On the 11th of February 2020, we celebrate the fifth International Day of Women and Girls in Science as recognised and implemented by the United Nations General Assembly. This day aims to raise awareness of the biases and gender stereotypes that deter women and girls from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related fields, as well as promote equal access to and participation in STEM education and professions for girls and women.
I reached out to fellow students in the Department of Oncology for their views on women and girls in STEM and for them to spotlight a woman in science who has influenced them.
Tiffany Ma (2nd year DPhil Student, Ester Hammond’s Lab)
Having taken Gender and Science and Feminist Research Methods courses at UC Berkeley before starting my DPhil here, I grasped that it is important for all of us, especially researchers, to question how the history of science is written. Women’s contributions to science have often been omitted in mainstream science history and their achievements have instead been attributed to their male colleagues. This phenomenon is called the Matilda Effect; Rosalind Franklin (structure of DNA), Alice Ball (treating leprosy), Chien-Shiung Wu (disproving the law of parity) and Lise Meitner (nuclear fission) are recent examples. It is also uplifting to note that diversity produces stronger research; varied experiences and worldviews from women and racial minorities lead to different frameworks of critical thinking thereby improving research. Although numbers have grown, less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women.
Linda van Bijsterveldt (3rd year DPhil Student, Tim Humphrey's Lab)
"Several studies have found that the more a field is culturally understood to require ‘brilliance’ or ‘raw talent’ to succeed, the fewer women there will be studying and working in it. We just don’t see women as naturally brilliant. In fact, we see femininity as being inversely associated with brilliance: a recent study where participants were shown photos of male and female science faculty at elite US universities also found that appearance had no impact on how likely it was that a man would be judged to be a scientist. When it came to women, however, the more stereotypically feminine they looked, the less likely it was that people would think they were a scientist (Banchefsky et al., 2016).” (Quote from "The Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men", Perez; p. 100.)
I am incredibly grateful to all the established researchers within STEM fields that have always strived to celebrate and highlight existing diversity between social categories, including different gender or racial groups. I believe people are drawn to fields where they feel they would belong and I hope that women in STEM, and in cancer research specifically, can continue to inspire and motivate others - science is a good career for women, women can be brilliant, and women do have the potential to publish creative, innovative, and revolutionary science. Do not let anyone rob you of your curiosity.
Susan Kilgas (3rd year DPhil Student, Anne Kiltie’s Lab)
There are great female scientists I could talk about, including my current colleagues at the Department of Oncology, but I will take the opportunity to say special thanks to my undergraduate degree supervisor Dr Ana P. Costa-Pereira. Ana is working as a group leader and a senior lecturer at Imperial College London. She is also the head of BSc Medical Biosciences programme development. She was my first supervisor and she encouraged me to pursue a career in academia. Ana has an outstanding ability to make you feel part of her team and she knows how to motivate and inspire her group. She is a strong leader, having the ability to be both friendly and authoritative. I fondly remember all of our fruitful scientific discussions over morning coffees in her office. She encouraged me to think independently and give my best at everything I do. I will be thankful for her influence throughout my scientific career.
Cristiano Peron, MD (1st year DPhil Student, Kristijan Ramadan’s Lab)
When I think about the contributions made by different women in science, the name of Rita Levi-Montalcini always comes to my mind. She was not only an amazing scientist who was able to obtain the Nobel prize in 1986 for the discovery of the nerve growth factor, she was also a remarkable example of resilience and fortitude. She started working as a young academic in Italy in 1936 but, because she came from a Jewish family, she was forced to resign following the introduction of laws barring Jews from academic and professional careers by the fascist government. However, this did not stop her. She continued her research by establishing a rudimentary laboratory in her own bedroom and, by the end of World War II, she was again a scientist capable of contributing to both American and Italian research projects for a number of years.
I consider her strength an example to be followed. If she was able to make it in such difficult times, every one of us can too.
Pauline Lascaux (1st year DPhil Student, Kristijan Ramadan's Lab)
My choice for the woman in science for 2020 is Professor Salima Hacein-Bey. She headed the first gene therapy clinical trial in 1994 and has never stopped pushing the boundaries of science. She is still contributing to the development of gene therapy for various diseases and invests a lot of her time and energy in training the new generation of scientists. As the chair of an international MSc, she conveys her passion for science with a strong emphasis on educating students on how to develop a critical mind and broaden their horizons. I learnt a lot from this brilliant, human and astonishing woman.