talk: Jocelyn Bell Burnell at @WITSIreland

Science, art, feminism, activism, and a cup of tea. I’ve had worse lunchtimes.

Okay, confession: I’m not a scientist myself. I just play one on the internet sometimes.

Nevertheless, this Thursday, I was thrilled to don my hobbyist science-geek hat, and attend an event organised by Women in Technology and Science Ireland (WITS) in honour of Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Bringing us together was the presentation of a painting by artist Margarita Cimadevila, inspired by Professor Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars.

Margarita Cimadevila – Pulsares.

Ms Cimadevila – a chemist by training and a teacher by profession – based a series of paintings on the work of women scientists whose brilliance was underrecognised. Ciencia Ex Aequo includes tributes to, among others, Annie Cannon, Cecilia Payne, Chien-Shiung Wu, Emmy Noether, and Lise Meitner. Quite apart from the richness of the art itself (and the photo above does this piece no justice), there is something fittingly lovely about seeing the lives and work of these women celebrated vividly and beautifully on canvas. They deserve the honour; deserve their names writ large and illuminated. I really do recommend looking at the Ciencia Ex Aequo catalogue linked above – I wish I could have seen all twelve.

Next up, some of the spotlight was handed over to a gentleman for a few minutes (but only a few). Minister of State for Research and Innovation, Seán Sherlock, spoke about the importance of the sciences sector for industry and progress in Ireland. In particular, he pointed out that women in the sciences were carrying a lot of the weight of the work, but were entirely underrepresented in the power structures of academia and training. Promoting the importance of women’s voices and representation should be a priority for anyone looking to shore up Ireland’s scientific stock, particularly as we heard this week that Nature considers Ireland one of the up-and-coming countries to watch in high-level research.

Professor Bell Burnell’s talk came in two parts – a presentation about her work with Tapping All Our Talents: Women in STEM, a project of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and an interview about her life and career, conducted by science journalist Claire O’Connell. Having never seen her speak before, I was expecting an interesting talk, but was still pleasantly surprised at how warm and engaging Professor Bell Burnell is as a speaker.

She noted that Scotland is a close analogue for Ireland when it comes to size, character, and economic status, and therefore the results garnered from the Royal Society report would equally serve as good guidelines for the Irish scientific sector. Foremost among her concerns: the ‘leaky pipeline’ effect – whereby, even though school and undergraduate degrees are seeing many women and girls opt for science subjects, the number of those women remaining in the sciences at each subsequent level (bachelors, postgraduate, researcher, lecturer, professor) falls away steeply. For example, while 70% of candidates for school exams in biology are female, only 15% of professors of biology are women. The situation is worse still in chemistry, physics, and maths, where girls start out as a minority at secondary school level and remain starkly so right up the ranks. This echoes what Minister Sherlock had said about women in power structures – there is no reason why women shouldn’t have the same impact as men trained to an equivalent level, and yet we don’t get our voices heard nearly as much. Fewer women at professorial level means fewer women directing research and fewer role models for the girls making it to university lectures.

This is institutional sexism at play, both on a conscious (well, science is a boys’ club, isn’t it) and an unconscious level. ‘How many of you have had to fill out a form where you declared your gender by ticking a box?’ she asked us. ‘And which one of those boxes came first?’ It’s a simplistic example, but one that resonated with the audience. This unconscious bias comes into play even as far as the language used to describe job postings in the sciences, which can often use language typified as ‘male’ (strong, dynamic, etc – adjectives which, for better or for worse, are filed under the M box for cultural gender).

In an employment culture where 73% of female STEM graduates leave the field once they start employment, incentives must be given to institutions to promote their ‘women-friendliness’. The Tapping All Our Talents group recommended that universities be given research grants condititional on reaching a Silver Athena SWAN level, and that employers pay special attention to the conditions offered to female employees and potential hires (diversity and equality in recruitment, positive part-time hours and benefits for working mothers, cultural change and anti-discrimination policies in the business).

A quick aside: a question from the floor raised the question of visible female role models for young scientists. In her reply the Professor mentioned the popularity of Chris Hadfield’s reports from aboard the ISS – currently, one of the ISS astronauts is a woman named Karen Nyberg, who tweets updates and photos as @AstroKarenN. If lady role models aren’t as visible as the men, there’s only one thing we can do about that – make them so.

The tone got lighter after the formal section of the talk was over, and the interview began. I think most of us could relate to the young not-yet-Professor, arguing with her schoolteachers to be accorded equality with the boys in her choice of subjects! You have to be tough to get ahead, it seems, even in school uniform. More seriously,  it was reassuring to hear her talk about experiencing impostor syndrome while a postgrad student – it sometimes feels like people who are successful were created that way, and have never doubted themselves. She discussed the lead-up to identifying the pulsar and its strange pattern of data: how she was convinced, as was her supervisor, that the signal had to be an error or interference on the radio receiver, and how they performed a differential diagnosis until they were left with no choice but to accept the data and find an explanation for them. It’s understandable! A pulsar is such a strange object that if there wasn’t such strong evidence for its existence, it really would seem like a product of a creative imagination.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon overall, but if I’m to sum up the good humour and amusement present throughout the event, I’ll do so like this. Several times in the opening speeches, allusion was made to Professor Bell Burnell’s PhD supervisor being awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars – even though it had been her data and her insistence, despite his scepticism, that led to the discovery being made. I wondered if that wasn’t something that would sit uncomfortably, given that much of her career has been clouded under this one big oversight. Do you ever really get past being the person who didn’t get the Nobel?

Ms O’Connell brought it up in her interview, asking how it felt to see the supervisor get given the nod.

“I was pleased to see it go to an astronomer, seeing as there is no Nobel Prize for astronomy – it has been given to quite a few, since, but pulsars were the first to be honoured in that way.’

Yes, but how did she feel about it?

“I think I’ve done pretty well out of it,” replied the Professor, laughing. “If you don’t get the Nobel Prize, they give you every other prize that’s going!”

Whoever said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes clearly required better taste in role models.

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One thought on “talk: Jocelyn Bell Burnell at @WITSIreland

  1. Pingback: say it once, say it loud: feminism and equality | Eppur Si Muove

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