To Whom I Give My Vote of Thanks

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day when we are asked to celebrate the women who have inspired us in our scientific lives.  I have to admit that ‘famous’ women such as Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin have no part in my mythology and the woman from history I wrote about recently, Mary Somerville, I am ashamed to say I had never heard of until quite late in life despite being very familiar with the name of Somerville College. I also had no female scientific forebears or close relatives to inspire me.  But I would single out two women from my early years who each played a large part in the fact that I am where I am now.  The first probably fits appropriately into the category of those in the psalm we used to sing at my school’s Founder’s Day ‘But some there be who have no memorial, who are perished as though they have never been’ (a verse I sing to myself as I type) although she may in fact still be living. The other has a name which will be familiar to many generations of Cambridge NatSci’s who will be well-acquainted with a textbook she wrote with her husband.  They both provided me with immense support in very different ways as I grew from a gangly and shy 13 year-old first encountering physics, into a graduate of Cambridge University.

Ruth How was my Physics teacher when I was at Camden School for Girls. She was herself a graduate of Oxford. To my teenage eyes she was already ‘old’ when I knew her, with her thick grey hair. I have little idea of what her real age was, perhaps only 20 years older than me. Most importantly, she was not only my physics teacher, she was a physics graduate. She knew her stuff; she could teach me what I needed to know and she always appeared to be able to answer my questions. At the time I had no idea how lucky I was to be at a (girls’)  school which was able to provide teachers for the sciences who were all qualified in the particular subject (one of the chemistry teachers even had a doctorate). I never questioned that. But now, of course, we know just how many schools lack such teachers. Or rather we don’t know, because there are no formal definitions of what a ‘specialist’ science teacher is, something that is deeply worrying because if we don’t know that, we don’t know who is being provided with what kind of education. We do know (from the Royal Society’s recent report) that 17% of schools in England did not enter a single pupil for Physics A level. Without knowing the reason for this in each and every school, it is a reasonable assumption that a significant number did not enter pupils because they had no teacher qualified to teach the subject.

In retrospect I can see I was amazingly fortunate to be blessed with a teacher who was so qualified and who so obviously loved physics.  I was the only girl to proceed to university to read physics in my year, indeed my A level class only had about 7 students most of whom were aspiring medics, so she had the breathing space to give me a lot of individual attention.  But she had the enthusiasm to enter us into the pilot scheme for a new A level which must have caused her lots of those headaches still familiar to teachers today: no textbooks, a syllabus I suspect that was largely unknown territory, coupled with a requirement to let us loose doing experimental projects. It was fun and challenging for us. It must have been terrifying and challenging for her. Being young, I knew none of that. She simply acted professionally and answered every question I threw at her with confidence and encouragement. How many children are able to get that sort of support now in our state schools (and I should stress, this was and is a state school, even if in my day a selective Grammar school).  So, luck was with me and she was able to stimulate my love of physics, without me having a clue at the time of where it was going to lead me.

Where it led me next was to Christine Mackie at Girton College (also known as Dr Kelsey, her maiden name, to distinguish her from her husband Duncan Mackie who worked in the same field of crystallography in the Mineralogy and Petrology Department and with whom she wrote the standard text for the first year course). Christine was a wonderful mentor in her capacity as my Director of Studies. She was always calm in the face of my panic and confusion as I struggled to come to terms with Cambridge. I moved from the single sex environment of my school to the single sex college that was Girton at that time in the early 70’s.  I am sure being in such a supportive environment was immensely important to me. There were only 8 girls in the midst of over 100 men in my final year physics class, and knowing that I had a bunch of female friends and tutors back home in college was a real boon to me at the time.

Christine watched over all of us with a quasi-maternal eye. At the start and end of each term we each met with her individually to discuss our progress (or lack thereof), but there were also sherry parties where we got to know her a bit more at a personal level.  I recall her saying how, when she got her lectureship (relying on my rather dodgy memory I would say that would have been in the late 50’s) how everyone had said how impossible it would be for her because there were no academic jobs, and yet she had succeeded. Some things never change; although the absolute numbers involved in chasing academic jobs are clearly much larger now than then, the difficulties for the individual and the proportion of jobs to applicants may not have been so different from the situation fellow blogger Jenny Rohn describes today.

Christine was not a friend, the professional distance felt too great, but a bunch of us gave her a dinner party when we graduated because we wanted to express the gratitude we all felt for her encouragement. She was the kind of person with whom we continued to swap Christmas cards for years. On each of my promotions she was quick to send me a warm note of congratulation. I was absolutely delighted when she came to a prize lecture I gave in London 5 years ago, but I haven’t seen her since. For me, she was a prop at a time when I needed all the support I could get. Having managed to get about 30% in my mock first year exams she merely said I should take the weekend off and stop worrying.  Wise words which I took at face value and went on a long cycle ride. Since I passed my exams this was clearly the right thing to do.

Both these women must have gone through degree courses in the physical sciences when the numbers of women were (even more) miserably low than now, must have had interesting life stories about their own battles and tribulations I never thought to find out – and now never will. Both of them gave of their best in selfless ways. I have no idea if they were satisfied with their lot in life. But to each of them I offer my heartfelt thanks. Without their encouragement, I would never have been able to progress to where I am, without their teaching, encouragement and inspiration I would have faltered at a very early hurdle.

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3 Responses to To Whom I Give My Vote of Thanks

  1. Mike White says:

    Very inspiring for the women in my group. I really enjoyed reading it.

  2. Jenny Koenig says:

    Thank you Athene – you’ve prompted me to think about my own influences. Teachers and lecturers are so important. I also remember an excellent science teacher at my state-funded selective girls’ school. Possibly more importantly at University (in Australia) I remember an excellent female chemistry lecturer who chatted with us in the practical classes and made me feel as though I was supposed to be there and supposed to be enjoying myself. In contrast the physics classes had the opposite effect, perhaps because there were no women lecturers and only a handful of other female students. In fact I remember hiding in the back row of the physics lecture theatre because one of the lecturers had a habit of picking on the very few women students to ask difficult questions of: very intimidating. I’m not sure I was that conscious of it at the time but I ended up choosing to pursue chemistry and not physics.

    The woman at Cambridge who stands out for me was Joan Mason, founder of AWiSE. I wrote about her influence on the Cambridge AWISE website . For those who didn’t know her, she had an incredible energy and desire to get people together and although she suffered terrible discrimination herself she always turned her energies towards constructive things, like setting up AWISE and running it almost single-handedly for nearly 10 years before she died. The number of women who have told me that she encouraged and helped them is amazing. She definitely gets my vote of thanks.

  3. BioScienceMum says:

    I like this a lot. I think my ‘role models’, like yours, were not famous women scientists, but those who taught and helped me. Particularly, I think, my GCSE Biology-and-Chemistry teacher, Nicola Wilberforce, who admitted to being 3 weeks ahead of us on the chemistry curriculum; and then Isabelle Cote during my time as an undergraduate. Many thanks to them for inspiring me to try and become a scientist.

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