Is Ada Lovelace Day a paradox?

For Ada Lovelace Day, Dr Aby Sankaran of the Bristol Doctoral College reflects on the characteristics that have helped her as a PhD student, during her career as an engineer — and beyond.

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of Women in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths & Medicine). It is held on the second Tuesday of October each year and this year I have been invited to write my very first blog about it by the Bristol Doctoral College!

The invitation is bittersweet; on the one hand I am pleased to have been asked to write about this topic, but on the other, I feel uncomfortable that in this day and age we still need such occasions to mark and highlight female accomplishments.

To me, celebrations like this are a paradox — they propel women forward and showcase their achievements but simultaneously highlight a society where women are not considered equal.

I also feel unqualified to write this blog as I don’t think of myself as an appropriate role model. But this is perhaps my mistake, not celebrating my own accomplishments or valuing my self-worth. I would be doing myself a disservice if I said my career was a product of serendipity, but in reality, it has come about as a result of feeding my curiosity.

I am therefore going to focus on certain key characteristics that have helped me along my career, and hope they will help the future generation of female (and male) researchers too.

Blood, sweat and PhDs

Being an Engineer and having done a technical PhD has meant that I was predominantly around male engineers, but I adapted to the circumstances. I enjoyed a supportive and nurturing environment (mostly) where I have learnt from my male counterparts. However, some women may find it necessary to see female role models as they provide inspiration and demonstrate that it is possible to overcome gender barriers.

I have yet to meet anyone who has had a trouble-free PhD and there is a key difference between failing at various stages of your PhD and failure. Without true grit, I would frankly have struggled to see the end of my PhD.

Back bone, wish bone and a funny bone

When things are not right, fix it. Don’t be afraid to stand your ground, if you see bias at work or demeaning behaviour — call it. It can be as simple as hogging time using equipment in the lab or authorship over publication (male or female).

Most PhDs are at the brink of the unexplored and a motivated, blue-sky approach is needed to see the day. And when things don’t work out as planned, learn to roll with the punches. This was a valuable lesson when I was facing redundancy a year into a new job in a new city!

Be an opportunist

Big goals and bigger picture. Ultimately everyone around you wants you to succeed. Call in favours, ask for help and work your network. There is nothing wrong with seeing an opportunity and seizing it. Being a female does not make you any less entitled to success or its extent.

It’s easy to live in the here and now and not pay attention to the long-term plans, but setting (realistic) long-term goals might exactly be the drive you need to propel yourself forward.

Find a hobby that empowers you

You don’t have to be chained to your desk or feel guilty about doing non-PhD things. Pursue a hobby that lets you de-stress, boosts your confidence and allows you to disconnect. It can be cycling, running or knitting — anything that you fancy.

For me, it was climbing. It has given me time to think (while clinging on for dear life on a rock face), tremendous confidence and at times a much-needed way to vent my frustration.

Dr Aby Sankaran climbing in the Cheddar Gorge
Dr Aby Sankaran climbing in the Cheddar Gorge

Be your own hero

Break the stereotype — we limit ourselves mentally more than we are capable of. Don’t create your own glass ceiling, pick yourself up and be the strong person you need to rely on to see you through difficult times.

In an ideal world, men and women would be equal and we would not need to emphasise female accomplishments — instead, every day would be a celebration of human accomplishment.

However, women are underrepresented in a number of sectors and, in order to address the imbalance, we need reinforcements like this to encourage progress.

BCFN Student Kate Oliver through to Famelab Regional Final

The Bristol heat of the international competition for communicating science asks working scientists and technologists to explain something about science in just 3 minutes. Kate spoke about the science of hairstyling and shape memory polymers, and is one of 4 to progress to the Regional final, which brings together talent from across Wales, the Midlands and the Southwest.

Famelab [http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/about/famelab/] is a communications competition where entrants have no slides and only the props they can carry on with them. Participants begin with local heats, then work their way up through region and national to the international final at Cheltenham Science Festival. Taking part in Famelab has kickstarted the careers of many presenters and performers, from musicians to more traditional explosion-based science demonstrations.

