A post recently popped up on my facebook feed of a fantastic
photo shoot a mum had taken of her daughter’s softball team. The girls wore
both pretty dresses, and their trainer. They wore crowns, and war paint, high
heels and catcher’s mits, they were both ‘pretty’ and ‘sporty’. The idea of the
shoot- why can’t girls be beautiful and like sports?
This idea of each of us being ‘one true thing’ in life can sometimes be inspiring, when we see a dancer so dedicated they get through three pairs of point shoes a day or an environmentalist who lives in the wild, eating nothing but insects! But the truth is most of us don’t fit into one box nicely, we are far too complex for that!
When I think back to things that could have stopped me going
into STEM, and the thing that still makes me feel like an imposter, this idea
of ‘you can only be one thing’ is probably the biggest barrier.
I was very lucky in that I went to an all-girls high school,
so the idea of male/female subjects was unheard of, they were just subjects.
However, the idea that you were either sporty OR smart OR artistic was rife. I
was sporty when I started high school. I was a gymnast, who competed in the
national team, I went on training camps and excelled at PE. That was until I
quit the sport due to health issues, and suddenly I didn’t excel at anything. I
was average or as the saying goes ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. I
wasn’t needy enough to require extra help, not intelligent enough to receive
accolade, so I just sort of existed in the middle- ‘master of none’.
If you had asked me then, in high school who of my peers would most likely be working in STEM, I probably would have pointed to those at the ‘top of the class’, because that is what we are conditioned to think, to follow a path, you have to be the best. The best at that, and nothing else. If you aren’t a math genius, don’t bother with physics. If you can’t label all the parts of the plant off by heart, don’t bother with biology, if you aren’t ‘academic’ you won’t survive in science.
Yet all of this is a lie because none of us are one dimensional. That girl I would have pointed to as most likely to end up in STEM? She went to do Physics at university, but now is a lighting designer for theatres. And me? The ex-sporty ‘master of none’, I’m completing a PhD in Biomedical Physics and last month gave a keynote talk at a surgical conference!
Labcoat and barbell
But even now, I look at those around me and think ‘look at him, he is a real physicist. I’m not as good as him, because he has the brain for maths’. And I forget that the reason I have got where I am now is precisely because I am a jack of all trades.
An enjoyment of drama
taught me how to speak and captivate an audience. Literature and books taught
me to write. Exercise and Sport gave me an appreciation for the very physiology
I am investigation and art helped me to be able to draw my own schematics for
More than this, with science and academia being a very stressful environment to work in, those other parts of ‘you’, allow you to thrive in life and in work. They give you ways to let off steam, socialise and be mentally and physically healthy. I work with a physicist who runs marathons, a biologist who knits, an engineer who bakes like Mary Berry and a chemist who cycles. And me? Well, if I was to star today in a photoshoot like the softball girls, I would be wearing a lab coat and safety goggles, while lifting a 150kg+ barbell. The only thing getting me through the mind-numbing pain of writing my doctoral thesis is training for a strong woman competition!
I had the luck to be invited to the Women in Engineering conference in Birmingham this weekend. It was a brilliant experience for many reasons, but certainly outstanding in terms of speakers. I am a science student, and mostly interested in climate and environmental science. Engineering is similar in many aspects. Most importantly it is also a STEM subject. On the other hand, they have the kind of analytical approach that us, scientists have.
This event showed me how big is the STEM family, and what an amazing thing is to belong to it. I am proud to be a woman in STEM! Out of all the speakers however, two of them scored a touch down for me. Faye Banks, who is today on the UK energy policy committee delivered an incredible speech. I won’t go into too much detail this time. After the conference, I contacted her and asked her if she would be interested in featuring an article on Beyond Science. I can happily confirm that she said yes. I honestly couldn’t find words, and I am very grateful.
Team oUFO, however, was an absolutely unique speaker. The team was undoubtedly a great success. The audience, as well as myself, loved them. I would love to tell you why.
The challenge Team oUFO faces
On a nice and sunny day, a bunch of engineer students from The Open University decided that they want to participate in an engineering competition. They had 4-5 alternatives as to which competition they choose. Ultimately they decided to enter the Imeche UAS challenge. The competition is strong, the participants are familiar with it years and years ago. But The Open University has never entered a team before. In the challenge engineer students have to build an unmanned aircraft. Naturally, they have several milestones to hit before the fly-off event.
They need funds and they need to find sponsors. They will also need to outreach and promote STEM. The aircraft has to satisfy an immense amount of requirements. In October 2019 they will register on the event, but they spent the last year working on essential tasks, in order to be able to enter at all. The team has to decide on aircraft design and proceed with planning and drawings. Once the detailed designs are complete, they have to submit a bill of materials and costs and produce final design document.
After the design is complete, they will have to start to assemble parts, complete build and test all systems. A test flight then have to be carried out. By all means, this is a very, very simple description of the task. When the aircraft is complete, they are officially ready for fly-off and to complete the competition.
What’s the fuss about?
All team members are on different level in their engineering journey. Some of them are first-year, some of them second and third. Some of them part-time student, some of them full-time. Due to the nature of The Open University they all lead busy lives, studying whilst being a mother/father, working extreme hours, et cetera. To make it even more challenging, they are all living in different cities of the UK and some of them aren’t in the UK currently.
Other universities have the advantage of having their students on campus, at least roughly within the same location. They also have facilities they can use to build the aircraft, such as workshops, labs and so on. On the other hand, they are familiar with the challenge, as they are regular participants.
Team oUFO took on an immense challenge. They will have to tackle challenges that no other team has to. I have to admit, they are the bravest, and smartest people I know, and wherever they finish in the competition, we will be extremely proud of them. They have received a great deal of support from The Open University as well as from the public. They have already secured a 2/3 of their targeted funding, and it is not even registration time yet.
The team is made up 40% female student, and that is incredible compared to the 12% industry average! What people possibly don’t realize that the team is us. They are from amongst us. Studying, working, taking care of a family/household. But still fighting, and always wanting more. Humanity is developed and improved by people like them, and if all engineers of the future are like them, we stand a very good chance to thrive. They are an inspiration to us all. I have absolute faith in you, and I know, all those late nights, meetings, brainstorming and tiring challenges will pay off.
You are the people the next generation can look up to and you are the people that can lead us to a brighter future. I cannot thank you enough for being able to hear your speech this weekend. It was exciting, motivating, ambitious but humble, and truly outstanding!