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Superwomen of STEM

The fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are mostly occupied by men, leaving a gap of female role models. Meet six women leading the way.

Fewer than 30% of the world’s researchers are women, according to UNESCO. The same report says that too many girls and women are held back by biases, social norms and expectations that limit their education choices and career options.

The gender gap is particularly noticeable in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In the UK, women make up just 24% of the core STEM workforce, and it’s a sadly similar story the world over.

Progress may be slow, but change is coming. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of women accepted onto STEM undergraduate courses UK-wide increased by 49%.

Here at Bath we’re narrowing the gender gap with help from J.P. Morgan, Atkins and Schlumberger, who fund scholarships for female students studying STEM subjects, as well as providing industrial placements and supporting outreach opportunities within the community.

We’re also fortunate to have so many amazing academics and alumni making huge contributions to their fields – more than could ever fit into this article.

As you scroll down, you’ll meet a few of the inspirational women within our community. They discuss how they turned adversity into achievement, the changes in attitudes they’ve seen over the years, and their advice for future generations of women and girls.

The astrophysicist

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE FRS

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

It was 1967 and a 24-year-old student named Jocelyn Bell had just discovered pulsars, a previously unidentified type of star. It was a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize – however, this was presented to her male PhD supervisor instead. Just over 50 years later, Jocelyn was officially recognised for her achievement with a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She donated her winnings to create scholarships for under-represented groups to study physics.

She explains:

“I reckoned that it was because I was in a minority and working very hard that I spotted the pulsars. So I thought that if we can get more people from diverse backgrounds involved in physics, it might well be good for physics research and it would certainly be good for those individuals.”

As a student at Cambridge, Jocelyn was one of the few women among men who were “entirely confident in their abilities and right to be there”. Her way of coping? “I made sure I did my very best work, so I didn’t let the side down.”

Jocelyn was part of a research group looking for quasars – the brightest and most distant known objects in the Universe. It was her job to analyse the data from a telescope, which churned out hundreds of metres of chart paper every day. Analysing every inch by eye, she spotted a tiny anomaly that led to her discovery.

The wrong type of attention

“My peers were very cross that I didn’t get the Nobel Prize. They called it the No-Bell,” she recalls. “But I was actually pleased that the committee had finally recognised there was good physics in astronomy.” Jocelyn received some media attention, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. “They wanted to know my measurements and how many boyfriends I had, and photographers would ask me to undo more blouse buttons.”

The day she wore her engagement ring to the lab, her colleagues assumed her career was over. But she had fought for her future – ever since school, when she insisted on being taught science with the boys instead of knitting and cooking. Societal pressure worsened once she became a mother, but Jocelyn persisted, taking part-time positions to continue studying the stars.

As she ascended through the ranks in academia, however, it became obvious how few women occupied senior positions. These days, the Athena Swan awards exist to promote and support gender equality. Jocelyn was a founding member. “Things have changed hugely in my lifetime,” she reflects. “Now it’s normal for women to advance in their professions and there’s more childcare, although still not enough… Covid-19 has shown us that it’s still not equal. There’s still some way to go.”

Jocelyn is renowned across the globe – being awarded the Royal Society's prestigious Copley Medal in 2021 – but we’re proud to also know her as our Dean of Science from 2001 to 2004, and a member of our honorary graduate community. Today, Bath’s astrophysics group – led by Professor Carole Mundell – are building on her scientific research and work to support diversity in STEM.

The chemist

Dr Asel Sartbaeva

Asel Satbaeva

Growing up in Kyrgyzstan, part of the Soviet Union until 1991, Asel Sartbaeva was told that science was not a ‘female profession’.

“I knew I wanted to be a scientist but there were very limited opportunities, particularly in research,” she recalls. “However, when the Iron Curtain collapsed, I was so happy. It meant I could dream of going abroad to study, otherwise my life would have been very different.” After her country’s independence, Asel was finally free to pursue her dream. She was awarded a scholarship to study for a PhD at Cambridge in 2001, where she also met her future husband.

The couple welcomed their first child in 2010 and it was while taking her baby daughter for routine jabs that Asel had her ‘lightbulb moment’. She noticed the vaccines had to be kept refrigerated and used immediately to avoid spoiling. “I was shocked at the amount of vaccines being wasted, and how many children die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases,” she explains. “I thought, what if I could make vaccines stable at room temperature?” After maternity leave, it became her mission.

Saving vaccines with silica

Asel joined Bath’s Department of Chemistry, and with support from our alumni, the project got off the ground. Now, she and her team have successfully developed a way to stabilise the diphtheria and tetanus vaccines up to 100°C, by encasing the protein molecules in a silica shell. The aim was initially to tackle vaccine-preventable diseases for children, but the technology also holds great potential for the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

In early 2021 she was named Woman of the Year, becoming the fifth Bath researcher celebrated at the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards. Being a role model is something Asel is very passionate about and she is a UNICEF Ambassador for the Girls in Science programme in Kyrgyzstan, where women are still oppressed and bride-kidnapping is widespread.