Kate Oliver is in the third year of their time at the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials, and is working on 3D printing shape-changing materials. They also co-organise and regularly perform at local chaotic science cabaret, Science Showoff Bristol, [https://scienceshowoff.wordpress.com/] and are taking part in the Science Showoff Talent Factory [ https://showofftalentfactory.wordpress.com/ ]. Kate said:

“Today I spoke about the molecular action that enables hair to hold shapes – it’s called shape memory, and could be very useful in future technologies. Talking about science allows me to indulge my attention-seeking, outward going side – though I like being with my machines in lab too.”

Of 8 entrants into the local heat, 4 went through: in addition to Kate, Alex Lathbridge, Lon Barfield, and Alex McCleod will be joining another 10 at the Regional final, to be held in March. It’s free, and all are welcome to come down, watch, and offer their thoughts.

This post was originally published on the BCFN website, and can be viewed here.

#ALD15: Thei Zaza

Thei Zaza is originally from Greece and is a PhD candidate at the Aerospace Department at University of Bristol. 

What is your specific area of research? 

I am working on a fleet of autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles and I have designed different techniques to optimise their routes considering loitering and collision avoidance constraints. Mathematical modelling and software design have interested me from a very young age, as I come from an ‘Engineering’ family.

What inspired you to leave home and come study in the UK?

My brother’s courage and willing to study and succeed abroad have always fascinated me and inspired me. He has been my mentor my whole life, supporting me to achieve my goals since I can remember. And now, because of him, after 15 years since I first decided that I wanted to become a researcher in engineering, I am closer than ever to finish the hardest project I have ever been assigned.

Any inspirational words to pass on to budding female engineers?

Engineers do not have a gender. As long as you aim high, you will make it to the top!

#ALD15: Dr. Orly Razgour

Dr. Orly Razgour is a NERC Advanced Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences. She sent us some images of her exotic research and discussed her mentors and heroines with us.

I am a research fellow in Biological Sciences working on biodiversity conservation under global environmental change. I was always interested in understanding how the world around me works. I was inspired to work in science after travelling in Latin America and seeing first hand the incredible diversity of wildlife and the extent of human impact on the natural environment. My research has taken me around the world – catching bats across Europe, in the Amazon rainforest, Middle Eastern deserts and the Ethiopian Highlands. Throughout the way I have been inspired by many great and dedicated women scientists around me, but my greatest inspiration has been Emma Goldman, who inspired me to live my life and pursue what I believe is right.

Read more about Dr. Razgour’s work.

 

Dr. Razgour's research with bats has taken her across the Ethiopian Highlands, 4000m above sea level.
Dr. Razgour’s research with bats has taken her across the Ethiopian Highlands, 4000m above sea level.

#ALD15: Dr. Döndü Sahin

Dr. Döndü Sahin is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Centre for Quantum Photonics. She spoke to us about how she ended up as a researcher, her curiosity as a child, and how her profession has opened up gateways to the greater world.

Can you tell us about your specific area of research?

When I am asked to explain my work to public, I usually make an analogy to internet-banking, as confidentiality affects people in their daily lives and so is relatable. Currently, for example, classical channels are used for the password transfers in internet banking. Therefore, when we log on to our internet banking we are given one-time-off password which is valid for only a limited amount of time. This is only because the classical channels are prone to the interception and if somebody eavesdrops on the channel and steals our passwords, they can empty all our accounts! However, if the channel is secured by encrypting the password based on quantum mechanical rules, which means using single photons, then the password is transferred safely. To explain, a photon is the single particle in light. When we send a single photon to the receiver and s/he does not receive it, an eavesdropper must be in the line. In that process, single-photon or photon-number-resolving detectors are required to detect those photons. I studied these types of detector during my PhD research, and have continued now as a postdoctoral researcher on this topic.

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in quantum photonics?

