Combining postgraduate study with raising six children

Bioinformatics graduate Rudo Supple returned to education after spending 15 years out of the workplace while she raised her children.

After 15 years spent raising her six children, Rudo Supple felt ready for a new challenge. Having studied Economics and Japanese as an undergraduate, Rudo couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she’d made the wrong choice about what to study at A-level, and decided to look into going back to university to study science.

She initially applied to study medical statistics at Birkbeck, but while looking up information on the types of career that medical statistics graduates went onto she came across the term ‘bioinformatics’. She recalls: “I had never even heard of bioinformatics, but then I discovered that Birkbeck offered a Master’s in it and when I looked at the course content I realised that this was the right programme for me.”

Despite having no background in either biological sciences or computer science, Rudo enrolled on the MSc Bioinformatics with Systems Biology after talking to the course admissions tutor.

“When I started the course my aim was just to pass. I wanted to challenge myself academically after so many years without an academic challenge but I really didn’t know whether I would be able to keep up with the subject material without having prior knowledge.

“It was incredibly daunting to come back into education after so long. Even the one area that I was vaguely familiar with from my undergraduate studies – statistics – had changed enormously, and whereas I had been used to looking things up in tables, we were now running them through computational models.”

While many part-time students at Birkbeck are combining their study with work and therefore need to study in the evenings, for Rudo, who was commuting to Birkbeck from Oxford, it made sense to follow the daytime modules from the full-time programme and study from 2pm-5pm – which meant that she could be back in Oxford for the children’s bedtimes.

Rudo’s children were initially sceptical about the idea of her going to university – something they saw as ‘for young people’ and which was only a few years away for her eldest son himself. “I think that now my kids just see study as ‘what mum does’. I’m pleased to have modelled for them the idea that your education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university as a young person – that there’s no time limit on learning.”

After receiving a merit in her first module, the doubts about whether she’d be able to complete the programme slowly began to recede for Rudo. She says: “You pass one module, then another, and after a while you realise that it’s not going too badly. But at the end of the first year, when my tutor said that I could potentially get a distinction I just laughed. I had an excellent supervisor for my project and in the end I did go on to get a distinction overall.”

Not only did Rudo begin to believe that she was capable of passing the course at Birkbeck, she began thinking about a PhD as well. She says: “Commuting to Birkbeck two afternoons a week was manageable but I knew that it would be easier for me if I could do my PhD closer to where I live. The academic standard at Birkbeck was so high that I knew that if I was good enough to do a PhD there, then I would be good enough to do one at Oxford, and so that is where I applied.”

Now in the first year of her PhD at Oxford, Rudo has no regrets about taking a chance on a brand new subject at Birkbeck. She says: “I’m so grateful to all of the tutors and my supervisors at Birkbeck. They never minded when I asked a thousand questions about everything – and actually liked it when students asked questions as it showed how engaged we were with the subject matter.

“I couldn’t have done it without the help of my husband, mother and friends who looked after the kids at weekends and evenings when I was studying. They all knew how important this was to me and supported me throughout.

“In my dissertation I wrote inside the cover page that you should follow your dreams. If you have support – from a good university and from your family – then nothing is too outrageous and you should follow your most fantastic dreams – there is no limit. I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved.”

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Women and careers in STEMM: challenges, barriers and achievements of pioneers and today’s professionals

This post was contributed by Viviana Meschitti, a member of the Birkbeck TRIGGER team

trigger-pisa-event2On May 22 2017, the two TRIGGER teams from Birkbeck, University of London and the University of Pisa came together to organise an event to discuss the career pathways of women in STEMM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine. The focus of the event was to discuss challenges and barriers to women in STEMM areas, in which they are significantly underrepresented, but also to foreground vital breakthroughs and achievements. The international collaboration of the TRIGGER project serves to show that the importance of gender equality is recognised worldwide, and was emphasised by the commitment expressed by the three male senior executives of the University of Pisa, who welcomed the participants and the audience of more than 30 people to this workshop.

