Celebrating Women in STEM

Today Birkbeck celebrates the women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields as part of a campaign led by Media Planet, and supported by organisations such as the Institute of Engineering and Technology and The Women’s Network.

Across the STEM industries, women make up only 12.8% of the workforce in the UK, and encouraging more women into these fields is vital to address skills shortages in the UK economy, as well as to ensure there is a diversity of voices in the field.

As Alexandra Poulovassilis, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab puts it: “Since technology and science are shaping our societies at an ever increasing pace, it is important that the people who are making decisions on where to focus and how to prioritise innovation funding are representative of all our society globally.”

We spoke to women working in various STEM fields in Birkbeck about why they chose their careers, what excites them about their work and why it’s important for STEM disciplines to be diverse and representative.

Alexandra Poulouvassilis: Why is it important that STEM fields are diverse?

Jessica Swainston and Iroise Dumontheil: What excites you about working in STEM? 

Tingting Han: Why did you choose a career in Computer Science?

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A day in the life of…Dr Emma Meaburn

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr Emma Meaburn from the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist. 

I get up at …  6am (or 6.30 am, if I am lucky), when I am woken by my children. The next two hours are a whirl of breakfast, loudness, finding lost shoes, cajoling, cuddles and probably some light bribery before I leave the house at 8.15am. I drop the youngest child off at nursery on my way to the train station, and typically arrive at Birkbeck by about 9.30am.

My research … looks at the genetic contributions to individual differences in psychological traits and disorders. We all differ, and I am interested in how these differences are influenced by differences in our DNA and how the information stored in our DNA is used.

I teach on … the BSc Psychology degree program, where I co-convene and co-teach a large first year ‘Research Methods’ module that provides psychology students with a basic grounding in the principles of experimental design and statistics. Undergraduate students can sometimes be surprised that research methods form a core element of the program, and we work hard to make it accessible and relevant to the students’ current knowledge and career aspirations. I also teach on the final year “Genetics and Psychology” optional module. This is always enjoyable as I get to talk about my own research findings and that of my colleagues, and expose the students to the newest methods and insights from the field of behavior genetics.

I am also responsible for … quite a few things!  Broadly, my job falls into three categories; research, teaching and service.  As part of my research activities I am responsible for running a lab and the admin that comes with it; writing ethics applications; PhD student supervision, training and mentorship; securing funding (writing and revising grant applications); dissemination of my research via conference attendance, giving invited talks, publishing my work in peer reviewed articles and public engagement activities. Behavior genetics is a fast-paced field, and I stay informed about new developments and methods as best I can by reading the literature, speaking to colleagues and collaborators, organizing and attending conferences and (occasionally) training workshops.

When I’m teaching, I will be lecturing (typically on two evenings per week); developing or updating content for modules (slides, worksheets and notes); marking assessed work; writing exam papers; writing model answers; supervising teaching assistants; answering student emails; writing letters of recommendation; designing lab experiments; acting as a personal tutor for undergraduates (roughly 10-15 students); attending exam board and module convener meetings; and being assessed on my teaching.

I also peer review grants and manuscripts; supervise undergraduate (about four per year) and graduate student research projects (about two per year); sit on the academic advisory board and postgraduate research committee, and I am a member of the management committee of the University of London Centre for Educational Neuroscience, which provides a unified research environment for translational neuroscience.

…or I do none of the above because nursery have called and my child has a temperature, and I have to go and collect him (three out of five days last week!)

My typical day … doesn’t really exist! One of the best aspects of academic life is that each day is different.

If I am teaching in the evening, typically I will meet with my PhD students (or project students) in the morning where we discuss the past week’s progress, go over new results and edits of conference abstracts and manuscript drafts. Then there is at least an hour of email and admin tasks such as paying invoices, tracking lost lab orders, or hurriedly writing a PhD application, before heading to the gym for an hour of ‘me’ time. I’ll then undo all my hard work by grabbing a hearty lunch from one of the many fantastic food places around Birkbeck, before attending a departmental seminar or journal club. That leaves me with a couple more hours to squeeze in research and research admin before preparing for the evening’s class. Once the class is over (at about 8.30pm), I head back to my office for 30 minutes of emails before catching the tube home. All being well, I’ll get home around 9.30/10pm, check on my (mostly) sleeping family, and do 30 minutes of life chores before collapsing into bed.

