By Dr. Amanda Rossiter-Pearson

Dr Rossiter-Pearson is a Lecturer in Microbiology at the Institute of Microbiology and Infection (IMI) at the University of Birmingham. In 2018, she undertook a BSA Media Fellowship with The i newspaper. In 2013, she was the first person at the University to receive a prestigious £250,000 Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust. Since then, Amanda has established an independent research team at the IMI studying the role of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and the gut microbiome in the development of gastric cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases.  Here she reflects on her own experience as a woman in STEM, and what she’s learned from Festival events.

Who have you heard of, Hedy Lamarr or Kim Kardashian? Most people’s answer to this question highlights a huge problem on the narrative of women in the media. One of these women is a Hollywood Oscar-winning actress and physicist who spent her spare time developing the technology that underpins Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. The other has built her recognition and business on her well-known family and multiple shiny-faced selfies.

This week, I attended the British Science Festival at the University of Hull where several inspirational speakers were invited to communicate how we can engage more females with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.

Dr. Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE was one of the youngest people to receive an A-level in computing at just age 11. During the annual Women in Science lecture at the Festival, she pointed out, “Historically, science is a subject dominated by dead white men.”

As a female lecturer in microbiology, I couldn’t agree more. This statement made me recall a visit to one of my hugely supportive male colleagues at the University of Oxford, where he invited me to the exclusive faculty room for lunch. Whilst maintaining my “game face”, inside I had reverted to a schoolgirl buzzing with excitement at the opportunity of a personal tour by faculty at the University of Oxford. On entering the room, I was in awe of the stories this room could tell, along with the fact it had “many leather bound-books and smelt like rich mahogany” (to quote Ron Burgundy). Sadly, however, I was immediately struck with the feeling that I did not belong. Apart from the person serving lunch, I was the only woman in the room, surrounded by approximately 16 older white men. If that wasn’t enough to make me feel like the odd one out, the walls were decorated with “dead white men” who had shaped the legacies of this amazing University. It’s important to highlight here that clearly female academics, including myself, can find support from male (and female) colleagues, and that University of Oxford is addressing the international lack of female professors. But we as a community still need to do more.

I had the honour of chatting with Dr. Imafidon who said, “Frustratingly, I didn’t have any female role models and I look back on this with a lot of anger because they did exist.”  

Dr. Imafidon wants to change the narrative of women in STEM. In this quest, she has built an organisation called Stemettes, which strives to encourage young women into STEM subjects. To date, Stemettes has enabled nearly 40, 000 young people to attend workshops and experiences for free across the UK and Ireland. Stemettes reports that 95% of attendees have increased interest in STEM after just one event. They achieve this by offering services that enable young women to meet successful women who are already driving the next discoveries and inventions.

Whilst we were chatting, we discussed the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, which tells the incredible story of three African-American female mathematicians who were the computing brains behind NASA’s lead in the space race. Dr. Imafidon said, “Girls who I meet can’t get enough of that film”. This highlights an important point. Young girls are massively inspired by STEM female role models, but society is not presenting enough role models to fuel their aspirations of becoming one.

In terms of scientific achievements, one problem is that, historically, females who made important discoveries often did so during a time where females were not recognised by official governing bodies, such as the Nobel Prize.

Nobody could relate to this more than another Festival speaker, astrophysicist Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Prof. Bell Burnell was credited with "one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century" for her discovery of pulsars, a type of neutron star. However, her male supervisor received the Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1974.

Presenting at the festival, Prof. Bell Burnell commented on this lack of early recognition, “I have done very well because I didn’t get the Nobel Prize. There has been a kind of sympathy vote and I’ve got just about everything else that moves. That’s actually a lot more fun”.

I think this statement is remarkable. All scientists, male or female, need to deal with a lot of rejection or lack of acknowledgement, and Prof. Bell Burnell is an iconic symbol of how we can move on from discrimination in any form. Firstly, we can do this “by sheer determination” and secondly we can embody the role model society needs (and sometimes tells you not to be). If I wasn’t already in awe of Prof. Bell Burnell enough - to the point where I was acting slightly awkwardly – we discussed her recent donation of £2.3m prize money to the UK Institute of Physics to help under-represented groups progress in physics.

My exchange with Prof. Bell Burnell truly made me feel that I have met a visionary genius, similar to those who I have admired in films, such as Alan Turing, Albert Einstein and Katherine Johnson (one of the women who inspired Hidden Figures). Our meeting makes me wonder how my journey in academia could have excelled should I have had such a remarkable female role model leading the way, like a shining star (I would have liked to say shining pulsar, as a thumbs up to Prof. Bell Burnell however, it would have been scientifically inaccurate - you can’t see Pulsars from Earth). So, why are female STEM role models so important? Well in my opinion, if you don’t see who you aspire to be on a day to day basis, your journey to the top will be much harder. In fact, you may not even know that journey is possible.