I was always a curious child, asking lots of “why” questions but I never knew before I attended university that I would be doing research. I discovered my love of research when I met some enthusiastic professors/researchers during my Bachelor’s at university. Then, when I started my final year project, I knew I would be definitely doing PhD because it was inspiring to be in the lab and get my hands dirty.

There are also some advantages of being a researcher which are worth mentioning. Firstly, we get to meet lots of interesting, clever and inspiring people continuously. Moreover, we travel to different places for conferences/meetings and visit other research labs for work. I also believe, as opposed to some common belief, it is no different than many other jobs in the market.

 

Döndü  in the 'cleanroom': researchers must wear special, dust-free covers not to introduce particles or dust to the environment.
Döndü in the ‘cleanroom’: researchers must wear special, dust-free covers not to introduce particles or dust to the environment.
This is Döndü's experimental setup from her PhD. The shiny metal in the middle is the cryostat in which she did experiments using superconducting detectors. Inside the cryostat temperatures drop as low as -271 ◦C.
This is Döndü’s experimental setup from her PhD. The shiny metal in the middle is the cryostat in which she did experiments using superconducting detectors. Inside the cryostat temperatures drop as low as -271 ◦C.
Döndü has travelled the world with her research. Here she is in Nice, France, taking a break from her work to discover the city.
Döndü has travelled the world with her research. Here she is in Nice, France, taking a break from her work to discover the city.

#ALD15: Kate Oliver

Kate Oliver is a PhD Candidate with the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials EPSRC CDT. In an extract from her own blog on Ada Lovelace Day, she discusses nanotechnology, making humans more efficient, and the motivation and inspiration for her work.

What motivates your research?
I came to research nanotechnology because I wanted to build the future. I wanted to use the beautiful, isolationist physics principles I studied to understand the world to do something. We have enough problems now — global warming, antibiotic resistance, increasing population, decreasing arable land, increasing energy needs — that pretty much everything could use improving. We certainly don’t have an abundance of materials to do it with. We need to do more with less, be more clever with what we have. We should use as little material as possible, make systems that automatically save energy, design things that work based on their inherent properties. Take less, get more, be more efficient, be more adaptable, and put design into every molecule of what we do. I want life to be more like science fiction.

What inspired or influenced you to pursue physics?
I was torn between studying physics or going to art school. In the end I decided I could always draw in my spare time while doing physics professionally, whereas being allowed to play with particle accelerators on a casual basis was less likely.

Could you tell us about your current projects?
I’m building a 3D printer and developing a material for it to print that will react to changes in heat. The idea is to 3D print things that then change shape – adding a fourth dimension to printing. These smart materials could save energy and do multiple jobs.

kate-oliver-2
Kate in her happy place, surrounded by 3D printing materials
To read more about Kate’s inspiration and heroine, Professor Tomoko Ohta, read her tribute here. Professor Ohta was a great population geneticist who invented the ‘nearly neutral’ theory of genetic drift. 

#ALD15: Grace Edmunds

Grace Edmunds is a qualified vet who now works as an early career researcher in the field of tumour immunology at the University of Bristol. We spoke to her about her motivation to go into cancer research, how her love of animals led to a love of science, and the impact of a teacher’s encouragement on young women.

What is the focus of your current research project?

Our immune system includes certain cells designed to kill cancer cells. These are known as ‘Cytotoxic T- Cells’, often called ‘CTL’. We know that when the body detects cancer, it activates these CTL. However, after entering the tumour, they appear to be “switched off” by molecules found in the tumour microenvironment.

In our lab, we are using state-of-the-art analyses to find out which molecules from the tumour are switching off CTL. If we discover that by targeting certain proteins, the CTL appear to come back “on” again, then we might be able to develop new drugs with applications for use in people. Trials of the latest immunotherapies in cancers such as melanoma indicate that such drugs can produce an impressive response and increased survival rate when combined with existing chemotherapy and radiotherapy options. It is therefore important to keep searching for more treatments which allow or enable our own bodies to do the cancer fighting for us. You can read more about the latest developments in tumour immunotherapy here.

