On the importance of supportive parents

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On graduating from Nottingham University with my first degree – with my Mum and Dad

The preface of my PhD thesis features two quotes from eminent physicists who have inspired me with their childlike wonder and delight in discovering the world through science:

“Three great challenges

remain for modern physics:

the big, the very small, and the complex.”

Sir Martin Rees

Astronomer Royal, tea drinker and dog lover

“In summary,

the idea is to give all of the information

to help others judge the value of your contribution;

not just the information that leads to judgement

in one particular direction

or another,”

Professor Richard Feynmann

Nobel Laureate, lock picker and bongo player

I expect many of you have heard of them. I certainly expect you’ve heard this quote, with which I opened my two-page list of acknowledgements:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Sir Isaac Newton

Great quotes, from great men. But that’s just it. When I look at my heroes in science, that’s what I see: men. Lots of them. White, middle-aged (or older) men. Several have crazy hair, occasionally they also have a beard to match. It’s not hard to see where the children’s stereotype of ‘scientist’ comes from.

It’s never been an issue for me, as my parents always encouraged and supported my scientific ambitions. My Dad worked as a Packaging Technologist and would spend hours on Sunday afternoons building and making things with me; that was probably where my skills as an experimental physicist began to develop. I do wonder though, what would have happened if my parents held a different view: that physical science wasn’t for girls, that I should concentrate on looking pretty rather than working with my hands, and I would be better off investing my intellect in something that made serious money and avoided contact with machinery and hard sums.

I have rarely met parents who express these views explicitly, but I have had several conversations at careers fairs over years of being a STEM ambassador that have made me realise these preconceptions are often bubbling under the surface. They leak out in a thousand subtle and not-so-subtle cues which add up to convince many girls that science, and certainly physics, isn’t for someone like them. That’s before you add in unhelpful messages from their peers and wider culture, often based on the same preconceptions, and patchy access to accurate information on the range of satisfying careers open to those with science qualifications.

Alongside working as a Senior Medical Physicist in the NHS, I now direct ScienceGrrl, a network celebrating and promoting women in science. We began by producing a 2013 calendar, showcasing the work of diverse mix of female scientists from a wide variety of fields, alongside their male colleagues. In the process, we have  gathered a host of women (and not a few men) who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and maths to the next generation. We’re in the process of working out how best to connect with school children to convince them that science is for everyone, by introducing them to a host of friendly role models in STEM careers – aswell as making female scientists more visible in wider culture, and several other things! To find out more, please visit us at www.sciencegrrl.co.uk or follow us on Twitter, @Science_Grrl.

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One thought on “On the importance of supportive parents

  1. This post is great! Personally, I am a scientist thanks to my parents’ support 🙂 I grew up in Mexico, where even up to my mother’s generation women had to be at home cooking and raising the kids. I think my parents were wonderful, letting me choose a career and become what I wanted to be. So BIG THANK YOU to all the supportive parents out there!

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