She says:

“I want to reach as many girls as possible. “I’m mentoring a group who are trying to build the first Kyrgyz satellite, and I help the group who are translating lessons into the Kyrgyz language for schools where they don’t have science equipment or STEM teachers.”

Representation matters, says Asel. “In my home country, they don’t see Asian females succeeding in STEM or talking about a work-life balance,” she continues. “I always make a point of talking about it. One father told me his daughter wanted to be a scientist for many years but he was really against it. Then they watched an interview I gave, and it made him see that it was possible to be successful, have a family if you want, and be happy.

“I want to show girls and their parents that this is a path where women can achieve their potential.”

The chemical engineer

Professor Semali Perera

Semali Perera

Across her 30-year career, Semali Perera has successfully balanced family life and work, as well as academia with industry. “You’ve got to work really hard to achieve what you want, especially as a woman,” she says. “There are times when work takes over and you need to redress the balance, but making sure you’re passionate about what you do will help you get through that.”

Semali joined the University in 1992 and recalls being the only female academic in chemical engineering here at the time. “It’s very different now,” she says. “There are so many inspirational women at Bath, and in senior roles as well. Currently both our head of department and director of teaching are women. It’s so important to have role models,” she adds. “When I speak to my students, they say ‘wow, you achieved that’, and they realise they can too.”

Science and industry

As well as a professor of chemical engineering, Semali is a chartered engineer and Fellow of the Institute of Chemical Engineers. In 2007 she was awarded the Royal Society’s Brian Mercer Award for Innovation for her patented pollution control technology, which led to a University of Bath spin-out company. Six years later, n-psl had created 24 jobs and boasted an annual turnover of more than £1 million.

She says:

“To see your research in the marketplace is a dream. It’s one of my biggest achievements. The technology is now used in trains all over the world.”

Semali is now developing a filtration system for enclosed spaces, such as vehicles and offices, to remove viruses, bacteria and volatile organics, and reduce carbon dioxide build-up. She also led a team in delivering a sustained chemotherapy treatment to cancer patients with fewer negative side effects. Her contributions to the field were recognised in 2017’s FDM everywoman in Technology Awards.

Recent years have seen an increase in women choosing careers in engineering. Retention, however, proves an ongoing issue. A 2015 survey of female engineers showed that 60% felt there were barriers preventing their return after maternity leave or a career break. “I remember when I had twins, I had to build my research back up again quickly to progress,” she says. “It’s a time when women need some space and support. In our department, we’re providing mentors and additional time for them to return, settle in and start their research.”

Her daughters are now studying law and computing respectively. It was important to Semali to ensure they kept their options open. “Sometimes students apply to Bath without doing the appropriate A-level subjects, and that really narrows down their opportunities,” she says. Together, University staff and the student group Women’s Engineering Society (WESBath) undertake a great deal of outreach to provide aspiring engineers with information and support.

For anyone thinking of following in her footsteps, Semali has some simple advice: “You can do it if you put your heart and mind to it. The beauty of any engineering subject is it opens up so many opportunities.” Semali smiles, “And the starting salary is good, too.”

The statistician

Dr Theresa Smith

Theresa Smith

“I tell my students: it’s important for you to know about statistics because someone, somewhere, is making decisions that affect your life based on them,” says Dr Theresa Smith. “After the vital role mathematical models played throughout the pandemic, I think they actually believe me.”

Theresa is from our Department of Mathematical Sciences, where she works on projects you wouldn’t usually associate with sums. She explains:

“Statistics is useful in many fields, so you’re sought out to work on projects that are really diverse in the way they use data to answer questions about the real world. That’s part of the attraction for me.”

Most recently she’s teamed up with colleagues at the University to track Covid-19 through wastewater in Africa. The aim is to create an early warning system of the disease’s potential spread. Health is a running theme in Theresa’s work. A previous project examined how the number of cancer cases differs geographically – the results can indicate a lack of healthcare or a deeper cause that needs investigation.

“I always knew I wanted to do something related to health, but originally I wanted to become a physical therapist,” she says. “As part of my degree, I had to take a statistics class and I was surprised by how much I liked it, since I didn’t enjoy maths at school.” Studying in her home country of the United States, Theresa was able to change her degree major in order to pursue her newfound interest.

A shrinking ratio

“I felt like there was a good mix of men and women on my undergraduate course, but it became very male-dominated in postgraduate,” she recalls. “I was the only woman in my cohort to complete a PhD.” The lack of role models within maths is one of the barriers to gender equality, says Theresa: “Fundamentally people want to go into something where there’s a chance they’ll enjoy it and be successful, and one way to know that is to see people like you who have made it. There’s a representation issue.”

To help change the narrative, Theresa takes part in outreach events in schools – along with colleagues from different departments such as chemistry and psychology – to show how maths can open many avenues and that women are successful.

