“It’s our turn to make it blossom”: Aphra Bennett on attending ALD Live! 2016

Guest post by Aphra Bennett (aged 16)

ALD Live

Credit: Paul Clarke

In October, I had the privilege of attending Ada Lovelace Day and I was not disappointed.

This was the third year I have attended Ada Lovelace Day and I have watched it blossom every year, with more speakers, more people and bigger venues. That night, I was unsure what to expect because it seemed like in one year Ada Lovelace Day had blown up out of nowhere. I don’t know whether it was because it was at The IET’s Savoy Place, and I felt quite tiny surrounded by other extremely professional looking adults, or if was the fact that I felt like a mother with a child who finally realises her child has evolved into an adult. Don’t get me wrong – this is exactly what made me happy, the fact that Ada Lovelace Day was finally getting the recognition it rightfully deserved.

The first time I attended Ada Lovelace Day, I was convinced that I had to do some sort of job in STEM. I greatly admired all these women, with all these cool jobs. To some girls my age, a job in STEM is something we keep hearing about, but never actually consider because we just think ‘it’s just not for me’. Of course, when asked why ‘it’s not for you’, we don’t really have a clear definite answer, just ‘Oh, I’m not that good at maths’ or something along those lines that we have unfortunately all heard. Those statements are usually followed by an uncomfortable laughter or silence because deep down we all know that’s not a good enough reason.

Credit: Paul Clarke

Dr Kat Arney. Credit: Paul Clarke

However this isn’t our fault. It’s extremely easy to convince yourself that you are bad at any STEM subjects, because they are presented as these unattainable professions that only few with the correct IQ and brain capacity can participate in, and most of time usually with a male face attached. Of course, we all know that’s complete rubbish, but that’s just not how it’s presented to us. We think just because we weren’t able to come up with E=mc2 in our sleep, ‘it’s just not for me’.  Imagine where we’d be if all scientists with scientific breakthroughs had thought this! Where would we even be? Well, thankfully due to events like the wonderful Ada Lovelace Day, all these silly preconceived notions seem to disappear, and hope is found. Suddenly, you feel like you could be a scientist, an engineer, a technologist, a mathematician. It feels closer to home. And I cannot express how important it is that for just those couple of hours, sitting there listening to and admiring these awe-inspiring women talk about their work fields is enough for girls like me to believe that one day we could be the ones talking on that stage.

What that stood out for me was Dr Kat Arney’s talk about genes and the unlikeliness of them. It made you realise how much a single human being contains inside them.We walk around so oblivious to the fact that we are so intricate on the inside and there are so many things occurring just to make us who we are. This talk for me stood out because it made science more human that it already is. I don’t know about you, but when I was in biology classes, when discussing the human body, I made no connections to actual humans in the sense that I did not think once to myself ‘Oh wow all the people sitting in my class right now are alive and breathing because of what I’m learning today’. We treat the biology of our body like some separate entity from our actual selves. But this talk seemed to connect the biological human body to, I guess, the emotional part of the human body. Another particularly interesting talk was from Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani, about the advancement in cancer research. It felt like a cure for cancer was a close and attainable goal, that could happen in my lifetime, and that in itself was inspiring and uplifting.

Credit: Paul Clarke

Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani. Credit: Paul Clarke

Overall, I can honestly say that I never leave Ada Lovelace Day uninspired. I cannot express how happy I am that this event exists and how much it will increase the chances of women and girls of going into STEM. Because that’s the goal isn’t it? Why would we go further in human history whilst leaving behind half its population? Scratch that – how could we go further in history whilst leaving behind half its population? It sounds stupid if you ask me. We need women and girls in STEM because they are the future. Ada Lovelace imagined a future way beyond her years; now let’s imagine our own, where women and girls are at the forefront. Ada planted the seed, the founder of Ada Lovelace Day watered it, now it’s our turn to make it blossom.

Supporting women in STEM: Your ideas needed!

Digital ScienceALD Sponsor Digital Science held an event as part of their Ada Lovelace Day celebrations, Championing Success and Avoiding the Echo Chamber, looking at how we can support women in STEM. The event covered various issues, such as women and men working in STEM (and the leaky pipeline), how to encourage people to mentor, finding more role models, the media perception of women in STEM, and finally, how we can move to doing things, rather than just talking about them. There is a teaser video plus all nine talks and the panel discussion on their blog, and a variety of articles and contributions on the issues raised.

In her talk, Dr Suze Kundu suggested that we collectively make a plan to encourage people to do more, and Digital Science have put together an article of what we can each do to help bring about equality. The ideas so far include:

  • not making women feel different for being in STEM
  • using yourself as a role model in talks
  • getting support from men at the top
  • not being afraid to be yourself and embracing femininity (if you want to)
  • encouraging diversity to get rid of stereotypes

We are now asking for people to share their ideas for practical steps we can all take to support women in STEM, and have started a Google document for all your contributions. Please share your thoughts  there have been some excellent responses so far!

Raising Horizons to highlight women in earth sciences

Raising HorizonsOur friends the TrowelBlazers have launched a new project, Raising Horizons, to highlight the work of women in archeology, palaeontology and geology. In collaboration with Leonora Saunders, and supported by Prospect Union, 14 women working in those fields today will be photographed as a historic counterpart, to create a visual connection to the past and to celebrate diversity:

Raising Horizons is about revealing the real face of geo-science past and present, sharing its hidden heritage, and promoting 21st century diversity.

As well as celebrating individuals, Raising Horizons  also seeks to show that women in science aren’t isolated or alone; through mentoring, training and collaborating, they have always created networks of their own.

