my most interesting days was during the Cambridge Science Festival. A group from my lab presented our research at the Chemistry Open Day, with solar panels, a fake sun (i.e. a projector), hydrogen-powered cars, and one of my photoreforming samples bubbling away as it produced hydrogen from paper. We talked with hundreds of visitors – kids, families and students – and shared with them some of the ways we are storing solar energy in hydrogen.

This was one of my most exhausting, and rewarding, experiences at Cambridge. There’s a moment when you see a person’s expression change, when they understand precisely what you’re talking about and realise just how awesome the science is. There was the time a young boy said to me; “You can make hydrogen from grass? Wow!” Or the moment when a teenage girl whispered to her mom, “This is so cool! I’d like to work on this.” Communicating science is not easy, but when done right it can have an enormous impact.

I encourage other women to take outreach opportunities when they appear. The visibility of women in STEMM is absolutely crucial to showcase the amazing work being done by female scientists, and to inspire other women and girls to pursue STEMM as well. There is still an underlying sense that female scientists are a rare breed, but if we can show that increasing numbers of women are sticking with science and being perfectly successful, there is absolutely no reason for this stereotype to persist.

Science desperately needs more of you; more women who love what they are doing and pursue it despite the obstacles. The truth is, there will be times when you’re the only woman in the room, and there will be times when that is intimidating. But over time, that will change. It is already changing. So, continue pursuing what you love, because the vast majority of us scientists are rooting for you.

Dr Ljiljana Fruk

Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology

I grew up in a tiny village of just six houses in Croatia, when it was still part of Yugoslavia. The local schools were great and I had dedicated, creative teachers. Despite my schooling being done during the wartime, I had excellent support in school and lots of encouragement to develop my talents. However, growing up it was hard to imagine I would end up being a scientist, and even harder to imagine working at Cambridge University.

I met my future postdoc supervisor at a conference in Cambridge. He was giving a keynote lecture and I liked his work so just asked him if I could join his group. His response was ‘Yes, if you can secure your own funding’. Luckily this all worked out, and, after planning to stay in Germany for two years, I ended up spending 13 years there!

I had the worst few months of my career when my job in Germany came to an end due to miscommunication and bad management. But, those months made me think about alternatives, gave me freedom to just do something crazy (I teamed up with artist from renowned Centre for Art and Mediatechnology, Karlsruhe  and curated an art- science exhibition ) and made me put my priorities straight. I still had four PhD students to supervise, even though I was unemployed, and it was important for me not to walk away from things I believed in; despite the circumstances. The whole experience made me realise that despite all the career alternatives open to me, my preference was still for research and academia. I joined the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology at Cambridge in 2015, as a lecturer in Bionanotechnology.

I am a chemist trying to make sense of nanoworld by combining bits and pieces of other scientific disciplines; and engineering. My work sets out to design new nanomaterials inspired by natural biopolymers and bio-friendly molecules. We use these to make drug nano-carriers that can target specific cells, or to make cell-friendly scaffolds to engineer artificial tissues.

I hope my research will lead to improved design of materials to advance current healthcare strategies, in particular drug delivery to ease the life of many impaired by hard to treat illnesses or ageing related diseases.  I also hope it will lead to one or two original ways to combine biomaterials with other seemingly unrelated fields, such as electronics or space travel. But at the same time I am hoping that my research will help educate a new generation of responsible, competent, playful and open-minded scientists working on my projects.

In a chemist’s terms, Cambridge is a concentrated solution of wonderfully creative and quirky individuals from all over the world. They bring their knowledge, culture and experience with them; they make ideas go in unexpected directions. I have experienced amazing openness to collaboration, lots of idealism (despite difficulties in getting research grants and funding we are all faced with) and encouragement to think beyond the lab and in the direction of bring technology to end users.  I also get lots of inspiration from being able to shape the ideas of young students and researchers, and I am eager to see where life and science will take them.

I work in science because I believe this is one of the ways to make a positive change, and a way to go where no one has gone before. And for that, the history of Cambridge is a huge source of inspiration. My advice to anyone is, if you like a particular science subject or area, you want to learn, create, make a change and have a deeper understanding of the world around you while also having a chance to help others, JUST DO IT. No matter what you choose to do later in life, education in STEMM will give you tools you will be able to apply to every aspect of your life. Listen to balanced accounts of women and men who have similar careers, but remember that your way is YOUR way. And as long you decide to do your best no matter what, things will happen. Pay attention to details and connect with people you respect. 

Remember that there is not a one definition of success, there are many, almost as many as there are humans. Look out for diversity of successes stories. And remember that losers do not exist. It is just a useless label. Listen more, talk less, but always do.