Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Posts Tagged ‘teachers’

Do we need a Female Brian Cox? Inspiration, Role Models and the Media

Posted by Athene Donald on November 23, 2010

Last week I talked to undergraduates in Cambridge about my new role as Gender Equality Champion within the University, about the sort of activities I envisaged in my new role and how I had got to where I am in my career.  I was really pleased to get an email about 24 hours later saying how I had ‘inspired’ at least one of my audience as she had listened to me talk about my life.  As teachers – of whatever level and whatever subject – to inspire someone is an incredibly satisfying thing to do, but so rarely do we get told we’ve done it. It is indeed one of the key motivations for teaching, to be able to pass on one’s passion to at least a fraction of those listening. Teachers are so incredibly influential in determining our individual trajectories, but often do not know the impact of their actions.

A little while ago, I wrote about this from the pupil’s angle, citing my own experience at school as putting me off biology as a teenager but inspiring me to do physics. Around the same time a piece appeared in the Guardian by Alom Shaha  asking  Where’s the Female Brian Cox?, pointing out that “ Girls are crying out for a female scientific role model” . As it happens Alom Shaha is a science teacher at my old school, Camden School for Girls in London. In my day it was a girls’ grammar, now it is a comprehensive for girls with a mixed sixth form.  (By the by, this is something I had found quite disconcerting when I went back to talk to the sixth form earlier this year: same hall, differently populated, no longer white and female!) I happen to think the fact that it was an all  girls’ school was relevant to my career choice and the topic of this post – no one told me girls didn’t do physics. So, my only role model may have been my excellent Physics teacher, but I also had no one putting me off. That my choice of subject was unusual was not brought home to me until I turned up in Cambridge as a fresher.  Single sex teaching will have to be a subject for another day, however.

So to return to Alom Shaha and his argument that celebrities can lead to aspiration, and possibly also inspiration. He says

‘There are lots of initiatives out there to promote female scientists as role models, but I suspect that having one woman scientist with Brian Cox’s level of fame would have the same impact as many of these initiatives combined. Like it or not, appearing on TV is still one of the best ways to become a role model for young people.’

I only agree with this up to a point, as I’ll explain below. Teenagers are so overwhelmed with images of celebrities – who clearly are making megabucks, something else that is hard for them not to feel aspirational about – that it is difficult for them to realise that celebrity in itself does not bring satisfaction or happiness, and that something quieter but more cerebral might have its own attractions. It is not going to be an easy message to get across. This fixation on celebrities is true whether or not one is talking about role models.  I was staggered to be told by a young woman, at this same meeting with undergraduates last week, that her housemates seemed to think wanting to do a PhD and follow an academic career was rather sad, and implied she was lacking something because she didn’t want to settle down, have a family and be a housewife.  This is 2010 and I thought that was left behind around the time of my own youth. It is hard not to see this as the WAG model of success, and I had not expected to find it in Cambridge where students undoubtedly have the wherewithal to be a great deal more than someone else’s other half.

So, there are 3 different concepts being discussed here: role models, inspiration and the charisma of a TV presenter like Brian Cox. I think they are different and will influence different people in different ways. But specifically I want to question whether role models have to be the same sex to inspire, and secondly if a single presenter really is sufficient to change girls’ worldview of science.

Alom Shaha’s implication in his article was that girls at his school needed to see a female presenter to be able to identify with science as a career  – this must be particularly directed at physical sciences and engineering, since the number of women entering university to study biology is at least equal to men. But I wonder if that needs to be true. Do they look at Brian Cox and think I would love to be able to do the exciting kind of science he does (and I must admit I haven’t watched any of his programmes myself, so have no idea how he comes across), or do they look at him and think science looks fun but it can’t be a career for me because he is male?  I would propose that for many of them – if they have any penchant for science – they are as likely to feel the first emotion pure and simple without necessarily regarding his gender as relevant. Only if the girls never come across images of female scientists then, yes, I would agree with Alom Shaha; as long as they do I am not so sure. The article that was brought to my attention after my post on stereotype threat makes clear that if pupils never see a woman scientist portrayed they can undoubtedly draw negative conclusions about their own abilities as a female scientist. But if they do, I wonder how influential a single iconic figure may be as a role model (unless specifically they are seeking a scientific media career), so that the gender of this iconic person may be less important than implied.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if there was a female Brian Cox, but he has his own mystique due to his previous existence in D.Ream. He has been able to come to the fore not only because he is articulate and passionate and the camera loves him, but also because he has had the support and knowhow behind him of a wife Gia Milinovich herself from the media, who has been able to facilitate his transformation into a TV star (at the same time, incidentally, as losing much of her own status).  So, if there were a female who happened to have a similar pedigree, it would be totally wonderful but, as the responses to the Guardian article made clear, there are a lot of women scientists who have got onto mainstream science programmes but not prospered or been taken up by the media in a substantial way, perhaps in part because their pedigree does not contain all these additional fortuitous elements.

But, for myself I am not convinced a single superstar female scientist would necessarily do as much good as a steady stream of many women scientists – both images and in the flesh – who just start turning up in many situations: textbook and publicity photographs, on TV and in podcasts, being used as ‘experts’ by the media written and visual, and dropping into schools to talk about their passion. If TV is to be used as a vehicle to encourage girls I suspect, as I said in a previous comment, actresses portraying women scientists turning up in much acclaimed serials and soaps would be substantially more effective than a single high profile female presenter. The trouble is currently that the concentration of visible women is so miserably low that the scientific profession remains looking overwhelmingly male.  So can we start a campaign for having women scientists photographed more and displayed casually in more places (incidentally I know a professional photographer who was desperately keen to create such an exhibition to take around the country, but could never raise the funds to do so – any funders out there?); for having more podcasts by women that can be played to schoolchildren of all ages; for girl’s teenage magazines to feature scientists from time to time; and – scriptwriters please note – some lab dramas featuring smart (young?) women doing exciting things in science,  or a female Dr Who. All these strands are important.  If female scientists’ (apparent) presence were as ubiquitous as male’s, maybe we wouldn’t need to worry about the gender of science presenters on TV – and then maybe we could stop having this debate.

