International Day of Women & Girls in Science: Part 3

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This is Part 3 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.

Irina Higgins is a Research Scientist at Google DeepMind, with a background in computational neuroscience, fintech, machine learning, speech recognition and more. At DeepMind, Irina works in the Neuroscience team, where her work aims to bring together insights from the fields of machine learning and neuroscience to advance artificial intelligence. 

Jackie Hunter is CEO of Stratified Medical and Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Jackie has over 30 years of experience in the bioscience research sector, working across academia and industry including leading neurology and gastrointestinal drug discovery and early childhood development. She was awarded a CBE for Services to the Pharmaceutical Industry in 2010.

Charlotte Downs is Co-Founder of Cinteran upstart engineering and design consultancy design with a materials science focus. Charlotte also acts as the London Mayor for 3D Hubs, lending her skills and expertise with Cinter to develop and grow the quickly emerging London 3D printing community.

Sandra Richter is Co-Founder & CEO of Soofa, a MIT Media Lab spin-off, a solar-powered bench that charges phones and monitors its environment. In 2013, Sandra was named one of Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People in Business, for her work in and around cities.

What inspired you to begin your work in science?
Irina: I have always loved games and puzzles and discoveries. I guess I have always had a bit of a scientific mindset too (before I even really knew what science was!). I recently discovered a journal I kept when I was 10, which essentially was a research log of the different experiments my brother and I ran trying to reverse engineer toys we had seen in shops but weren't allowed to buy. When we realised that we could use a computer to create games, that's where turned next. The same journal contains a very excited entry further along (when I was about 13) about how excited my brother and I were working on a new project trying to improve the AI engine of some 3D game environment we had found. Somehow, however, I didn't feel at the time that a career in computer science was right for me. So, while my brother went to get a CS degree, I chose a more 'girly' subject - psychology. I quickly realised though that my brother was learning much more interesting and exciting things than me, so, when the opportunity arose to join the Oxford Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence, I jumped at it. It was amazing for me to combine my passion for computers and brains, and I never

Charlotte: My inspiration is the ‘unknown’, what I don’t know I want to find out. Both with Science and Technology, you can never be short of questions and the answers are continuously evolving. The thirst for knowledge becomes addictive, it’s a sector that actively supports being inquisitive. You also find that people within Science and Technology are more often that not not what you expect, the range of interesting conversations I have remains to keep me inspired.

Sandra: The impact of electric cars on the city and urban life.

Jackie: Even as a small child I was apparently always interested in science - biology and the natural world were my main interests but technology has always fascinated me too. So I guess my inspiration was the world around me.

What can we do to ensure equality in science and technology?
Sandra: We have more women than men in our team. Our VP of Engineering, aka a white male has been complaining about inequality (he is really dominated by women at Soofa!). The reason we attract and hire smart tech-savy women is probably because I am a woman. Diversity in leadership is key.

Jackie: This is something I feel very passionate about and have worked in my role as Chief Executive of BBSRC to try and get some firm actions in place both within BBSRC and across all the Research Councils to accelerate the pace of change in academia to ensure greater equality and diversity in the workplace. I think both men and women need to hold themselves and others accountable for identifying unconscious or conscious biases and dealing with them. Sponsorship is important - when asked to suggest someone for a particular role, identify a man and a women so that there is more equality in the pool. Both men and women have to embrace and value diversity in themselves and others - and women should have more confidence and ambition!

Irina: I think the problem lies at the very start of children's upbringing, and that is where it needs to be tackled. The equality issue that relates the most to me is that of gender, so I will concentrate on it in my answer. Even though I work in technology now, it was not a career I considered when growing up, and I was certainly not encouraged to do so either. I think it is very important to mention the possibility of a STEM career to young girls, and to have good role models in the field that the girls can relate to. It is very hard to choose what you want to do when you are young, and a lot of the times the decision comes down to narrowing down a set of choices proposed by adults, and picking the option with the most appealing stereotype. This is why it is so important to make sure that STEM careers are included within the set of options that young girls are considering, and that the traditional stereotypes of STEM culture are challenged. I was very lucky to have grown up being a bit of a tom boy and being best friends with my brother, which meant that I was comfortable being one of the boys as well as being one of the girls. I also quite like the idea of being different, so to me being one of the few females in tech is actually a bit of a bonus. But I know this is not the case for many young girls, who feel very intimidated by the idea of being alone in male dominated company. So I think it is important to show early on that working in STEM does not have to mean being the only girl among the boys. Hopefully it can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Which emerging or future technologies are you excited about?
Jackie: One of the exciting things about the move to Stratified Medical is the opportunity to really accelerate the pace, and hopefully improve the success rate, of drug discovery and development through smarter and more intelligent data analysis. The interface of artificial intelligence and biology has promise so I particularly excited about that.

Sandra: Drones. Self-driving cars, self washing clothing.

What areas of emerging technology or science do you think will have the biggest breakthroughs in 2016?
Charlotte:
 There is a lot of buzz around tech in space, in October 2015 the 1st commercial 3D printer made it’s way to the International Space Station. We are seeing recent government investment into green technologies for space and propulsion, I suspect that in 2016 we will see more of these individual technologies and innovations aligning to create platforms further into the future on which space services can evolve. If you ask most scientists and/or technologists we are all dreaming of our first trips into the cosmos, let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long.

Sandra: I hope reality augmentation and not augmented reality.

Jackie: I think we will continue to see more and more applications of gene editing technologies both in animals and plants. Our ability to image processes in vivo will continue to grow. The field of synthetic biology is really beginning to take off with people like George Church at the Wyss applying it to designing biosensors to enhance the ability to mine new pathways to make useful molecules

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in science/tech?
Charlotte: Don’t worry it’s cool to be a nerd these days :)

Irina: It sounds very cliche, but the best advise in my opinion is to follow your passion and not to take things personally. Day to day work can sometimes be very frustrating - things will not work, your hypotheses will be proven wrong, the experiments will fail. But if you are doing something that gives you those moments of bliss, passion and incredible excitement and wonderment for what can be, then those moments will carry you through anything.

It is also very easy to start 'playing the game' in science - trying to be the first one to publish an idea, trying to split an idea into as many publishable chunks as possible, in short, motivating your research by publication rather than the actual problem. Unfortunately such behaviours normally don't lead to great breakthroughs and instead lead to incremental progress. What is the point of entering a race to publish an idea? If the race exists, it means that the idea is obvious and the progress in that direction will be made with or without your contribution. Starting a project like this does nothing for progressing science and can have only egoistic motivations. I think the better way to motivate your research is to find a hard problem that really excites you, and then to try and solve it, with a publication being a nice bonus if you find a solution, rather than the goal to begin with.

Sandra: Bend the rules always, break them sometimes. Know when to ask for forgiveness.

Jackie: I can’t think of a better or more exciting time to be starting a career in science and technology. But with the wealth of opportunities come choices - I would advise to work on what interests and inspires you - that way work isn’t work and you will enjoy what you do and be good at 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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