An education project designed to bring the past to life and to challenge stereotypes, the collection will be exhibited across the UK and online, demonstrating how the earth sciences are filled with female role models. “Raising Horizons is one way that – together – we can act to re-set imaginations on who geo-scientists are,” says TrowelBlazers’ Indigogo project, which goes on to say:

  • Backing Raising Horizons will create a valuable resource showcasing diversity in geo-science past and present.
  • Curated at exhibition venues around the UK and online, the project can reach broad audiences.
  • Producing interviews that will be the foundation of a future oral history archive.
  • By spotlighting the power of connections and networks, we can put a focus on forming new frameworks of support via future TrowelBlazers mentoring and training programmes and bursaries.

Raising Horizons now needs £10,000 to fund photography, and run exciting public events and talks. You can watch them talk more about the project (also below) and about women in science in their video.

You’ve got a little under 13 days to contribute to the project, which needs another £4,000 to meet its target, and you can read more about some of the women who will be featured on the Trowelblazers’ blog.


Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon: Harvard computers

Guest post by Sue Bowler, for the Royal Astronomical Society, Platinum Sponsor of Ada Lovelace Day Live 2016.

Continuing with their series of articles on early women members of the Royal Astronomical Society published in Astronomy and Geophysics, Sue Bowler discusses the contributions of Williamina Fleming and Annie Jump Cannon in photographic astronomy.

Photograph of Annie Jump Cannon at Harvard College Observatory

Annie Jump Cannon at Harvard College Observatory (Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Harvard College Observatory employed a team of women to analyze the spectra of stars, an endeavour that resulted in the standard classification scheme for stars, still used today. Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon and Henrietta Leavitt stand out among the ‘Harvard computers’, so named because their work was to carry out the many repetitive calculations necessary for scientific astronomy.

Edward Pickering was the Director of Harvard College Observatory at a time when the new field of photographic astronomy required careful measurement of the position of stars and their spectra on large glass plates. The role of computer was a lowly one, and it paid very poorly, lower than a factory girl’s wage. But it appealed to educated women, often the products of the new colleges such as Vassar and Wellesley that taught the sciences and even astronomy.

Photograph of Williamina Fleming

Williamina Fleming (The New England magazine (1887), p. 166).

Annie Jump Cannon was among those who came to Harvard as a computer, attracted by a role that offered employment and scientific stimulation. She developed a spectral classification system adopted by the International Astronomical Union in 1922 and ended her career at Harvard as a world-renowned astronomer.

Cannon’s work built on that of Williamina Fleming, a married woman from Scotland abandoned by her husband in America. She was Pickering’s housekeeper before working at the Observatory and, as well as considerable achievements in observational astronomy and spectral classification of stars, she organized the computers, in a role we would now recognize as something between office manager and head of a research group.

Both Fleming and Cannon were made honorary members of the RAS before women could become Fellows. Their work has lasted, demonstrating the contribution that women could make at a time when astronomy in the US was becoming a profession as well as an interest.

You can read more about Annie Jump Cannon in the journal Astronomy and Geophysics, and Sue Nelson wrote about Williamina Fleming for Astronomy and Geophysics, a longer version of which is also in our book, A Passion for Science.

Bowler, S. (2016), “Annie Jump Cannon, stellar astronomer”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(3) 3.14-3.15.

Mary Somerville: Polymath and pioneer

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Mary Somerville [Fairfax]. Lithograph after J. Phillips. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.  CC BY 4.0

Guest post by the Royal Astronomical Society, Platinum Sponsor of Ada Lovelace Day Live 2016.

Continuing with their series of articles on early women members of the Royal Astronomical Society published in Astronomy and Geophysics, Allan Chapman looks at the life and work of Mary Somerville, one of the first honorary members of the Royal Astronomical society.

Mary Somerville’s scientific interests were many and varied – and her success in pursuing them over a long life especially notable for a woman in the nineteenth century. She was fascinated by electromagnetism, wrote treatises on astronomy and geophysics, studied the physics of photography and the chemistry of plants, and produced articles and books aimed at both the scientific and more popular audience. Underpinning everything was her deep understanding of and profound belief in the mathematical foundations of the universe, something that had first been sparked by an encounter with an algebraic puzzle in a fashion magazine.

Mary’s upbringing was unconventional. The daughter of a naval captain who was absent for most of her childhood, she was not sent away to school, but allowed to run wild at home and learn as she wished; her father, upon his return, described her as a little ‘savage’.  Mary was later schooled in the accomplishments expected of a woman of her time, but continued to teach herself mathematics, aided by her brother and her father’s books on navigation. Worried about the effects of scientific learning on her sanity (and social standing), her parents limited her access to books, and Mary’s first husband, Captain Samuel Grieg, openly disapproved of her scientific interests. None of this dissuaded Mary, and when Grieg died, leaving her a widow of independent means, she began her scientific studies in earnest.

Mary’s second marriage, to Dr William Somerville, opened up a world of opportunity for her. Somerville, himself a renowned and well-travelled doctor, was proud of Mary’s work, and did everything he could to aid her scientific pursuits. With his support she immersed herself in the scientific community, gaining fame via her conversations and letters, before publishing her first scientific paper in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1826. She went on to write four significant and respected scientific books, was one of the first two female Honorary Members of the Royal Astronomical Society, alongside Caroline Herschel; in 1879 Somerville College, Oxford was named in her honour.

You can read more about Mary Somerville on the Astronomy and Geophysics website, and there’s an excerpt from Dr Karen Masters’ chapter about her from the ALD book, More Passion for Science.

Chapman, A. (2016), “Mary Somerville: pioneering pragmatist”, Astronomy & Geophysics, 57(2) 2.10-2.12.