Last week I went to talk at an event designed to encourage young girls to stick with science post-GCSE organised for local schools at Brighton College. I was paired up with the remarkable Stemettes Founder Anne-Marie Imafidon. She was Red Magazine’s ‘Woman to Watch’ in 2014 and has a host of other accolades to her name. Now – having quit her job at Deutsche Bank to work on Stemettes full time – she spends much of her time working with teenage girls to inspire them with her own love of science and coding. Since she is much closer in age to the 15-16 year olds we were talking to I’m sure she came across as a more convincing role model than I ever could. Still, in the spirit of ‘mix and match’ I expect we were a good pairing.
For both of us, though, there was the challenge of how to report the story of one’s life – and what we do and the excitement we get out of science – in a way that seemed both meaningful to a teenager and also accessible. I learned my lesson last summer about referring to my CV as a ‘standard CV’ when I got laughed at by a bunch of ECRs (Early Career Researchers). I meant, ‘here is my CV in a standard format’ not thinking that they would hear it as ‘this is the standard of what yours should look like in 30 years’ time’. Words have to be used with care. Nevertheless, it is all too easy to tell the narrative of one’s life as a Whiggish history of unassailable progression. My life hasn’t been like that and I don’t suppose anyone else’s has either.
I want to tell young women that life is not always plain sailing. Or rather, I don’t ‘want’, it gives me no joy to talk about the kicks I’ve received or the more disastrous interludes in my life that are definitely best forgotten. Nevertheless, I believe strongly these episodes are important to sketch, not just because they will undoubtedly have contributed to the person I am today, but because of the danger of the young seeing the older generation as always having had it easy and that our lives have been painlessly straightforward whereas theirs are mired in uncertainty, fear and difficulty. Being 15, a time when major decisions (e.g. about A level choices, to stay with a narrowly educational example) need to be made but when body and mind are going through the turbulence of adolescence, is not fun. I have not forgotten my own problems and anxieties of the time, although at least I had no doubt about the A level choices I would make.
So, how should one weave a narrative that expresses that success is possible despite setbacks, without making life seem unremittingly difficult and particularly so as a woman in science; or conveying that it is misleadingly easy because, hey look, I’m a professor and so can you be if you just work hard enough? Neither version of a life story is either accurate or helpful. In situations like this I feel that if I am not careful I could end up presenting my life as a series of vignettes that appears to reduce the complexity of living to a Disney storyline with the inevitable punchline of transformation from frog to prince(ss). No one travelling through the convoluted maze that is life creates a path that adds up to a case of invariably wise decisions aided by the appearance of an occasional hole in the hedge to get one from A to B painlessly and without work. Life ain’t like that, but in half an hour it’s hard to avoid giving that impression. The storyline needs to invoke also the irredeemably stupid dead end choices made and the dragon that breathed fire and scorched one’s dreams, choices, ego and/or self-esteem. But the mere mention of dragons might be enough to convince a 15 year old in the audience that science is a dangerous place for a woman and they’ll stick with media studies and English literature, thank you very much.
It is also not easy to convey the excitement of research when most school children barely touch equipment, let alone do an experiment that hasn’t been done by several million of their predecessors previously. Science is too often taught as not open-ended, not for the curious, but as a sequence of facts to be memorised and, if you’re lucky, to be understood. I know for me it was the incessant need to memorise labels, such as the parts of a plant or animal that turned me off biology in my teens. There seemed no requirement to understand how these parts connected or why they worked as they did. I believe (and hope) biology GCSE has moved on from this but school science, in the spirit of passing exams, is still far too often not about discovery and curiosity. So explaining that every time I used to look down a microscope (back in the days when that was what I did) I was excited at the possibility of looking at something that hadn’t been seen or understood before may simply not strike any chord in a teenager’s heart. The excitement of the unknown just waiting to be revealed as I prepared each sample gave me a buzz that modern school laboratory work simply cannot approach, any more than my own current daily grind of committee work (however important). Whiggish progression – pah. That is definitely a backwards step!
So, for every talk I give to the young, be it school children or those already committed to science but finding their way through their studies and early career, I have to ponder the balance between up- and down-beat comments. I never know how it will play out to a particular audience – nor can I ever know what impact, for good or ill, I might have had on any particular listener. Anyhow, how it comes out on the day may vary according to my own mood and energy levels at the time. I wish there was a simple answer for how to inspire the scientists of tomorrow. All each of us can do is to try (Just1ActionFWIS).
Postscript: Having written this and got it ready to post I have just come across #realacademicbios on Twitter. Some of the tweets I’ve seen highlight the problems of being too naive and optimistic in summing up one’s life and passing that on as wisdom for how the next generation should behave. The tweets are thought provoking and well worth reading.