Features / ada lovelace day

Bristol women at the forefront of science pt3

By pamela parkes, Tuesday Oct 6, 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 1940’s.

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

Today we meet Catherine Gilmore, a Bristol University PhD student who’s looking at the placenta to find out how harmful particles affect the placenta and the unborn baby, Dr Suzi Gage who investigates the relationship between drinking, smoking and drugs on mental health, and Hanna Sanford, who is studying for a Masters in Human Computer Interactions. She’s on placement at Close Air Solutions, based on the Bristol and Bath Science Park


Catherine Gilmore

Can you sum up what you do?

My research is focussed on developing an experimental model of the placenta, made using cells from a human placenta after it has been delivered.

The placenta is an incredible organ, derived from both foetal and maternal cells, a temporary organ that supports the vulnerable developing fetus for the first 9 months of its life. However there is still so much we do not know about placental function. The role the placenta plays in foetal health and in the programming of adult disease in the developing foetus is only just beginning to be uncovered. We hope that a new experimental model will help us to unravel some of the unknowns.

Did anyone inspire you to follow a career in science?

For me, it always felt quite natural to follow a career in science. I loved biology, chemistry and maths in school and it was simply an obvious choice to continue that in university. I don’t think there was any single person who inspired that choice in me, but a good education and the option to go to university opened up the doors.

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

I am at the early stages of a career in science, and at every step up to this point women have dominated. There have been more female students than male in my undergrad, masters and PhD. And the obstacles I have faced so far are in no way limited to women.

Research is difficult and at times incredibly frustrating, but these are problems all scientists face. It is undeniable however that there are more men than women in higher positions. I couldn’t possibly explain why this is the case, but this is clearly the obstacle for many women. With so many female students, why are there still so few women at the top? 

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

I don’t think there needs to be big changes made to encourage women into the field, we are already here (at least in biology).

Perhaps the bigger issue is encouraging and facilitating women to stay and get those top positions. There are too few women at the top to act as role models and a source of inspiration for us young women scientists. This simply needs to change, but the reasons underlying the problem are multiple and complicated, I think changes at a societal level will be needed to address this imbalance in the long-term.

But initiatives like Ada Lovelace day are a great way to promote women working in these fields and highlight the huge scientific advancements being made by women all over the world. A reminder to us all of what we could achieve.

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

Absolutely. Ada Lovelace’s story is incredible and it is fantastic that this woman has now become a source of inspiration to lots of young women.

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

I generally have an overwhelmingly positive response when I tell people what I do. I love talking about our research, and I think people are innately interested in how the body works and the placenta is a bit of a mystery organ to most people so it often sparks an interesting conversation.  


Hanna Sanford

Can you sum up what you do? 

Close Air Solutions trains soldiers how to coordinate ground and air assets to avoid politically damaging consequences to civilian and friendly forces when carrying out airstrikes and artillery strikes in war zones.

As their Software Developer, I have been working on a variety of projects ranging from internal configuration tools to emulations of military devices to be used by customers in the simulated training environment. 

Did anyone inspire you to follow a career in science? 

My dream growing up was always to become a Mythbuster (and still do). While I’d always been interested in science, they made it cool by blowing things up. Both my parents were very supportive of my interest from a very early age. I got hooked when I got ill on a trip to Lego Land and spent the trip in the hotel room building all the kits available in the shop from the ages 6-7 kits to the 12+ ones. When I got home from that trip, I started doing the FLL robotics competition on an all-girls team coached by my mum. We even had a drill-press in our dining room for a while. 

I attended an all-girls school from Kindergarten through 8th grade and in 4th grade we had an event called the Famous American Women’s Tea. We were supposed to dress up as our chosen woman from history and give a brief speech about her accomplishments. I chose to go as Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a Space Shuttle. She was a powerful role model as she was not only an astronaut but a pilot and leaders.  

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

The biggest obstacle to women entering science is representation. Not only are there few well known role models for women wanting to enter STEM fields, especially Technology and Engineering, but women who study and work in those fields frequently face being the only woman in the room. Many of us who have been interested in science from a young age, are used to this, but a female support system in the classroom or workplace is lacking. 

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

The barriers to women in STEM start very young with things like the gendering of toys. Toys impacts the skills that kids learn growing up. Building sets, which are often considered “for boys”, can foster special reasoning, while dolls, which are considered “for girls”, can encourage interpersonal skills. This can impact what fields kids are likely to pursue in their future. 

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

Things like Ada Lovelace Day are important to help to bring female role models into the main-stream but it is more important to give young women more current role models. While important, the current discussion about the problems women face in STEM fields creates a perception of notoriety. It is important to not only to recognise women in STEM of the past, but to show young women that there are women working in those fields now and doing great work. 

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

Most people are just a bit intimidated. It seems like to most people computers are just magic boxes that connect them to the internet, even for those of us who grew up with them. There is definitely a perception that they are incomprehensibly complex. Usually the only follow up question I get is “What is that?”.

Dr Suzi Gage

Suzi investigates causality in the relationships between drinking/smoking/drugs and mental health

Can you sum up what you do?

I’m a post-doctoral research associate interested in associations between substance use and mental health.

In order to try and understand these associations I use large datasets like Children of the 90s, based in Bristol, and others from around the world. I also make use of genetic information to try and tease apart whether associations seen are likely to be causal, or whether other factors might be influencing the association, or even if it’s in the opposite direction.  

Did anyone inspire you to follow a career in science?

I was very lucky as all through my childhood I was encouraged by my parents – their attitude was very much ‘if you want to do it, try it and see how it goes’. I never felt like any careers were off limits, unless I wasn’t interested in them. I didn’t really plan to be a scientist to begin with though!

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

Yeah I think it’s hard to dispute that there are obstacles. Obviously it’s not impossible, and it’s easier in some fields than others. But there are unconscious biases that can just make it ever so slightly harder. It’s really hard to see these too – I don’t feel like I’ve been held back, but the point is that these things happen without being noticed.

Some worrying experiments have shown that people (men and women) rate identical CVs as being better and the person more employable if they have a man’s name at the top versus a woman’s. And the numbers themselves clearly show that women are lost to science across the career spectrum from A-Levels in some subjects all the way up to professors. Even in fields like mine (psychology) where undergrad cohorts are almost entirely women, the male professors usually outnumber the female ones.

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

I think changes are happening. Understanding the unconscious biases is the first way to trying to break them down. I should be really clear here and say it’s not just men who hold these biases, women rate other women in the same way, it’s a culture that we need to shift, and the best way to do that is to shine a light on the problems so we can work out ways to prevent them. 

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

I think Ada Lovelace Day is awesome! It’s such a positive day – all about celebrating women in science, engineering and tech, and their achievements. I have attended Ada Lovelace days in London in the past, written blogs about the day for the Guardian and the Telegraph, and even written a chapter (about Bristol’s own Jean Golding, who set up Children of the 90s) for a book compiled by the Ada Lovelace Day organiser Suw Charman-Anderson.

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

People tend to be really interested when I tell them what I do. Everyone has an opinion on drug use and mental health! So I often have really interesting conversations with people about it.

My PhD was particularly about associations between cannabis and psychosis – which is a question that gets a lot of media interest. I usually got one of two reactions, either ‘I know someone that happened to’, or ‘can I be a participants in your research’ (!)  

More from our brilliant Bristol women series:

Mathematician Juila Wolf and supersonic car engineer Hollie Jenkins

Spacecraft engineer Dr Lucy Berthoud and Dr Emma Robinson who studies emotions in humans and animals.

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