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Tuesday, 8 March 2016

International Women's Day; Female Scientists (especially Dr Kathleen Carpenter)

Last night I attended a talk on a pioneer of freshwater ecology, Dr Kathleen Carpenter (Given by Dr Catherine Duigan). I was primarily interested in the freshwater ecology bit going into the lecture, but was absolutely fascinated by the whole scope of the lecture. I'm so used to hearing about the scientific life of the famous scientists that it was both refreshing and extremely interesting to hear about the more personal side of her research. Not just what samples she took and what she found, but how social constrictions on things like what she could wear impacted on her science; collecting aquatic samples gets a whole lot more challenging when you're wearing a full-length dress (I imagine. I've never tried, myself). Hearing about how Dr Carpenter rose up in spite of the male-centred environment to become really one of the defining figures (and key founders) in her field, and the phenomenal successes she achieved right from when she was a PhD student ("Just like me!" I thought) through to being a really well-thought-of professor of international renown, was hugely, hugely inspirational.

If you want to learn more, head over to this FreshWaterBlog post to read all about Kathleen Carpenter from Dr Duigan herself!

Today is International Women's Day, and the talk last night was part of my university's week-long program of events celebrating it, in particular Women in Academia (especially STEM fields). I've been really lucky across my academic career in terms of meeting and working with some excellent female scientists. My work placement supervisor, undergraduate personal tutor and my current PhD supervisor are all female, and all really powerful scientific figures in their own right. I know that I'm not really ordinary in that respect, as many fields and research groups are very male-dominated, but it is still strange for me to think of cases like Kathleen Carpenter's life where her being a woman made things more difficult professionally. However, me finding things strange doesn't make them go away, nor does it diminish them; women are still pretty massively under-represented in academic circles. For instance, I learnt recently that at my institution (Aberystwyth University), there are more Professors called 'Michael' on the staff than the total number of female Professors. No matter which way you look at it, that's not equal, that's not 'fair'. I don't know about a lot of aspects of life, but I do know science; and I can truthfully say that in my experience there is no aspect of scientific research where one gender is 'better' than the other, so the fact that things are so unbalanced in general definitely shows that it's a situation that can be amended rather than being some 'fact of life'.

How's that going to happen? I think that motivation is a big factor, motivation to go down the path of an academic, of a scientist. And hearing talks like last night's, talks by influential female scientists about other influential female scientists, definitely help motivate people. I myself definitely felt deeply inspired by Kathleen Carpenter's story, and I'm sure that with the efforts of Dr Duigan and others like her, more and more people can be inspired by the important tales of Dr Carpenter and others just like her. I'm really glad that International Women's Day brought this talk into my life.

Happy International Women's Day! (Both remaining minutes of it, I left this a bit late. Oops!)

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