Features / ada lovelace

Bristol women at the forefront of science pt2

By pamela parkes, Tuesday Oct 6, 2015

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

Born 200 years, 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, maths and engineering (STEM)

In the second of our series we meet Dr Emma Robinson who studies the cause and treatment of psychiatric conditions and at emotions in animals, and Dr Lucy Berthoud who has worked at NASA and the European Space Agency and now teaches spacecraft design at Bristol University. 

 

Dr Emma Robinson 

Can you sum up what you do?

I am a research scientist in Biomedical Science. My research is in the area of psychopharmacology, the study of how drugs affect the brain.  In particular, I am interested in psychiatric disorders and carry out research to try to understand how the brain controls behaviour and the effect that drugs can have on these processes.  We currently work on emotional behaviour, cognition and addiction.  

Did anyone inspire you to follow a career in science?

Professor David Nutt.  He lectured on my final year pharmacology course and I was fascinated by his work on mood disorders and how brain chemistry was linked to diseases such as depression.  I was also surprised that no one really knew what caused depression or how the drugs which were given to treat people actually worked.  I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to undertake a PhD in his research group where my passion for research and studying the brain really developed.  Another key moment in my science career was my first experience of laboratory research.  This was during my undergraduate research project with Professor Hilary Little.  At the time I was looking to go on to a post-graduate training in Veterinary Medicine but working in the laboratory for 6 weeks made me realise that this was the career I wanted.  My research project was looking at alcoholism and drugs which might help to reduce the symptoms of withdrawal.

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

I don’t think there are specific obstacles and when you look at our undergraduate intake in areas such as Veterinary Medicine, there are a very high proportion of women. Across the Biomedical Sciences we also see a reasonably balanced intake although I think in areas such as maths and engineering, this is not the case.  

What seems obvious though is that the ratio of women to men declines as you progress along a research career path so there are clearly factors which are affecting this. In my experience, a career in research is very competitive and you have to be prepared to keep trying against the odds.

I actually think women have many skills which benefit them in a scientific career such as multi-tasking and organisation but being able to be very competitive and tell everyone how good you are comes less naturally.  

What do you think needs to change to encourage women into the field?

Making science more interesting in secondary school is where I would invest.  Engaging young people at a time when they are making choices about their GCSEs is important and I think science in schools is not inspiring.  

From the perspective of a research career, I think the peer review process, for both publications and grants, has a negative impact on women in science.  Studies have shown that women are less ambitious than men in what funding they request, the journals which they publish in but perhaps most interesting is the evidence that women are much more critical of other women when reviewing their work!

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

Anything which raises the profile of science as a whole is good.  Inspiring stories around successful female scientists and a celebration of their successes is an excellent way to raise awareness and inspire others.

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

People are always fascinated by how little we actually know about the brain and how it works.  They are surprised that most of what you read in textbooks are not actually facts but hypotheses and these are constantly changing as more research is carried out.  

 

 

 Dr Lucy Berthoud

Can you sum up what you do?

I teach Spacecraft Systems Engineering in the Aerospace Engineering department (at the university of Bristol) and also work in Industry at Thales Alenia Space UK -a spacecraft design company.

Did anyone inspire you to follow a career in science?

I wanted to be an astronaut from about the age of 11. A woman engineer came into our school on the Women Into Science and Engineering scheme and I thought ‘Yes! This is what I want to do!’ 

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

As there is now a majority of women following studies and careers in medicine, it doesn’t seem like there are barriers in science generally. So why do we only have 12% female students in our Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering courses?  

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

More role models, more encouragement of girls making decisions at GCSE and A level. 

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

Anything which helps encourage young women into STEM has got to be a good thing. It is such a rewarding career, I wouldn’t want half the population to miss out on it!

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

Most people are excited to meet a spacecraft engineer. What today is exploratory and ground breaking (like space exploration) will be ordinary tomorrow. I think space exploration will be an important part of our future.

Meet the first two brilliant Bristol women in our series – a pioneering mathematician and a supersonic car engineer.

Latest articles