Who or what inspired you?

At the age of 2 my parents bought me a book called ‘How Things Work’. Children love to ask questions and they always want to know why things happen the way they do. Mum and Dad thought the book would satisfy my inquisitive nature but it seemed to make it worse – I have never stopped wanting to understand the mechanisms behind what we see and experience every day. Biology, chemistry and physics are difficult subjects, but to me nothing beats the feeling you get when you are sat in a lesson and suddenly you understand where plastic comes from, or why the sun is hot.

I was also inspired by fantastic teachers at school. At secondary school, when I was a shy twelve-year old, I didn’t have much confidence and wouldn’t speak up much in class, particularly in subjects I didn’t fully understand or that felt quite information-packed. Then one day my chemistry teacher came up to me during a lesson when we were revising for a big test, and I remember things were starting to click in my head about how everything fitted together. My teacher leaned down and said very quietly, “keep up the good work, Grace – I think you can do really well in the exam on Friday”. I hadn’t really thought about doing ‘well’, but I took the encouragment and worked really hard that week. It turns out I got 100%. Everyone has a brain, but we all need confidence in our ability to use it. My other teachers taught me revision techniques and life skills that I have used consistently through my two degrees, and am still using today. Mainly, they made science fun and approachable; in one particular instance we learnt about radioactivity using chocolate M&Ms… There is nothing so important as an inspirational teacher.

What age did you decide what you wanted to do research?

Although I can look back and think about how much I enjoyed science at school, I think I would have dropped the science subjects if my love of animals hadn’t driven me to qualify as a Vet. I was much better at languages and I really enjoyed music and art. Science was hard and it required a lot of hours spent rote learning and trying to understand the concepts. But my overarching aim kept me going, and in 2008 I started at Bristol Vet School. It didn’t take me long to realise, at least subconsciously, that I was different to many of my peers in that I loved biochemistry and physiology (the purely scientific components of a veterinary degree) more than the lectures on animal-handling and behaviour. When we were about to transition into our clinical, animal-based years, I realised with a small shock that I would miss molecular biology. I decided to intercalate, which means that, along with 20% of my year, I took a year out of vet school to complete another science degree. Intercalating vet students take subjects from Zoology to Anatomy, but I settled on Immunology and Cancer biology. I chose this area because, once more, I was inspired by great teachers from my previous lecturers on these topics, and I wanted to get stuck in the nitty-gritty minutiae of what I’d studied so far. I was also drawn to making a difference to human and animal health through medical research. During my intercalated degree I worked on using the analysis of immune cells to combat tumours. My remit was to see if my particular team could make a new, specific technique work on a certain cell type; to my excitement and delight, we realized that it didn’t just work, it had the potential to be very powerful and effective! I was then completely hooked on tumour immunology. I finished my vet degree and worked for a year in a small animal hospital, but I stayed in touch with my supervisor because I wanted to follow the progress that had stemmed from my experiment. In the end I knew I had to go back, and I have now returned to his lab to carry on.

 

Acknowledgements: Grace is funded by the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute and the Wellcome Trust.

 

Grace in her happy place: dolled up in scrubs and surrounded by pigs
Grace is happy both in the lab and the farmyard

#ALD15: Dr. Daniela Schmidt

Dr. Daniela Schmidt is Professor in the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences. She wrote to us about her inspiration to become a leading academic in her field, the nature of research and fieldwork, and the hats she wears beyond her profession.

I am a Professor for Palaeobiology in the School of Earth Sciences and I head the Global Change theme at the Cabot institute.

Though I did not grow up by the sea, I have always been deeply in love with the ocean. It gives me a feeling of happiness and calm. I wanted to contribute to protecting the environment and its inhabitants. I started studying biology but soon recognised that this was not what I wanted to do. I changed at the end of my first year to Geology (and my dad was not impressed about not bringing to an end what I had started). What I love about Geology is the combination of the ecology, which attracted me to begin with, with the ability to detect cause and effect over longer time scales than just an experiment over a few weeks.