“It might not be easy to see representative people, you might have to do a little bit of work to seek them out, but there are a lot of women doing amazing work in STEM,” she adds. “Just reach out to people and ask for advice. Finding a good mentor is invaluable, especially in male-dominated industries.”

The environmental psychologist

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh

Lorraine Whitmarsh

“We used to think technology alone was going to fix climate change. Now we know it’s not enough – we also need behaviour change.” Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh is an environmental psychologist within our Department of Psychology and was recently named one of the world’s top climate scientists by Reuters. Her work focuses on how to get more people to accept low-carbon measures and engage them in the issue.

Lorraine is also the director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) – a global hub of researchers whose work informs policymakers on how to better communicate the issue and to bring about behavioural and organisational change. There are certainly lessons to be learnt from the societal upheaval of Covid-19. “The pandemic and climate change are both global issues with linked causes – in terms of the destruction of natural habitats and global travel,” she observes. “But most would see Covid-19 as being a more immediate threat.

“What we can take away from the handling of the pandemic is that the messaging needs to be clear on what people are being asked to do,” Lorraine continues. “We need to show how the issue might start to affect you, either directly through its impacts, or through government policies. And we also need to highlight the benefits of being low-carbon – how it’s often a healthier, cheaper and more sociable way of living.”

A greener campus

They say change starts at home, and on campus Lorraine is helping to reduce the University’s carbon impact through our Climate Action Framework. “That also involves working with students from different year groups and subjects to find solutions,” she explains. “They have such enthusiasm and brilliant ideas – it gives you optimism for the future.”

Lorraine was once a Bath student herself, while studying for her master’s and PhD. She explains:

“Part of the reason I was drawn back was because there’s a really strong commitment to making a difference, and a tradition of problem solving. That’s why I got into doing research in the first place.”

Finding solutions to global challenges will require innovation, and research shows that diversity improves a team’s problem-solving abilities. Psychology is unusual among science subjects in that it’s dominated by women, at least at undergraduate level.

“Interestingly, the more senior you get, the more you lose the female majority,” Lorraine points out. “Initiatives such as Athena Swan have been really positive in helping organisations to put practical measures in place, and at a basic level, things like ensuring meetings are held in core hours and being sensitive to family demands make a big difference. I think a key part of it is monitoring and being aware of how diverse a community is when it comes to gender and ethnicity. There’s always more that can be done.”

The computer scientist

Dr Özgür Şimşek

Özgür Şimşek

At Bath, we’re training the next generation of specialists in Artificial Intelligence (AI), its applications and its future implications.

Özgür Şimşek is a senior lecturer in machine learning; deputy head of our Department of Computer Science; and leader of the AI research group. Until recently, she served as Deputy Director at Bath’s Institute for Mathematical Innovation and is now a Co-Investigator of the UKRI Doctoral Training Centre for Accountable, Responsible, and Transparent Artificial Intelligence.

Shortly after joining the University in 2017, Özgür developed a new computer science and AI undergraduate course. She says: “Now students can study AI at Bath at every level. I really enjoy teaching people and empowering them to make their own contributions to the field.”

Playing to win

One aspect of her research is reinforcement learning. “Humans learn through interacting with the environment, and a reinforcement learning agent works in a similar way,” she explains. “Take a computer game, for instance. Initially, the agent plays by choosing actions randomly. Every time it wins a game, it receives positive reinforcement. Over time, it learns how to play so that it wins as often as possible.”

Reinforcement learning has many practical applications, from autonomous vehicles to healthcare. Özgür is currently working with Bath’s Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases to optimise the flow of patients through the hospital while providing the care they need.

AI is a fast-growing field that’s built on the foundations of traditional STEM disciplines, as Özgür points out. In fact, she studied engineering first, back home in Turkey. She then moved to the United States to gain a PhD in computer science, and later became a research scientist in Germany. It’s one of the benefits of research, she says: “You can go anywhere, because the language is universal.”

From her experiences, however, it’s not the only thing that’s universal. “There still isn’t gender equality in computer science,” she adds.

“Simple things can make a difference, though. In the US, one university found that changing the name of a unit from ‘programming’ to ‘creative problem-solving using programming’ attracted a more diverse group.”

Another change, she says, was to separate classes according to the students’ existing level of knowledge in technical subjects such as coding, which helps build confidence.

“As a department, we’re putting in a lot of effort to increase diversity,” Özgür continues. We were awarded an Athena Swan Bronze award for good practice in gender equality; and the staff ratio in our AI group, for instance, is 50:50. At a broader University level, there are more women on the executive board, such as Alex Butler, who’s our Chief Digital and Information Officer and also the Executive Chair of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

“I believe role models have a large impact,” she concludes. “If there’s enough representation at the higher levels, this trickles down. The question is: how do we get there? I don’t think there’s one answer.”

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This article was written by Jodie Tyley for BA2 Issue 29, published in September 2021.