Being a woman in STEM

By Ms Zerrougui

At school I was always fascinated by Science. For me, it explained how the world works. When I looked out of the window at the plants that weren’t there last year, Science explained how they came to be there. I enjoyed Science at Secondary School and selected STEM subjects for A Level. Biology was my strongest subject but I enjoyed Chemistry more. This led me to research degrees where I could study a combination of both. I eventually chose Pharmaceutical Chemistry which had a stronger focus on Chemistry but also incorporated a lot of Biochemistry.

At the start of University I discovered there was an element of choice in the modules I could study. If I wanted, I could have taken a module in German! Towards the start of my second year I was really enjoying the Science and made the decision to stay on to complete a Master’s Degree. As part of the BSci and MSci I had to undertake research projects. At first it was daunting! I chose my project titles and then it was up to me. My first project involved trying to reproduce the intricate structures of sea shells using calcium carbonate and potassium carbonate in the lab. At first it seemed impossible – standing in a library, looking at all the research journals and not really knowing where to start. My scientific mind won and logic took over. I researched methods, adapted them and developed my own. I must have read close to a hundred research papers before beginning any practical work. Almost a year of research culminated in some results but no answers, I had not been able to reproduce the wonders of nature in a lab in just nine months. I did however miscalculate the mass of a gold nanoparticle, it had the same mass as the Sun! Luckily I spotted my mistake before handing this in.

My Masters project was completely different. I was researching how enzymes counteract the aging effects free radicals produced in the body during chemical reactions or from exposure to environmental factors such as x-rays or ozone. I was looking for lab-made alternatives that could be used in the cosmetics industry. The anti-aging cream that would work.  I had the pleasure of using some research in my project that my supervisor didn’t know even know existed, and he was the expert. I had, in part, become the teacher. It was at this point the seed of teaching was planted in my mind. The rest, as they say, is history.

On reflection I was very lucky to have supportive parents and teachers who helped guide me in my path through education. Being a girl wanting to do Science was never an issue. It’s only looking back now I realise how male dominated the subject was. The overwhelming majority of my lecturers and professors at university were male. Women in STEM careers now make up just 22% of the workforce. In all the STEM professions women make up just 41% of the Science Professional occupation. Whilst this is the highest amongst the STEM professions, this is an 18% decrease from 2015. The most underrepresented profession is Engineering where just 8% of professions are female. As a teacher, I look to address this by encouraging girls to take STEM subjects. Part of this is enjoyment of the subject and but also instilling the belief that they can do it. The world is constantly changing. How did we function without smart phones?? It is the duty of women out there to be part of this and change the world for the better!

Challenge (Answers to be uploaded to – Please include your full name and tutor group!)

What processes in the body form free radicals?

Why are free radicals in the body so damaging?