International Day of Women & Girls in Science: My Journey and the Women Who Inspired It
Author’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between my colleague Amina Begum and I, both placement students studying immunopsychiatry at the Stress, Psychiatry, and Immunology Lab at King’s College London.
As a woman in science, I find myself acutely aware of the fact that I wouldn’t have the ability to do what I do for a living if I had been born a few generations ago. It’s a privilege to be able to do what you love, a privilege that many — though sadly, not all — of us have only recently been afforded. As we celebrate International Women in Science Day, it’s important to remember those who came before us, who paved the way for women in science.
I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a scientist, but I had an interest in science from a young age. I spent part of my childhood volunteering at the Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka, California, where I was inspired by Dr. Jane Goodall and her work with chimpanzees. Dr. Goodall was the first female scientist I had ever heard of. She worked as a secretary until the age of 23 when she set sail for Tanzania to study chimpanzees, establishing her presence among them until she was able to make some of the most significant discoveries about primates and their behaviour. Her work changed how the world viewed chimpanzees and, by extension, how the world viewed species other than our own.
As I progressed through my education, I learned about more female scientists and inventors, many of whom have been forgotten by history or remembered for the wrong reasons.
Hedy Lamarr, who pioneered the technology that would lead to the invention of Bluetooth and WiFi is, for the most part, remembered simply for being beautiful. In collaboration with fellow innovator George Antheil, she developed a communication system that allowed the transmitter and receiver to “hop” frequencies simultaneously. The pair tried to offer their technology to the Navy during World War II; instead of commending her for the role that she had in this great work, Lamarr was told that she could do more for the war effort by using her beauty and celebrity to sell war bonds. The Navy later implemented the technology during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lamarr and Antheil never saw a penny from it.
When I was in my seventh-grade science class, we learned about Dr. Rosalind Franklin. Dr. Franklin and her graduate student Raymond Gosling took the now famous ‘Photograph 51’, an X-ray diffraction image showing the structure of DNA. One of her colleagues showed the image to scientists Watson and Crick without her awareness or consent. Using her work, they were able to confirmed their hypothesis and they are the ones often credited with the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA.
When I landed a work placement at King’s College London, the same institution where Dr. Franklin made her discovery, it felt beyond surreal. I was living the wildest dream of my thirteen-year-old self. Entering the ivory tower of academia can be incredibly intimidating, but I was glad to find myself among colleagues with a variety of different backgrounds and experiences, so I didn’t feel like the odd one out. Unlike Dr. Franklin, I am not the only woman in the room.
Interestingly, the word ‘scientist’ was first used to describe a woman, Mary Somerville. At the time, scientists were referred to by their disciplines and those with multiple disciplines were considered “men of science.” But Somerville refused to be confined to one area, studying everything from astronomy to chemistry to geology. Like so many women throughout history, her pursuit of science and mathematics was discouraged, to the point where she spent a great deal of her childhood studying secretly by candlelight. A scientific historian by the name of William Whewell was struggling to find a word to describe Somerville, writing that “We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.”
Although women have made an immense amount of progress in the sciences, there is still more that needs to be done to achieve parity.
Today, less than one-third of scientists are women. Even though the number of female scientists is increasing, they are not always considered as valuable as their male counterparts.
According to the United Nations, female researchers are paid less, receive less funding, and have shorter careers than their male counterparts. Female scientists are also more likely to experience imposter syndrome, feelings of inadequacy despite successes in one’s career. An immense amount of progress has been made around the world, but there are still many places where women are left out of science. In India, women are literally kept out of classrooms for wearing the hijab and discriminated against for seeking an education. So while it’s important to acknowledge the fact that things are changing, they aren’t changing everywhere, nor are they changing for everyone.
As we each climb the ivory tower, we must remember that there is room at the table for all of us to have a seat.
For more about international women in science day, be sure to check out Amina Begum’s blog: Are We There Yet? Challenges Women in Science and Academia Face Today.