My current research focuses on understanding the causes and effects of global warming and ocean acidification on marine ecosystems, both today and in the geological record. We characterise past intervals of rapid environmental change and determine the biotic response to these changes. We have found that the rate of ocean acidification today is faster than any change since the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. I am very proud that our findings have contributed to the last IPCC report and inform policy makers about the long term consequences of ocean acidification.

I am not just a researcher but also a mum, supervisor, mentor and teacher. Combining it all is hard work and I have had to become a highly organised person. I love going to the field, may it be at sea or with students to teach them how to bring a large number of smaller observations together to create a bigger picture.

Celebrating Ada Lovelace Day: An Introduction

October 13 is #ALD15, a worldwide celebration of female researchers, teachers, technicians, assistants working in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). To kick off our University campaign, #UoBInspired #ALD15, we at the BDC thought we should probably tell you what it’s all about! Before we begin our rollout of the inspirational women working in our own, local STEMM fields, here’s a little background on who Ada Lovelace was and what led to her status as a modern-day symbol of women working with and around technology.

Ada Lovelace, the bright and mathematically-inclined daughter of the erratic poet Lord Byron, lived an intriguing, productive, and sadly short-lived life, dead from cancer by the age of 36. Her name was actually Augusta Ada King, named Countess of Lovelace after her marriage to William King, Earl of Lovelace; she is known these days mainly as Ada Lovelace. Renowned for her work with Charles Babbage on the Analytical Engine, a prototypical machine that contributed to the invention of today’s computer, Lovelace’s published a set of elaborate and thorough notes which in turn provided the inspiration for Alan Turing’s work on modern day computers in the 1940s. Her publication is still available today, simply entitled Notes, and is widely considered the first computer program. She was only 27 when the notes were published. Babbage described her mathematical powers as “higher than of any one[sic] he knew”, and despite her tempestuous and wild social life – a series of love affairs, gambling debt, and a fractured relationship with her family – she remains a powerful symbol for modern women in technology and engineering. Lovelace herself dubbed her own work “poetical science”, and her life as “a bride of science” in which she married her love of maths with her imaginative spirit.

While Lovelace excelled at her career and contributed widely to her contemporary intellectual circles, her personal life was equally alluring. Estranged from her father, who died when she was eight years old, Lovelace was raised in the cloak of scandal: she was viewed as the outcome of divorce and a product of single-parenting, and associated with the allegations surrounding her father’s immoral behaviour. Famously, despite her father being at the centre of Victorian society gossip even after his death, Lovelace did not see a picture of him until her twentieth birthday, as her mother reportedly kept their family portrait covered in a green shroud. Lovelace was raised mostly by her grandmother and did not have a close relationship with her mother. Her childhood was riddled with illness, and existing correspondence suggests she suffered from a distinct lack of a maternal nurturing.

Today, Lovelace’s legacy lives on in both the computers we type on and the correspondence she left behind. She was a complicated and compelling figure who traversed boundaries, as woman, scientist, daughter, mother and lover.  In the vein of great scientific minds such as her famous male counterparts Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and even Richard Dawkins, her writings express an appreciation for the mystery and magic of science, and so of living and reality, and in this she truly represents the poetry in maths, science and technology. In a letter to her neighbor and friend Andrew Crosse she describes and champions interdiscplinarity: “The intellectual, the moral, the religious seem to me all naturally bound up and interlinked together in one great and harmonious whole… There is too much tendency to making separate and independent bundles of both the phyiscal and the moral facts of the universe”. This seems a fitting exclamation for a woman who did not like to be bundled up or boundaried herself, and who lived a contradictory life of scandal and genius in which she both broke the rules, but also set them.

Read more about Ada Lovelace Day here.

Join in the University of Bristol’s celebrations by tagging #UoBInspired and #ALD15. Check out the full list of events, and follow our blog throughout the day to read the stories of our own inspirational ladies in STEMM.