Can You Name 365 Female Scientists? We Can, and Here’s Why.

Happy International Women’s Day 2018!

Josie Maidment, a PhD student at the UEA-affiliated John Innes Centre, is the curator of @365womeninSTEM and has tweeted about one female scientist every day for the last year. Here’s what she’s learnt …

Just over a year ago, I read an article describing a 2014 survey which found that 25% of people were unable to name a single female scientist. When I started thinking about the scientists I’d learnt about at school and university, I realised that while I could reel off a long list of male scientists featured on the curriculum, very few women had made it into the textbooks.

So, on International Women’s Day 2017, I began a one-year Twitter project to raise awareness of the diversity and sheer number of amazing women leading cutting-edge research or applying their scientific training in various other professions. Most people have heard of Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie, but there is a plethora of female scientists who deserve to be recognised for their work. @365womeninSTEM was my attempt to highlight some of these brilliant female scientists who have made, and are making, significant contributions to science, technology, engineering and maths.

One year and 365 tweets later, here’s what I’ve learnt:

1.  I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about past women in STEM!

As a scientist and feminist, I thought my knowledge of historical women in STEM was pretty good. However, throughout the project, I’ve been continually surprised by how little I know about the women who’ve paved the way for my generation. I’d never heard of Beatrice Shilling, whose invention of the RAE restrictor saved countless lives in World War II by preventing fighter planes from cutting out during negative g-force manoeuvres. My area of study is protein biochemistry, but I didn’t know that one of the most famous formulae in the field, the Michaelis-Menten equation, was co-developed by a woman, Maud Menten.

2. Women are breaking boundaries all the time.

When deciding who to feature, I particularly wanted to highlight women who were the first to achieve a particular feat. In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman to win the Fields Medal, which is widely considered to be the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in mathematics. In the same year, Ann Dowling became the first female president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Women are constantly breaking into new areas, but equally there are still places where we’re waiting for a female first. For example, the Royal Society is the oldest scientific academy in continuous existence and arguably one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, and has yet to have a female President…

3. A 140 character limit is REALLY tough.

The best (and worst) thing about Twitter is that you are limited to a specific number of characters. Trying to condense someone’s work and achievements into a couple of sentences is certainly a challenge, and it’s impossible to include everything I’d like to. However, keeping it brief means that more people will actually read it as they scroll through their newsfeed, and someone who wouldn’t necessarily go out of their way to search for “women in STEM” might be happy to click the “follow” button and periodically see what you’ve written. I love it when people retweet and add extra information, or a link to an article – 140 characters can quickly evolve into a much longer conversation.

4. The Internet is truly international.

This was something I knew already, but it was a tweet from a high school in Australia encouraging its students to follow @365womeninSTEM that really brought it home. In comparison to other parts of the UK (and the world!) there is a high concentration of STEM outreach activity in Norwich; there are a substantial number of female scientists working at UEA and on the Norwich Research Park at all levels, an annual Women of the Future conference for local students is held at the John Innes Centre, and the Norwich Science Festival features women in STEM from Norfolk and further afield. Twitter allows you to reach people who are quite literally on the other side of the world, who may not have the same access to female role models in STEM.

5. This project could go on forever…

Every time I came across someone I wanted to include in @365womeninSTEM, I added them to a spreadsheet, which now contains well over 365 women of a wide range of disciplines, nationalities, ages and backgrounds. There are more amazing women in STEM than could be highlighted if I carried on for years!

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