International Day of Women & Girls in Science: Part 1

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This is Part 1 of 3 in our celebrations for International Day of Women and Girls in Science! View the full series here.

As science and technology companies continue to grow rapidly, with tech giants like Facebook and Google offering an increasing number of services, and startups popping up everywhere imaginable, inspiring areas of cities to become their own Silicon Valleys, Alleys and Roundabouts, in recent years gender disparities in science and technology have become increasingly obvious.

According to a study conducted in 14 countries, the probability for female students of graduating with a Bachelor’s, Master’s or Doctor’s degree in science-related field are 18%, 8% and 2% respectively, while the percentages of male students are 37%, 18% and 6%. In light of this, the UN announced last year that the first ever International Day of Women and Girls in Science would take place on 11 February 2016, as an opportunity to celebrate women in the field, encourage others to become engaged with science and highlight issues women are facing.

As an all-female team, RE•WORK are strong advocates on supporting women in technology and science, so we're celebrating the day by talking to leading women we admire about equality, career progression and scientific breakthroughs we can expect this year.

Lucy Donaldson is a neurophysiologist with expertise in neuronal function in acute and chronic pain, particularly in arthritis. In September 2013, Lucy moved to an Associate Professor position in Life Sciences at the University of Nottingham, where her research group concentrates on various aspects of neuronal signalling in chronic pain.

Elaine Warburton OBE is CEO and co-founder of QuantuMDx, a biotech based in Newcastle upon Tyne's genetics hub, the International Centre for Life. Elaine has 25 years’ experience in healthcare and introducing new technologies into mainstream medicine, and was awarded an OBE in 2014 for services to innovation in healthcare.

Raia Hadsell is a Senior Research Scientist at Google DeepMind focused on enhancing robotics using advances in deep learning and reinforcement learning, using principles and fundamentals derived directly from neuroscience. Prior to DeepMind, Raia’s experience includes work at SRI International, Carnegie Mellon University and New York University.

Alison B. Lowndes is a mature 2015 graduate in Artificial Intelligence with research in Deep Learning for Image and Feature Recognition using GPUs. Coupled with studies in astrophysics and over 20 years of international project management and entrepreneurship, Alison's day job is now enabling AI across a wide range of domains as Community Manager for EMEA at NVIDIA, as well as running a global volunteering network in her spare time. 

Julie Alexander is Director for Urban Development for the Infrastructure and Cities sector at Siemens. With her global remit working with cities around the world, Julie is responsible for engaging with cities to showcase the role of infrastructure and integrated technological solutions in urban development, in areas such as smart grid and energy management, intelligent transport systems and Industry 4.0.

What inspired you to begin your work in science?
Raia: My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy and Religion, and I actually started graduate studies in Philosophy before bailing out and jumping into Computer Science. That move was inspired by my parents, who astutely suggested that I might enjoy coding and algorithms rather more than Nietzsche. Later, I joined Yann LeCun's small lab at NYU because his ideas about machine learning were compelling and visionary, and, moreover, he had robots.

Lucy: I actually started out as a dentist, but although I really enjoyed working with people, I found that most days were pretty much the same. I had intercalated a Neuroscience degree in my dental degree, so then I chose to do a PhD in Neuroscience. I'm one of those people who gets excited by different things, and a career in science gives you that. Everyday is different from the last, and the next.

Elaine: When my mother was going through breast cancer treatment she decided to take an Open University degree in biology. As a young teenager instead of following the traditional path of cookery and sewing, she and I were concocting the most amazing experiments in our kitchen. I got hooked on the science drug and never looked back!

Alison: I've always been drawn to Space as my Mother worked at ESTEC (ESA) in the 1960's till she gave up her career for me, my twin sister and my brother. In 2004, after leaving behind regular family life, I grabbed the chance for a degree in astrophysics but it wasn't meant to be. 4 years later I got a second chance but the course was over-subscribed. Serendipitously I opted for my 2nd choice, AI, and never looked back. I’ve had curveballs thrown at me my whole life but I was way too determined this time. I'd always wanted to learn to code like my brother, who had been programming since the early 80's, but it was also advances in robotics and the Space Program that pushed me to learn more.

Julie: I was originally drawn to engineering, through a combination of interests in design and in problem solving. This interest evolved in the infrastructure sector over recent years and experiencing the impact that good infrastructure delivery can have on the economic success of cities. What excites me now however, is the possibility and opportunity that digital technology brings, not only to engineering but to major infrastructure projects. Cities are the drivers of change and they are facing huge challenges to meet the growing demands of urbanization. The application of digital technology is going to change the way we operate in cities in the coming years and I thrive on being part of that.