There are nuances within each working environment and within each discipline, but whether it is biology, computer science or the arts and humanities, there are still many problems to overcome on the road to achieving gender equality in the workplace – from unconscious bias and career breaks, to flexible working and promotional opportunities. As many previous TRIGGER workshops have highlighted, the most important point made at this event was that one cannot place a high enough value on collecting data, which can be used as evidence of problems and solutions.

Rita Biancheri, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pisa, kicked off proceedings by providing an overview of the European data that clearly demonstrates an underrepresentation of women in STEMM disciplines. She also focused on the phenomenon of the “leaky pipeline”, an image used to illustrate the number of women decreasing along the academic career path from PhD to Professor. Disciplinary culture plays a pivotal role; Professor Biancheri presented the work that the TRIGGER team conducted at Pisa with a particular focus on engineering and medicine. In engineering, there is already a clear underrepresentation of women at undergraduate level, but the phenomenon of the leaky pipeline is not as significant later on. In the case of medicine, the number of women undergraduates has started to equal and even overcome those of men for many years, but then the leaky pipeline is particularly strong, meaning that a small minority of women occupy positions at the top of the academic sphere.

Representing the Birkbeck TRIGGER team, I shifted the focus to the situation at Birkbeck, and highlighted two points: first, that there is an increased pressure on more junior scholars to succeed in obtaining grants or publishing; and secondly that, independent of their familial situation, women are still the ones expected to “take care”, both within their family and their respective department. She highlighted the case of the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck, which has been recognised historically as an especially good environment for research and for women researchers. The importance of having role models (like Rosalind Franklin, for example), and of the willingness to bring in women, has been reiterated by staff members participating in the TRIGGER research.

Ania Lopez, a mechanical engineer, works for the Italian National Council of Engineers to promote women’s careers and contribution in the engineering sector. She highlighted the achievements of recent years: an increase in women joining the Register of Engineers and the launch of “Ingenio al femminile” – an initiative to promote women’s contribution. An annual event is organised within the framework of this initiative, to discuss research on issues affecting women’s careers, such as the gender pay gap. Last year’s event was attended by equal numbers of men and women, which she considered a great achievement.

Caterina Franchini and Emilia Garda, researchers at the Polytechnic of Turin, presented the European project MoMoWo, focused on promoting women’s contributions in Architecture and Design. They discussed the issue of women not being represented in books about the History of Architecture, and have created a database to collect the history of almost 200 hundred women architects active in the last century, to underline their ground-breaking work. They also stressed the importance of raising awareness of the profession in younger generations; in collaboration with several architects, they have organised open days for people interested in visiting ateliers.

A panel discussion followed these presentations to shed light on a number of associated topics. Ania Lopez described women’s feeling of marginalisation, and that their avoidance to voice concern might be difficult if they are in a minority. It is vital to provide women academics with transferable skills to boost their confidence, but also, at a grassroots level, to train parents to educate their children as equals and avoid gender segregating activity. Caterina Franchini and Emilia Garda also focused on the family issue – how can women with small children be seen as able to focus solely on their career, when they are always placed in a position requiring challenging negotiation? This prompted discussion on the issue of quotas and meritocracy: Ania Lopez underlined that quotas do not help to promote women’s professional image, while Caterina Franchini suggested the problem must be reframed and seen in the wider context of underrepresentation of some specific groups.

The learned outcomes can be summarised as follows:

  • In different disciplines, the problems in relation to women’s underrepresentation are different: it is important to regularly collect and monitor data and design tailored initiatives
  • Women’s historical contribution within disciplines should be foregrounded
  • It is vital to increase young people’s awareness of the opportunities offered within the professions
  • Both women and men must be educated to consider and discuss the challenges related to gender equality.

The TRIGGER team would like to thank Birkbeck School of Business, Economics and Informatics, which provided a funding grant for this event.

You can find out more about the TRIGGER project on our website or follow us on Twitter @TRIGGERbbk

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