International Celebration of Women in STEM

As a species, we seem to love proclaiming international days for particular things, or events – whether it is for pancakes, peace, friendship, or to combat desertification and drought. Most of these pass us by without a second thought (unless you really, really like pancakes), but there are some that I think deserve more recognition than they currently get. Granted, it is the inaugural celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, but I would be quite upset if this day faded into relative obscurity as the years go by.

I call myself a scientist, though at times, I feel like a bit of a fraud when I do so. I have a science degree, and I still devour articles about science, but I don’t really do any *work* as a scientist. I’d also like to think that I approach situations in my life as a scientist, using logic, facts, consistent results, and a splash of creativity in order to determine the correct decision to make. I have many friends who do toil away in laboratories (and many of them are extremely bright women, for whom I have the utmost respect), and after hearing about the work they do, I can’t help but feel just a little bit small and insignificant.

There is still a long way to go when it comes to gender equality in STEM fields, even though much progress has already been made. Women are still seen to be worse at maths and science related subjects, and I think this kind of stereotype is somewhat reinforced through society (the Weekly did an excellent job of highlighting this last night). I wanted to be a research scientist from the age of 7, and it wasn’t until I was halfway through my university degree that I realised that it wasn’t really for me. I still finished my science degree, even though I desperately did want to drop it, and I am very glad I didn’t give it up. Because I’d expressed such a desire and interest in science from a young age, my parents did everything they could to facilitate and nurture my love of science. I read Scientriffic and the Double Helix magazines, eventually graduating to New Scientist and Cosmos, and went on tours and did work experience in CSIRO and QIMR laboratories. At the same time, I know my mother was concerned that I would be taken advantage of by opportunistic supervisors, and often told me that I would probably have to work harder than my male counterparts to gain the same level of recognition.

Interestingly, I have similar fears for the career path I’m taking now, even though it is in a totally different field.

In any case, I have been thinking about science communication more and more in the past couple of years, and it wasn’t until about a couple of months ago that I realised most of the “famous” or more “well known” science communicators of our age are male. And most of them are physicists. Think about it – Carl Sagan, Brian Cox, our own Karl Kruszelnicki, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Adam Rutherford – all brilliant scientists, but most of us would struggle to name even one female science communicator that is as acclaimed as any of these men. Even in popular culture – take The Big Bang Theory, for example. Most of the science is focused around the male characters. Yes, Amy is a neuroscientist, and before we forget, Bernadette is a scientist too – but references to their work are few and far in between, and when it is mentioned, it’s not always presented in the most flattering manner.

All of this frustrates me. I see and know so many fantastic women who are passionate about their research, who work their asses off for, at times, very little reward – and with the knowledge that their achievements won’t really be recognised in mainstream media. It frustrates me that for all of Turnbull’s talk of innovation, there are to be more cuts to the CSIRO – these are the people who gave us wireless internet! It frustrates me that in 2016, this is still a serious issue, and it looks like it’s not changing any time soon. It frustrates me that a ridiculous number of people misunderstand, or do not have any knowledge of the scientific method, and that a lot of science news is now reported under clickbait headlines, which misconstrue the content of the article (that is, if you don’t bother to read the guts of the article itself).

I adore English Literature, which I hope to make a career from, but I don’t think my love of science (and in particular, genetics), will ever fade. It’s just too goddamn interesting, even if it takes me a couple of hours to wrap my head around one measly paper. I am buoyed by the prominence of the Stella Prize in the vernacular of Australian literature, and I hope that a similar kind of prize can be developed for female Australian scientists. I know research science isn’t for me, but I hope to be able to contribute to the progression of science communication, one way or another.

I have a passion for science, and the ability to understand most scientific jargon. At my very core, I am a writer (I’m not much good at the moment but I’m working on it), and I want to be able to use the tools at my disposal in order to inspire other girls and women to take up an interest in science. Hopefully, I can return to this post later on in life and tick this off my list.

In the meantime, here are some female scientists (from a range of eras) you might want to check out.

Elizabeth Blackburn – Tasmanian born biologist who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 2009 for her work with telomeres and telomerase (telomeres are located at the end of chromosomes, and help protect them. Telomerase is an enzyme that makes more new telomeres, and also negotiates their length. Shortening of telomeres has been shown to accelerate the aging process in humans)
Rosalind Franklin – It is shocking and surprising that not many people know about Franklin. She was probably the first female scientist that I ever read about, and she was basically the reason Francis Crick and James Watson ended up figuring out the double helical structure of DNA. Unfortunately, it was very much a man’s world in her day, and she was not credited for her work during her lifetime. She also succumbed to cancer before the Nobel was awarded to Crick and Watson for their work.
Barbara McClintock – Won a Nobel Prize for the discovery of genetic transposition, established the first genetic map for maize (through cytogenetics), and demonstrated the role of centromeres and telomeres. 
Chien -Shiung Wu 
– Almost everyone knows about Marie Curie, but Wu, an experimental physicist, also worked with radioactive substances – namely, as part of the Manhattan Project, separating uranium into its isotopes, uranium 235 and 238. She also established the Wu experiment (determining if the conservation of parity applied to weak forces as well as strong forces), which led to her colleagues winning the Nobel Prize for physics in 1957.
Caroline Herschel – Helped her brother, William, to build telescopes, and was an established astronomer in her own right. Herschel discovered eight comets, catalogued over 2000 nebulae, received a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, and was the first female scientist to be paid for her work in Britain.
Youyou Tu – One of the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize in 2015, Tu’s research focused on the development of an anti-malaria drug called artemisinin. The structure of this drug was obtained by analysing the contents of thousands of traditional Chinese herbal remedies and recipes. Tu continued her work during the cultural revolution, when scientists (and other intellectuals) were seen of a lower status in society.
Ada Lovelace – Considered by many to be the first female computer programmer, Lovelace worked extensively with Charles Babbage on the ‘Analytical Engine’, and her notes were used extensively by Alan Turing on his way to creating the first modern computer.
Gertrude Elion – Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1988, Elion’s research formed the basis for the drug AZT, given to patients suffering from HIV/AIDS. She also worked on the development of drugs for everything from leukeamia to gout and herpes.
Aarathi Prasad – Currently living in London, Prasad, a cancer genetics researcher, has been heavily involved in science communication in recent times. She has written for BioNews, Wired UK, and the Telegraph, and is the hosted a number of science shows, including Brave New World with Stephen Hawking.

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