Features / ada lovelace

Bristol women at the forefront of science pt1

By pamela parkes, Monday Sep 28, 2015

Ada Lovelace Day was created to celebrate one of the pioneering women mathematicians.

Born 200 yeas ago, Ada worked with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, an early predecessor of the modern computer. Her notes inspired Alan Turing to work on the first modern computers in the 1940s.

All this week, Bristol24/7 will be featuring just some of the brilliant Bristol women working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). 

First we meet Cpl Hollie Jenkins, an electronics technician in the British Army’s Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who is working on Bloodhound SSC which is currently being built in Avonmouth, and mathematician Dr Julia Wolf who is giving a public talk at Bristol University on Ada Lovelace Day entitled ‘How to make yourself heard at a rock concert’

 

Dr Julia Wolf

Can you sum up what you do? 

Broadly speaking I’m a number theorist, which in my particular case means that I look for structure in sets of numbers that appear at first sight to be quite unstructured, such as the primes. Rather than examining these numbers by hand, or using a computer, we use tools that are similar to the ones used to analyse sound, which can be decomposed into waves of different base frequencies.

Did anyone inspire you to follow a career in science? 

Both my parents considered education to be very important, but they never pushed me in any particular direction. To my knowledge there have never been any women scientists in my family (or any scientists at all for that matter). As far as I remember, my first professional ambition was to become a carpenter. I guess I was always curious as to how things worked around me. When I was about thirteen I asked my parents for a subscription to the Scientific American, which opened up a whole new perspective on the world that I found very stimulating. From that point onwards I was sold.

In your view are there any obstacles to women following a career in science, maths or technology?

In my opinion there are relatively few concrete obstacles, but there are many (often rather subtle) factors that act as a deterrent along the way. Over time these have the cumulative effect of preventing many very talented women from choosing careers in science. This starts very early on, in the home, and continues all the way to PhD and faculty level. There are significant drop-offs at every stage along the pipeline.

If so what do you think needs to change to encourage women into the field?

It’s a pervasive and complex problem, so action is needed on all levels of society.

I would urge parents to give their daughters all available options. Support her if she wants to dress up as an astronaut for her next fancy dress party. Teach her how to mend her bicycle. Tell her about Ada Lovelace. And tell your little boy that story, too.

At university level, I think we all need to be more sensitive to the different needs of female science students, and support and encourage them at every crucial transition stage, for example from undergraduate to graduate studies.

What do you think of Ada Lovelace Day? Is it a good way to inspire young women to go into science?

The lack of visibility of women in the sciences is a major problem. For example, amongst mathematicians of comparable achievements, a much smaller number of women mathematicians have their own profiles on Wikipedia. Ada Lovelace Day is a great opportunity to make female scientists of all disciplines more visible to the public.

And finally, what reactions do you get when you explain to people what you do?

The full range, which is primarily to do with the fact that sadly, mathematics is not a popular discipline in this country and something that scares a lot of people. This needs to change.

I’ve also received the occasional message from parents who had stumbled across my website, asking me what they can do to help their daughter pursue a career in science, at times from the other end of the world. The fact that these parents can’t find a role model or someone to ask for advice more locally was really shocking to me at first, and is clear evidence that a lot remains to be done.

 

Cpl Hollie Jenkins 

Can you sum up what is it you do? 

I use my skills as an Army electronics technician to manufacture and install wiring looms for Wg Cdr Andy Green’s cockpit, along with rear upright sensors and various other wiring throughout the Bloodhound car.  

Did anyone inspire you into a science based job? 

I didn’t have one particular person inspire me into engineering but for me at the age of 16 I knew I needed a new challenge.  

I didn’t particularly love school but I loved sport and along with that I knew I needed to get a good trade. The Army offered me the opportunity to do both and get paid for it! Joining as the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as an electronics technician has been great and I have got to travel and gain qualifications as part of my career path. Now at the age of 23 (seven years since joining) I am now a fully qualified supervisor, responsible for a team of technicians to maintain and repair the Army’s fighting vehicles. 

In your view are the any obstacles for women following a career in science, maths or technology (STEM)?  

The only obstacle woman face when going into a STEM based jobs is there own ability to believe in themselves. Men and women have the opportunity to contribute equally to solve the worlds problems and it’s engineering that will be the key in the future.

If so how do you feel the field could be changed?   

I personally feel the field could be changed slightly by inspiring the younger generation from an earlier age. Women within STEM careers must visit schools (which I have been able to do through Bloodhound’s education programme) to talk to groups of girls and boys to show them that women are equally as capable in STEM roles. 

What do you think of Ada Lovelace day? Is it a good way to inspire younger women into engineering?  

Ada Lovelace day is an outstanding way to showcase and recognise talent within the industry. It gives the younger generation the opportunity to see what can be achieved and what they could also achieve in the near future. It also showcases the different types of roles from design and electrical to mechanical and nuclear engineering on all different kinds of equipment and projects. 

And finally, what reactions do you get when you explain to people what you do?  

The looks on adults and children’s faces when I explain what I do sums up why I work hard everyday and shows me that Bloodhound SSC’s education programme is delivering. To be able to say I’ve been part of inspiring the next generation (even if it’s just a few at a time) into an engineering career then this means I have done my job. 

(Photo Credit Major Oli Morgan REME – Crown Copyright 2015)

Read more about the Bloodhound project

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