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Blog | 11 February 2021

Celebrating Women and Girls in Science

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Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science – a day to celebrate the achievements of women and girls and challenge the barriers that can prevent them from entering, and excelling, in the scientific field. 

With the number of girls taking core-STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at GCSE continuing to rise in the UK, and recent government data showing that there are just over one million women in core-STEM roles in the UK workforce, things are looking promising. But there is still a way to go. According to 2018 UCAS data, only 35% of STEM students in UK higher education and only 26% of UK STEM graduates are women. Globally, less than 30% of scientific researchers worldwide are women.

We sat down with some of the women on our team to talk about their journey into science, what motivates them, and why diversity in STEM is so important. 

So how did you first get involved in the world of science? 

Emma Davies, Principal Scientist at Healx: I first became aware of science when I was about nine years old. I was always interested in nature and the natural world – I used to spend all my time watching birds and reading factual books about birds and animals. The primary school I attended also had an after school science club and I was encouraged to join by the head teacher once she had spotted my interest in nature. This was my first experience of the scientific method. I loved it, and from that point on I knew that what I wanted to do with my life was to be a scientist. 

Emma Tulip, Computational Systems Biologist at Healx: From a young age I was curious about how the world worked, and so naturally fell in love with science – especially biology! I then went on to complete a degree in biology, and found bioinformatics particularly interesting and exciting.

Monica Jianu, Senior Software Engineer at Healx: My background is in computer science, but I did an industrial placement in a multi-disciplinary scientific environment during my degree. I enjoyed the diversity of thought there so much that I have pursued similar workplaces ever since. 

Nancy Campbell, Senior Scientific Curator at Healx: I fell in love with science many times during my life: in childhood, when my mother – a biology teacher – guided me on how to use my first microscope; at school, when my science teacher drew aesthetically stunning and meticulously accurate anatomical pictures of the kidney; at university, when my professor told us about her novel scientific discovery which had turned her field on its head. What I did not realise then, but I do realise now, is that these fabulous women – my mother, my teacher and my professor at uni – not only instilled and nourished in me a love for science but were also my first role models, and continue to be.

Elena Cibrian Uhalte, Biocurator at Healx: I was at school and was still deciding what to study at university when we had this lesson about how DNA is translated into RNA and then into proteins. I found it fascinating that a scientist had figured how those mechanisms worked and it made me want to be in a lab to find out how things worked myself. I didn’t have any real idea about how you became a scientist but I thought that studying biology was a good start and even if it did not work out, I would spend the next five years of my life learning about things I liked. 

Yasmin Alam-Faruque, Senior Biocurator at Healx: My father was a scientist who understood the value of education to be successful. He worked at Shell Chemicals who sponsored him to get a British degree in biochemistry. He would often bring home plastic offcuts that looked like flat spatulas for me and my siblings to play with and construct things with (as we didn’t have Lego!). At secondary school I enjoyed the sciences and I was one of two girls who passed the physical sciences exam, which encouraged me to do biology, chemistry and physics at A Level and then move on to do a combined biology and chemistry degree at university. I always wanted to go into a field of work where I would make an impact on people’s lives and I was really attracted to the pharmaceutical industry in particular, so I embarked on a postgraduate diploma in instrumentation and analytical sciences.

That leads us on nicely to our next question. What do you love most about working in science? 

Emma Tulip: I really like that what I am working on at Healx will have a positive impact on patients and families in the future.

Elena Cibrian Uhalte: I enjoy learning how things work and biology, as with any science, is an endless source of new things to learn. At Healx, I love being part of this multidisciplinary team working to better understand rare disease biology and advance treatments for them.

Monica Jianu: What I love most about working alongside scientists is the ability to solve real-world problems, often (but not always!) using technology. I think we come up with better, more inclusive and more scalable solutions by working together – and the work is also more fun and rewarding!

Emma Davies: I love the challenges being a scientist brings, each new discovery opens up a new question. On a more day-to-day basis, nothing beats getting some new data, a really nice graph that proves a hypothesis!

Today is all about celebrating the achievements of women and girls in science, whilst also recognising that women and girls are often underrepresented within STEM subjects and fields of work. Why is diversity in science important?

Emma Davies: Diverse teams are essential to tackle the world’s problems in science and other sectors. Being a scientist is essentially being a problem solver, and teams are better at solving problems if they have a diverse set of life experiences. A great example of this is Daina Taimiņa, a Latvian mathematician who figured out how to make a robust 3D model of hyperbolic planes using the traditionally feminine handicraft of crochet. Previously all models were made in paper and were flimsy, but this discovery has allowed the tactile exploration of this particular aspect of geometry.

Yasmin Alam-Faruque: During my time in academic research, I really enjoyed the independent research as well as the  training and mentoring of new PhD students and technicians. But, although my peers were from different backgrounds, all of my immediate supervisors, research group leaders and lecturers were Caucasian men. Black and Asian minority men and women are very underrepresented in academia and it is so important that there is more recruitment from these groups into the higher roles of lecturers, professors and group leaders. It is important to have role models that people can identify with so that future generations can aspire to also become great scientists and leaders.

Nancy Campbell: I think it’s about having role models. I am one of the lucky ones who turned their passion into their career, and as a scientist, I continue to marvel at fellow women scientists. These women are not only scientists – they are also leaders, pioneers, writers, thinkers, as well as, mothers, carers, musicians, and much more. I look at these women and I marvel, I admire, but, more importantly, I see an example to follow. 

And so how do you think we can encourage more girls to get involved in science earlier? 

Emma Davies: We need to ensure that girls in schools have access to opportunities that spark an interest in science beyond the curriculum, along with encouragement from teachers who spot a genuine enjoyment of a subject. The science club run at my primary school was part of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now known as the British Science Association) and my secondary school took part in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Chemical Olympiad. These extra curricular activities allowed someone like me, who had no gift in other more traditional extra curricular activities such as sports, to be competitive through learning about something that I enjoyed.

At Healx, diversity and inclusion sits at the heart of our mission to help people with rare diseases, and we believe that attracting and empowering a diverse team is critical to achieving this goal. That’s why we’re committed to building a culture where individuals are encouraged and enabled to bring their full selves to work every day. To do that, we aim to embed principles of diversity, equity and inclusion into everything we do – from recruitment and pay, to culture, benefits and training – to ensure that everyone can reach their full potential. 

If you are interested in learning more about what it’s like to work at Healx, or how you can join  the team, head over to our careers page for more information: healx.io/careers