11 February, 2022 science
Today, 11 February, is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a global initiative led by UNESCO and UN-Women.
To celebrate, we have asked some of our female staff a few questions about how they became scientists, how they feel about being a woman in science and their advice to those just starting out.
Dr Elaine Fitzcharles is the Senior Lab Manager, where she oversees all of our research labs, in Cambridge, Antarctica and on the RRS Sir David Attenborough.
Professor Melody Clark is the Genetics Leader and is currently working at Rothera Research Station in Antarctica.
What encouraged you to get into science? It is something you always wanted to do?
Tracy: I was very interested in astronomy as a child, with my Dad teaching me the constellations and helping me look for Halley’s comet back in ’86! And at school, I had support and encouragement to pursue physics from my teachers (especially at A-Level – thanks Mr Hampshire!).
Elaine: I wanted to be a marine biologist for as long as I can remember, probably influenced by summer holidays at the beach and the TV show “Flipper” about a dolphin. I was good at biology at school so it was my obvious choice for university. My school guidance teacher suggested nursing or animal care (standard suggestion for girls good at biology) as marine biology courses were difficult to get into. With my parents’ support I was able to follow my ambition.
Melody: I really enjoyed genetics at school and decided that I wanted to study it at university (probably the only career decision I ever made). My generation were the first in my family to get the opportunity to go to university, so I wanted to prove I could get a degree for them, as much as for myself. The main thing was to study something that really interested me. Genetics still fascinates me to this day.
How did you end up in your role?
Elaine: My career didn’t exactly go to plan. After completing my degree, I worked in forensics for five years! BAS advertised for a molecular biology technician and I decided to apply as I wanted to be more involved in research. Over time I have taken on new roles and responsibilities, moving to managing the molecular and microbiology lab suite, and now having responsibility for all the labs across the BAS portfolio.
Tracy: I did my PhD in atmospheric modelling, albeit of Mars! I wanted to stay in research after my PhD and was lucky enough to be able to join BAS to study atmospheric waves (on Earth this time) using ground-based observations (so a bit of change from modelling but I enjoyed the challenge).
Melody: I ended up in my role completely by accident – right time, right place, which is something you can never predict! I met a BAS colleague at an EU meeting in Portugal and had a conversation along the lines of
“Hi Mel, how are things?”
“OK, but I’m looking for a job”
“We’ve got one, why don’t you apply? I’ll tell HR to expect an application”
The rest is history as they say.
What does an average day look like for you?
Elaine: My day rarely goes to plan, but that is one of the things I like about the job. Much of my day is sitting in front of a computer screen or in meetings, but I can be called away to help one of the scientists with a problem, or get involved in really interesting discussions about research. Occasionally I get to visit the other labs and have been lucky enough to go to both the Arctic and Antarctic, and work on the BAS ships. Those days are definitely the highlight of the job!
Melody: A lot of my average day is often spent writing grants or doing admin (the perils of being a Project leader). I rarely have the time to get in the lab (unless I’m in the Antarctic), but I really enjoy meeting up with my PhD students and talking through their results.
Tracy: A lot of the time I am working from my computer doing data analysis/coding! I run several instruments in Antarctica so I normally start my day by doing a quick check of their data to make sure there are no problems and nothing odd in the data (we have engineers who look after them on the station so they can do any fixes if needed). If we have a new instrument to deploy South, then I might spend some time working with the engineering team to get it ready and testing it here before deployment. As I’ve become more senior, I am now more involved in the strategic side of things at BAS which is interesting as it allows me to have an overview of BAS’s science direction and see how me and my Team’s research contributes.
Is there anything you’ve found particularly challenging about being a woman in science? And what about being a woman in polar science – are there any additional challenges there?
Melody: Not really, I’ve just got on and done the job as I’m driven by the science. I think in the past, the bar for most things work-related was set higher for women than men. I remember going to conferences when most senior scientists were male, and also to committee meetings when there were only one or two token women (which was not always great when you were one of them, trust me), but fortunately things have really changed over time, for the better obviously.
In terms of polar science, again, now there are many more women in polar science at all levels, which is fantastic. And I’m a molecular biologist, so stick me in a lab and I’m happy, no matter where it is (OK, as long as its not deep field in a tent, or a ship…..).
Elaine: I’ve had challenging moments, where someone has felt the need to explain something to me because I was female, or my ideas have been dismissed and then accepted when a male colleague repeated them. I’ve been asked if I was the secretary, and had people assume the male colleague I was with was the more senior person. One of the main challenges in polar science has been having small feet! When I first went to Antarctica, the clothing was only designed to fit men and there were very few small-sized socks and boots. Boat suits on station were even worse. It’s hard to do anything wearing size 10 wellies when you have size 5 feet! Thankfully I can say that situation has now improved at BAS.
Tracy: Having heard stories from other women in science I realise in that I am quite lucky in that I don’t think I’ve suffered any discrimination or been put off pursuing a career in physics. Of course, I’m quite determined and knew from early on I wanted to study physics so maybe I just blocked out or ignored anyone who disagreed with me! The one thing I have found hard is the lack of senior female scientist role models who didn’t go part time when they had kids. But my partner and I have made it work and have successful careers and a good work-life balance. I have also been lucky enough to spend time South deploying atmospheric instruments. BAS is also very supportive and allows flexible working which takes a lot of the stress off.
Do you think enough is being done to promote women in science? Is there anything you would like to see change?
Elaine: I would like to see equity in science be the normal standard but cultural change takes time. There are fantastic initiatives to promote women in science but some of the most effective changes are the subtle ones, of characters in books and people in the media or TV/film that do not play to the stereotypes of male/female roles. Cultural exposure has a strong subconscious influence.
Tracy: I think there is work to be done in making sure that certain areas of science aren’t viewed as something girls don’t do, something that needs to be addressed as early as possible in education. It boils down to having role models to look up to so people can say: that person looks like me and I could do that too.
Melody: Although things are definitely much more equal these days, I think there is the tendency to think that equality is no longer an issue, which is not the case. As an example, I gave a talk last year and was the only woman in a session of nine talks. We still need to ensure that organisers think about the gender balance of speakers at conferences and committee organisers think about the gender balance of panels, which clearly does not always happen.
Melody Clark in the labWhat has been your proudest achievement in your career? What makes you proud to be a woman in science?
Elaine: Finally achieving my PhD and having my children there to share the day with me. It had taken several years of hard work to complete part-time, while working full time, and with two children born along the way. I’m proud to be part of challenging that culture of what women can and cannot do, encouraging future scientists to take the chance, and helping to open up the world of opportunities available.
Tracy: I’m proud to be a scientist, especially one working in the area of climate and atmospheric science and contributing to our understanding of this field. The fact I am a woman I know is important to show others, who might be put off pursuing a career in physics, to give them a role model.
Melody: Definitely being the first woman in BAS to be promoted to IMP (Individual Merit Promotion) level. This promotion is based on the quality of your science, so it is a real recognition of scientific excellence. Also more recently with the award of the Polar Medal, which was totally amazing, and a very public recognition of my contribution to Polar Science. I just love doing science and I’m proud to be recognised for the quality of that science.
What advice would you give to someone at the start of their career, or to your younger self?
Tracy: Get a mentor! Having someone to talk to early in my career, who could offer impartial guidance on steps to take, was very important for me. I would not have had the confidence to initiate some projects without this.
Melody: Don’t over think things or worry about a career plan, do something that interests you. You never know where you’ll end up and that is part of the fun.
Elaine: If you really want something, go for it! Don’t be afraid of change and take opportunities when they come along. You might surprise yourself with what you are capable of.