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UNESCO created today’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science to recognise the vital role that women and girls play in science and technology. The day is a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation and access should be strengthened.

To celebrate the day, the Experimental Psychology Department interviewed a cross section of its staff and faculty to learn more about their unique experiences and insights as women in and around science.

GAIA SCERIF, PROFESSOR OF DEVELOPMENTAL COGNITIVE NEUROSCIENCE

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What or who inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I was inspired to follow a career in science by two things: my love for the sea (I initially started studying marine biology because I wanted to study sea mammal behaviour) and some amazing role models (the scientist who then become my PhD mentor asked some fascinating questions about behaviour and cognition). The transition (from whales to non-human primates behaviour to brain development and cognition in children) was not as seamless as one might have planned it, but I enjoyed every minute of it because I got to ask scientific questions with other researchers at all steps. 

Would you encourage your daughter to follow in your footsteps and, if so, what advice would you give her?  

I am not sure that my daughter (in the picture) will follow in my footsteps as a scientist, but I hope that she will follow in my footsteps of really enjoying what she does every day. Rather than encouraging her directly into science, I have brought her into the lab as often as possible to inspire in her the excitement of asking questions about the many things we do not know yet. 

What do you think best supports women to pursue careers in EP and STEM subjects?

I have already started to hear more young girls than young boys who say that either maths or science "are not for them," so it is good to continue debunking that myth. Challenges for careers in EP and STEM emerge as women (and men's) lives complicate, as research teams, projects, partners, families and locations become parameters one has to consider very carefully. Support from my mentors and employers (as well as my partner) were crucial in helping me stay in STEM. 

 

JANETTE CHOW, POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCHER AT THE OXFORD BABYLAB

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What or who inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My mother showed me that women can have both a family and a career. My father inspired me to pursue a career in science. One of my academic role models is Prof. Aditi Lahiri, the first Indian woman to hold a chair professorship at Oxford. It is evidence that one can be at the top of their game regardless of their gender, ethnicity and cultural background.

What are the challenges to you as a woman in science?  

One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a woman in science is balancing raising a young child with a career. I was very grateful for the support that I received from the department and my college. My mentor, Prof Jane Riddoch, provided immense support and encouragement. The Oxford Women’s tea organised by Prof Dorothy Bishop ran a session on ‘How to handle your career with a young baby,’ with senior academics offering practical advice and personal experience to early career researchers. Upon my return from maternity leave, I received support from both the University’s Returning Carer’s fund and St Hugh’s College’s Jacky Lambert Research Fund, which were particularly helpful in speeding up my research and setting me up for future funding applications. These boosted my confidence in continuing to pursue a career in science.

Do you think your gender identity brings special skills to your science?

My research at the Oxford BabyLab looks at how babies learn language(s). The first-hand experience I am gaining from raising my own child has given me unparalleled insights into child development as a whole, and motivated me to formulate research questions that would contribute to improving our next generation.

If you had a daughter would you encourage her to follow in your footsteps and why?

I believe that science is a good career path for all genders, including women. If I had a daughter, I would certainly encourage her to develop curiosity in STEM subjects from a young age. I would hope to become a role model to her, an example that women belong in science (and everything they may have an interest in). I would also share with her my favourite Latin motto on being resilient, nil difficile volenti, which loosely translates as ‘where there is a will, there is a way.’

Kia Nobre pic.jpgWhat inspired you to pursue a career in science?

For me, it was never a matter of getting into science. Rather, I never got out of science. As far as I can remember, I was curious about how the world works - how things come to have colour and texture and taste, how clocks tick, radios capture sounds, planes fly… I’ve been lucky that I never had to grow out of exploring the wondrous mysteries all around me. Now, why can’t I remember all the way back to the beginning of my life? Now there’s another good scientific question! 

 


MIRIAM KLEIN-FLUGGE, SIR HENRY WELLCOME FELLOW

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What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I have always been interested in solving puzzles. Before finishing secondary school, I took part in an event organised by a university where I was given a logic problem to solve on a screen and a clever device tracked my eye movements. I was very intrigued that the scientists were able to infer how I had solved the task by just following the movement of my eyes. I ended up getting my first experience of conducting scientific research in that lab when I enrolled to study at the same university a year later.

If you had a daughter would you encourage her to follow in your footsteps and why? What advice would you give her?  

I have two sons but would tell them in the same way as a daughter to follow their interests and work on questions that really excite them. Science is incredibly rewarding but also hard work at times, so I would want them to enjoy what they are doing.

What do you think supports women to pursue careers in EP and STEM subjects?

It helps to have good role models. I have always known more senior (female and male) scientists who have inspired me because they are caring parents as well as good scientists. Also, an openness to talk about our doubts and struggles is key – no parent or scientist only has good days and overcoming challenges is part of the job.

What advice would you give to a DPhil student?

Choose a lab that does interesting work but also offers an inclusive and collaborative environment, where you will get support no matter if your projects are going well or not. Good colleagues, supervisors and mentors are just as important as the right questions and scientific tools.

How do you think we can challenge organisational and cultural barriers to gender equality?

We need to be respectful with our language and update our norms and expectations. Women sometimes get comments or questions that men would never receive.

Nicola Bridge pic.jpgTell us about a moment when you felt inspired by a woman in science.

Overall, I’ve worked for the University for nearly 10 years and this is the second science department that I’ve worked for. I also have many friends who work in science, so I’m aware of the unique challenges faced by women in STEM. The improvements to the support offered to women and the increased awareness of some of the issues they might face at work since I started working at the University have been fantastic, and it seems to me that EP is right at the forefront of these positive changes.

I’ve been lucky during my career so far to meet some truly extraordinary women (in both STEM and other subjects) including, of course, my current boss Kia Nobre! I’ll never forget a lecture I organised and attended at my previous job at Pembroke College, where Professor Irene Tracey (NDCN) flew in at the last moment from speaking at a top conference somewhere far flung, and proceeded to give the most incredible lecture (even though she must have had terrible jetlag), whilst, as usual, being kind, friendly, funny and completely approachable during the whole event. It must have been incredibly inspiring for the students, staff and academics in the audience; it certainly was for me. I think that was a moment when I realised that there are no limits to what women can achieve in STEM today!

 

XANTHIPPI ALEXI VASSILIOU, UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT

Xanthippi Alexi Vassiliou pic.JPGIf you had a daughter would you encourage her to follow in your footsteps and why? What advice would you give her?

I do have a six year old daughter! She often asks me: “Why do you have to work?” My answer is always that I don’t have to, I want to, because I love my work. From a very young age our conversations centred on the idea that no one can tell her what to do with her life, not even me! She can be an athlete, an artist, a scientist, an astronaut, all of the above, or none of the above, as long as this is what she truly wants. We spend so long trying to fit into conventions that others choose for us, and I simply want her to be free.

Should my daughter choose to follow my footsteps I would tell her to have courage and be patient. Her path may be long, twisted and rock, but if she focuses, she can achieve everything she sets her mind to. I would also tell her that she is an extremely valuable and capable person and to not let anyone tell her otherwise.

Finally, I would advise her to find a kind, respectful, just and supportive mentor. Someone who will share her work ethic, who will listen to her and have her best interests in mind. The scientific world is a battlefield of large and aggressive egos, and the work is demanding and all consuming. For the sake of her sanity and welfare, she needs to surround herself with people that will inspire and support her. A family away from home.