What can we do to ensure equality in science and technology?
Lucy: The most important thing that I have come to realise is that we can all have biases about people, that we are not conscious of, and those are the most difficult to deal with, precisely because they are unconscious. The biggest thing we can do to make sure that everyone has an equality opportunity in science and technology is to always be aware that you might have a bias, to actively recognize that that might affect your decisions, and try and make sure it doesn't. It's about always thinking - am I treating everyone as equal?

Alison: When I went to school, I studied Computer Studies, Physics & Chemistry and other standard cross-discipline subjects - none of which really grabbed my interest. At A-level I studied Mathematics, Economics and Geography then went into Accounting as my Careers Officer had advised. I lasted about 6 months till going abroad, inspired by my mother and brother to travel. Parents inspire their children, equality starts at home, but lots more can be done in school to push youngsters to explore and realise their unique creativity and to be brave enough to follow their dreams. Childcare provision gives women options and initiatives like LeanIn and the BCS Womens Lovelace Colloquium provide huge support but it is still a battle to have both a family and a career. It was sheer determination that got me where I am (we used to call it ‘being stubborn’) but I needed it to battle for funding, battle for respect, battle for trust. Girls may not be strong enough for equality and we need to address that.

Elaine: Equality in science starts at a very early age by making science interesting and applicable to the real world when taught at school. Girls and boys brains are wired differently and I believe the syllabus is skewed towards a traditional male way of learning for certain subjects. Science cuts across life and much has been digitalised. The syllabus for GCSE and A Level Biology, Chemistry and Physics has not changed much in decades. We need to bring it up to date and include IT, design & technology, engineering and other subjects into the melting pot. Only then will girls see how interesting and varied it can be.

Raia: Something that is often overlooked is the lack of diversity in other positions in technology companies and academic departments: if every admin assistant, HR person, and support staff is female, that sends a subtle but damaging message to the prospective female scientist or engineer. I think that a concerted effort should be made to hire for diversity in every role.

Which emerging or future technologies are you excited about?
Raia: Deep learning is producing exciting new applications and advances at an amazing rate. But I'm more excited by what deep neural nets will eventually tell us about the fundamentals of human intelligence. Fast learning, slow learning, memory, and imagination: these are all areas that could be cracked by deep nets in coming years, and in doing so we may unlock some basic truths of how the brain works.

Elaine: Obviously diagnostics and medical technologies as that’s the arena I work in! But for me we must be looking at conserving our natural resources through cleaner, renewable energy. There are some amazing innovations going on in this field which will roll out over the next decade and start to put a stop to the potential annihilation of our planet.

Alison: Personalised healthcare and targeted drug discovery will impact billions but it is communicative tech like the internet that has brought us to this point. Sharing and open-sourcing knowledge drives medical progress. This is such an exciting time to be alive but cancer and viruses are still killing way too many.

What areas of emerging technology or science do you think will have the biggest breakthroughs in 2016?
Elaine: I am going to stick my head out and say wait a couple of years and there will be some unbelievable advancements in medicine that will start to see scary diseases like cancer become detected early and treated so they become chronic diseases, much like diabetes. As for this year, it is more organic growth of tech in the fields of robotics and apps.

Raia: That's easy! DeepMind's AlphaGo will go up against world Go champion Lee Sedol in March. It will be a historic moment for AI, regardless of the outcome.

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in science/tech?
Alison: The world is exactly what you want it to be. Figure out what you're good at and what makes you smile & never stop learning.

Elaine: Open your mind and follow your heart. Don’t think traditional biology, chemistry, physics, maths. Science is no longer in silo’s, it is multidisciplinary. Unless you plan to stay in research (in which case you will find your research calling over time), look for a University or college course that is applied and even has a placement year. Start broad and then narrow down the field when you find something that takes your passion. Having an understanding of business will set you apart, too.

Julie: There is growing evidence that the need for science and technology skills is far outweighing supply so the future is very bright in this sector. What is really interesting and often overlooked, is that to be a successful engineer you need to be creative. Science and technology today is about finding new ways of delivering solutions that we don’t even know we need. The opportunities are huge. Digital skills are critical and a wide cross sectoral range of skills are an essential component of success. Being able to engage with people and convey your messages in a creative way is what will inspire your colleagues and clients. Bring your interests and your experience to your career and mould it in a way that allows you to create the opportunity that will fulfill your ambition.

Lucy: Keep all your doors open where possible, grab every opportunity you can and never rule anything out. There's always a way to get to the career you want to do, and remember that your ideal career may be something that you just happen on when you weren't expecting it.

Check out our Women in Tech & Science series for more Q&As. If you'd like to contribute to the blog, please get in contact with Sophie via our form here.

We are holding an evening of discussions & networking around the progress and application of machine intelligence, and celebrating the women advancing the field. If you would like to join us at the Women in Machine Intelligence Dinner in London on 17 February, please visit the event site here to book your tickets.

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