Wednesday 8 March 2017 is International Women’s Day, a global day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. This recognises the need to challenge bias and inequality, celebrate women’s achievements, champion women’s education and more. From encouraging more girls into STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and careers to showcasing women’s success to querying all-male speaking panels – there are still a huge variety of challenges to overcome in the STEM fields.
Over the course of this week we have a series of blog posts, with contributions from some of our female Associate Editors, discussing their careers in science, the improvements they are seeing in STEM and the challenges that still remain.
For the first post we asked our Associate Editors about their motivations for pursuing a career in science and whether any female scientists, in particular, inspired their career choice.
Nathalie Butt – I was always interested in the natural world, and loved reading about the early naturalists, etc., but it wasn’t until after I had had my children, and was living a deliberately low-impact lifestyle (living on boats, off the grid, low-consumption, no car, etc.), that I felt I should try to take action to improve things, environmentally, and so went back to university to get a degree in Environmental Biology (I had previously studied literature, art and philosophy). I had actually read Silent Spring while a young teenager and that certainly raised my awareness.
Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley – This is a good question. I am not sure if I ever openly thought to myself, I want to pursue a career in science per se. I had a wonderful mentor and teacher in high school who was very inspiring, and my biology teacher. He made a great connection with his students, and always made science, well biology, fun. I remember that we were rewarded on an occasional Friday during biology class by getting to watch an old National Geographic documentary, which was about the rainy season in a region of Africa (I can’t remember the country where it took place). I think that watching that movie, and seeing a region so different to where I grew up, and the amazing wildlife, set a seed in my mind that I wasn’t really aware of at that time. In addition, the outdoors always inspired me. I spent most of my time outdoors as a child. Perhaps the combination of these things is what brought me to be so inspired by the field of Natural Resources Management during my undergraduate degree. I didn’t start there, but ended there. I believe too that I was very fortunate to attend the school that I did for my undergraduate degree. It was a small state school, but the faculty focused on teaching, and spent very little time on research.
I was inspired by all the faculty members who taught me during my degree, and had much respect for all of them. I had a particularly close relationship with several female faculty members, from diverse backgrounds, and through these relationships developed opportunities to be involved in small research projects and programs that further grew my interest in the field.
I went on to pursue a MS degree at the same institution. Through the MS program I was further inspired by members of my cohort who were all older than me, and had diverse experiences outside of academia. I was inspired both by my mentor, who worked on natural resource management policy and communication and a female colleague who was trained in law and had returned to study natural resources management to put her knowledge into action through community programs. I can’t put a finger on exact events or moments, but these two people (‘Griff’ and Elaine), along with my close colleagues (Shawn and Nichol) who worked in science outreach and education, all influenced my interests and pursuits in natural resources management and conservation. These colleagues were all role-models to me, and inspired me to continue to develop and pursue my research interests, and a doctoral degree.
Cate Macinnis-Ng – For me, it was a number of factors that made me want to be a scientist but three things stand out to me. My parents are both retired science teachers so science was a big part of our upbringing.
My father wrote some science textbooks for high school students when I was younger and I was the preferred model for photographs of experiments (over my brothers) because dad thought it was important to show girls doing the science.
This was one of the things that made me feel like science was for girls and boys. My mother was also hugely supportive of my studies in high school, especially in biology. Lastly, my final year biology teacher made science fascinating and fun so I knew it was something I could enjoy.
Ainhoa Magrach – As a child I always wanted to be an explorer and visit remote locations. Unfortunately, most of the explorers I saw on magazines or TV were old men and I didn´t feel very identified with them. Then I discovered Jane Goodall and decided that I wanted to be like her when I grew up.
Elizabeth Nichols – I knew I wanted to work in conservation or applied ecology since I was a child.
I somehow had the benefit of clarity around age 6 that I was destined to be ‘a frog doctor’.
As that idea matured, I was encouraged strongly by my (female) high school science teacher. However, it was not until I began a master’s degree in Conservation Biology at Columbia that I engaged in the kind of deeper thinking that drew me to STEM in particular, and continues to keep me engaged today. At Columbia, mentorship by both Eleanor Sterling and Maria Uriarte was a game-changer for me. I have benefited from great mentors (male female, within and without STEM), but their specific guidance was critical.
Romina Rader – I was interested in pursuing a career in science after I enrolled in a few ecology subjects – I have always loved working with animals and plants! Yes a few female scientists inspired me – in particular I saw a talk by Meg Lowman and that led to me to do a research master’s in rainforest canopy ecology.
Meredith Root-Bernstein – My dad has been my biggest inspiration to pursue a career in science. He is a historian of science and physiologist. He showed me science as a passion, as an aesthetic activity, as interdisciplinary and exploratory. He also suffered over the state of science a lot, so I never had any illusions. For a while whenever he went to a conference he would come back with a book for me about Marie Curie, which might have been a kind of a hint. He was also very inspired about coming up with science fair projects for me and my brother to do in grade school. I also loved the natural history classes that my brother and I took in the summers for several years, learning about reptiles, amphibians, insects, and trees. I have to say I was very oblivious to gender dynamics and issues when I was growing up. Even through the later stages of my education I didn’t seek out women mentors, because frankly I saw myself in men, too.
Margaret Stanley – During my school years, I don’t remember hearing of any female scientists as I was growing up – perhaps only Marie Curie, and I suspect that was more to do with people’s interest in ‘death by radiation’ rather than her scientific achievement. Then again, I didn’t realise that being a scientist would ever be an option for me – I certainly hadn’t met one (male or female), and they would never have come from my hometown (or so I thought). I knew that I loved nature (thanks Mum!) and had an intense curiosity about animals in particular, but thought that veterinarian was the only option for a career. That was until my final year of high school when we got a new biology teacher. Sue Michelsen-Heath (now teaching fellow at Otago University) had done an MSc on the ecology of the nationally endangered rock wren and she single-handedly opened the world of science to me. My first ever ecology research project investigated how leaf shape changed with rainfall, and as a 17 year old waited gleefully for the school mail as Leptospermum leaves arrived from all over New Zealand for me to measure.
Most importantly, my inspirational biology teacher created opportunities for us to meet University scientists and engage in research projects.
Contributors to this post are:
Nathalie Butt, University of Queensland, Australia
Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley, Paul Sabatier University, France @ConnectedWaters
Cate Macinnis-Ng, University of Auckland, New Zealand @LoraxCate
Ainhoa Magrach, Estacion Biologica de Doñana, Spain @AinhoaMagrach
Elizabeth Nichols, Swarthmore College, USA @LizSNichols
Romina Rader, University of New England, Australia @rominatwi
Meredith Root-Bernstein, INRA, France
Margaret Stanley, University of Auckland, New Zealand @mc_stanley1