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Teachers, Careers and Chance

Posted by Athene Donald on November 4, 2010

What gets one into working in an interdisciplinary field and what form does it take?  A researcher starts off trained in one field but then moves into interdisciplinary working via various routes. One can stay in one’s original field/department but collaborate to introduce the necessary new discipline(s);  one might be assimilated into a new one which is inherently interdisciplinary, such as systems biology; or possibly one could simply jump ship, say, from physics to biology. Is there something about people who take one route or the other that is inherent in their personality, or does it all depend on one’s training/background?

I have just been chairing one of the BBSRC’s grant-giving committees, and this particular one is inherently interdisciplinary, with most people having a foot in both camps of the physical-biological sciences divide. Over dinner we were discussing the benefits for this sort of working when it comes to taking talks into schools and trying to inspire future generations, and my mind went back to why I didn’t do biology even at O Level.  In part, as ever, this was down to the teachers: my physics teacher was on top of her subject and approachable; my biology teacher was on top of her subject and totally scary. She was very much of the ‘old school’ even in the 1960’s and I found her very intimidating. (Just for the record I should state my history teacher was on top of her subject and restless. She would pace up and down the classroom covering a fantastic distance each lesson, which in itself retained my attention. She was also the mother of the Milliband brothers; needless to say it was a state school.)

I have previously written about my work on starch, but at school it was tests on starch and sugars that were one of the things that ultimately sent me scurrying away from biology (the other thing was the test to work out which side of a leaf gave out more water vapour, a question I thought was profoundly boring, so it is ironic that this too is a topic related to recent research of mine in which we watched leaf stomata close in response to stress in the environmental scanning electron microscope).  The standard test for starch is iodine, and I seem to recall experiments involving iodine and potatoes that I successfully negotiated. However, the other test involving starch/sugars was that based around Fehling’s Solutions I and II. For those of you not familiar with this classic test, it consists of taking two solutions – that is Fehling’s Solutions I and II which Wikipedia tells me are respectively copper sulphate (I certainly recall the blue colour) and potassium sodium tartrate – and adding them to the substance under investigation in a test tube and then heating it up.  My vivid memory of the experiment is the sight of the plug of reactant that formed being expelled from the test tube at great velocity and flying across the room. The distaste and disapproval this act of incompetence evinced from said scary biology teacher remains clearly in my mind. OK, I thought, I’m not a biologist, and when O Level choices were to be made that was an easy decision.  There is no doubt that teachers can make all the difference, and on such little matters can so much hang. (It is equally the case that I much preferred French to German because at the end of my first year of French my teacher told me my accent was awful, so I stopped trying.).  Much has been written about the importance of having well qualified science teachers in primary schools, and specialists in the sciences in every secondary school.  However, even good teachers can be a deterrent if their frankness equates to destruction of confidence.

Research careers have a way of taking on a life of their own, and decisions taken at 15 are not necessarily irrevocable unless one is determined they should be. Chance, fate, call it what you will, plays a surprisingly strong part in shaping where one ends up.  Early career researchers reading this, please don’t believe we all had a life-plan when we set out: a certain extremely well-known colleague of mine once admitted his choice of PhD was determined by the supervisor who smiled at him, and from that simple action much has subsequently flowed.

I would imagine most interdisciplinary researchers have learnt that the discipline and topics which excited them in teenage years turn out not to be sufficient to maintain excitement as research evolves.  New skills, ideas and possibly even language (at least jargon) are required to enable the full story to be teased out. It requires an openness of mind so that the fixed views of a teenager don’t spill over into adult life, and sufficient motivation to overcome the hurdles that crossing boundaries into another discipline inevitably throws up.  However, perhaps the person who completely jumps ship to a different discipline – such as I mentioned at the beginning – does differ from the one who is comfortable sitting at an interface. Maybe the ship-jumper wants to commit to something new, but also in some senses to walk away from the old, in essence rejecting their earlier persona.  In contrast the person who is content to stay put but collaborate is keeping their options open, so that in the future other collaborations can take them in a different direction. The positive spin on this would be they are flexible, the negative that they can’t commit and, as I’ve said before, I obviously fall into the group who have commitment problems.  Chance, teachers, people one bumps into or deliberately set out to meet, all will determine one’s research path in ways impossible to predict when making those early decisions about exam choices.  Decisions are not in general immutable and taking risks is often the best way to progress.

The conversation with my BBSRC committee colleagues clearly did not cover all this ground, though it sparked this train of thought. We had a convivial evening despite the austerity measures the current financial situation impose. We had a truly dreadful meal, which could best be described as school-dinner-with-pretensions. In tune with my long involvement with starch, I think I can safely say the best parts of the meal were the roll and potatoes, the rest was barely edible.  The BBSRC staff member who sat at our table was rehearsing the long list of complaints she had for the hotel management (there was rather too much drilling and hammering going on for comfort for instance), and thereby she hoped to get even better value for money for the research council.  The taxpayer should be reassured.

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