I became a scientist… because I had always loved science and by my late teens I had developed a keen interest in what was then known as the “Nature Versus Nurture’ debate. I think this interest was sparked by my own experiences and reflections as a fostered child (I was separated from my biological parents at six months of age), and when I finally studied genetics as an undergraduate student in human biology at King’s College London, my mind was made up – I was going to be a geneticist!

My greatest professional achievement… has been establishing myself as a research active academic and developing my own research program, in a field where academic positions at renowned institutions like Birkbeck are few and far between and competition is fierce. I get to work in a research field that is dynamic, challenging and interesting, and in a supportive, autonomous and friendly environment.

 

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Fear and resilience: Psychologist shares breast cancer experience

This post was contributed by Professor Naz Derakhshan of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences. The article first appeared on the Huffington Post UK blog on Wednesday, 23 March 2016.

What a Cognitive Psychologist Learned About Fear and Resilience When She was Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

It was the spring of 2012, and I remember well the exhilarating feeling of being promoted to the title of full professor within only six years of my first appointment as lecturer at Birkbeck University of London. Previously, my research was focussed on understanding what makes us vulnerable to emotional disorders like anxiety and depression and how we can overcome vulnerability and practice resilience. Cancer, however, did not care that I had been awarded a prestigious fellowship to continue my work in the prime of my life, when I was diagnosed with multifocal invasive breast cancer on January 2nd, 2013. I was in my 30s, and my daughter, Ella, was just under three years of age.

Professor Naz Derakshan

Professor Naz Derakshan

To say that my whole world turned around is an understatement because every day since that day my world has been changing in an emotional and physical roller coaster that I continue to challenge. I am a mother and an academic. And I have had to face my mortality so early having a dependent child who means everything to me. While I have so far survived the storm of diagnosis and treatment, the storm, however, never left. The sound of the rain reminds me that lightening can strike again. Will I survive it next time? Or will I be washed away? I am reminded of the anticipation, the expectation: the fear of recurrence. The fear that can distract, interfere and apprehend. “But, you have become an integral part of my life, so I shall take you forward with me”, I say.

Using fear

I feel lucky that I am able to continue my work, but cancer is never far away. I am pleasantly distracted by a paper that is accepted for publication; I marvel that I have been invited to give a distinguished lecture at an International Conference for Stress and Anxiety Research. I start to prepare my talk. I hear the sound of the lightening in the far distance, I stop. I turn to my daughter and start playing hide and seek (her favourite game), and the voice is somehow louder. “I hear you”, I say to my fears. “I feel you. Perhaps you can guide me”. So, I continue, still fearful.

Three years down the line, I still continue to be haunted by my cancer. Like the background music to a movie it’s always there, singing the trauma that I have endured. Approximately, two-thirds of women with a breast cancer diagnosis suffer PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and this can make them prone to anxiety and depression later. I love exercising, but frequently go through chronic fatigue and am still suffering the well-known ‘cognitive decline’ or ‘chemo-brain’. Yet I am expected to function to my full capacity, what the storm left of me. Of course I will never give up, I am grateful for a second chance. And this goes for all the 57,000 people who are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK, every year. If they are given a second chance.

Understanding resilience

What is resilience I ask myself? Common perception sees resilience as mental toughness, fighting the fears. It’s about positivity. Yet, this ideology seems far-fetched, the fear is very real. Rather, resilience, I have learned, is about flexibility, adapting and adjusting: accepting our fears, and the strength to embrace and harness them. Yes, we are scarred but the scars do not define us. The scars signal our gratitude and grit, and the fears that mark what matters to us. Resilience helps us listen to our fears. So, how can we learn to be resilient, I ask myself.

Read Professor Derakhshan's original blog on Huffington Post UK

Read Professor Derakhshan’s original blog on Huffington Post UK

I set up the educational Research Centre for Building Psychological Resilience in Breast Cancer on October 2nd, 2015, with this purpose in mind. To improve cognitive function towards resilience using interventions that exercise brain function. Our private group has over 330 members in less than five months.

And our centre’s blog: Panning for Gold, showcases the many fruitful ways our amazing members discuss their growth from the trauma they endure, through works of art, writing, and science. I would not have been able to sustain and promote the aims of the centre without the vital input of Tamsin Sargeant and Vicky Wilkes who run the centre with me. I have learned more from other women than anything in my academic work, we are more vulnerable than we think we are; we are more resilient than we think we are. Because, from vulnerability stems strength.

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