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Ada Lovelace Day: inspirational and influential women in science

To celebrate Ada Lovelace Day, we asked staff on Norwich Research Park to tell us of their inspirational role models in STEM, and how they inspired them to pursue a science career.

October 10, 2016

Inspiration comes in many forms and many people have a hugely beneficial but often unknown influence on other people. We asked people throughout Norwich Research Park to tell us which women in science had inspired them and why.

As Ada Lovelace Day 2016 approaches, we wanted to share some of the heartfelt feedback we received after asking staff on Norwich Research Park to reflect on which female scientists had inspired them early in their career.

Answers ranged from Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher Hypatia, cancer researcher Marie Curie and computer programmer Ada Lovelace through to modern day teachers and scientists, including some big names on our own research park.

It all begins with education.

Often, inspiration happens from a young age, which was certainly the case for me. Mrs Cavanagh at Clitheroe Royal Grammar School allowed me to let my mind wander and carry on talking when I interrupted class with a new fact about carrot domestication that I found particularly entertaining.

I wasn’t the only one.

Dr Emily Angiolini, head of Training and Education at EI mentioned, “Mrs Bradley, my A-level biology teacher (from Notre Dame High School, Norwich), was as mad as ever but so enthusiastic in lessons. She always brought real examples to discuss in class, so she really cemented my love of genetics. I owe my career path in its early stages to her.”

Harbans Marway of EI’s Platform & Pipelines group suggested his teacher, Miss Chang: “She was quite the inspiration, she was relatable and kept us interested - even when we were naughty.

“She once brought in a squirrell that her cat had caught for dissection!

“Notably, too, she helped with my undergrad and postgrad applications and even looked at my CV. Mrs Chang is great!”

Another anonymous contributor mentioned their teacher, who, “inspired me to ignore everyone who said science is for nerds and not for girls.”

For others, it was fellow teachers who cut an inspiring figure. Jamie Edwards of EI added, “Kemi Babalola is such an amazing woman, who is strong, passionate and does whatever she can by her pupils. A biochemist and outstanding teacher, love her.”

… And continues through to uni and PhDs.

Here, again, I was inspired by two people - Professor Liz Sheffield and Professor Amanda Bamford of the University of Manchester, both of whom helped me get to where I am today.

Liz showed me the incredible world of plant biodiversity with her fantastic course of lectures in my first year, and she also sent me the fated e-mail about Thought for Food, which has been one of the best experiences of my life.

Amanda introduced me to the world of science communication, and gave me the opportunity to go and explain science to the public on a weekly basis - which has become one of my major passions.

An anonymous contributor mentioned their PhD supervisor, Professor Catherine Demoliou of the University of Nicosia, who, “is a hard working lecturer and researcher but also really cares about her students.”

Closer to Norwich Research Park, Dr Belinda Clarke of Agri-tech East mentioned two well known names at the John Innes Centre: “Professor Anne Osbourn, my first boss as a technician in 1988 and Professor Alison Smith, my PhD Supervisor, are both excellent scientists, role models and inspirational women. Thank you to them both.”

Dr Daniel Swan, Head of Platforms and Pipelines at EI, mentioned Rosa Beddington, who “quizzed me as a PhD student in her house in London. She supervised two friends through PhDs and was one of the most formidable intellects I have ever met.”

For Dylan Edwards, Professor of Cancer Studies at UEA’s Norwich Medical School, mentioned Eileen MacRobbie, “my first year Natural Sciences lecturer, who turned me onto the world of cells.”

For Professor Mike Bevan, Programme Leader of GRO and Cell and Developmental Biology at JIC, it was Mary-Dell Chilton, who has won the World Food Prize and is one of the founders of modern plant biotechnology.

“I did postdoctoral research for three years with her at Washington University in St Louis. She has been a continuing inspiration for my work; clear-thinking, very ambitious and exceptionally supportive.

“And she has the knack of knowing what the ‘big problems’ are.”

Open quote marks

Reserve your right to think. For even to think wrongly is better than to not think at all.

Closing quote marks

We ran out of space thinking of inspirational women, there are just so many!

Wordcloud of inspirational women

Athena SWAN and equality.

One anonymous contributor mentioned Athene Donald, “for her mark on the Athena SWAN Charter that champions women in science.”

We have been proud to celebrate the achievements of women in science at EI, and Audrey Heppleston, who coordinated EI’s Athena Swan application, also mentioned her inspirational figure:

Professor Cheryll Tickle. Her passion and endless curiosity for developmental biology is highly contagious!”

Indeed, possibly my favourite quote comes from another anonymous contributor, who mentioned:

Marie Stopes. She gave women the ‘choice’ to get pregnant or not.”

While, another person added, “men can be inspired by women, too. Dr Lindsay Hall (UEA) is pretty awesome as she’s managed to accomplish a lot at an early career stage.”

There was also great respect for Christine Nüsslein-Volhard, who one person pointed out, is a German geneticist and won the Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine in 1995 for the discovery of the Toll gene. This is still affecting my research on a large scale!”

Your right to think.

Some famous historical figures also came up - some more surprising than others.

When I was making my Women in Science quiz for last year, it became quite apparent that Beatrix Potter, as well as being a talented painter and author, was also a keen mycologist.

An unknown source added, “Beatrix Potter, for her work on lichens and for sticking to her theory on symbiosis despite not being taken seriously and being expected to stay at home and put on tea parties.”

Well said.

The most popular name mentioned was, of course, Marie Curie.

Dr Dorota Jakubczyk of JIC said, “she’s inspired me as a genius female scientist.

“She couldn’t study in her country at the time and she came across several difficulties as a woman during her early career - but she never gave up which resulted in sweet success. She has inspired me to believe in myself.”

Another name mentioned was Henrietta Swan Leavitt, “for discovering the relation between luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars.”

There was chemist Rosalind Franklin, “for her contributions to the understanding of the molecular structure of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal and graphite.”

Then, a rather lovely example of Lady Eleanor Glanville, “the 17th Century lepidopterist, who carried on with her butterfly studies despite the generally-held belief that ‘none but those who were deprived of the senses would go in pursuit of butterflies.’”

To finish, however, I think we will leave the concluding remarks to Hypatia of Alexandria, who said:

“Reserve your right to think. For even to think wrongly is better than to not think at all.”

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications Officer (Part time)