IWD Interview Series for 2021

For International Women’s Day 2021, we are interviewing the former committee members of WISE. Read on if you want to find out what they’re up to now, what their experiences were like on the committee, as well as their thoughts on issues facing women in STEM today.

Fiona Schulz

What degree did you do at UoB?

At UoB, I did my PhD in the department of metallurgy and materials and officially graduated in December 2018. My PhD was in collaboration with Rolls-Royce plc. and the official title of my PhD programme is “PhD with Integrated Studies in Structural Metallic Systems for Gas Turbine Applications” (which has to be one of the longest titles ever!).

Fiona was Secretary in 2015/16. She did a PhD and graduated in 2018.

What are you currently doing?

Currently, I’m working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Chalmers University of Technology in the materials department, looking at metal additive manufacturing and all the crazy microstructures it creates. Between now and my time at UoB, I worked as a development engineer at Siemens Energy in Worcester.

What were the challenges that you faced when founding WISE?

The challenge I remember the most was explaining what we wanted to do with WISE. It seemed like a lot of people were concerned that we were excluding others (a question a lot of the times raised because of the “women” part of the name). So, I remember having to explain that we wanted to create a platform that would amplify the voices of women in science and engineering but making this platform accessible to everyone. The need to explain this over and over again was particularly noticeable when I organised the WISE Inspire events.

Why do you think we need more women in STEM fields?

I think we need more diversity in STEM fields in general. Diversity leads to overall more creative solutions for the problems we’re facing in science and engineering so everyone would benefit! One of the reasons why I consider societies like WISE important is that they provide a platform for everyone to see that scientists and engineers don’t really fit the stereotypical image but are a group of a whole range of different people. And this visibility is part of the effort to increase diversity – if girls, other women, anyone really can see that someone like them is a scientist or engineer, they can imagine it for themselves.

Helena Dodd

What are you currently doing?

I am currently working towards a PhD in Chemical Biology in the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London. I have also continued my work in women in STEM groups and am the current chair of Imperial’s women in STEM group. I am also the chair of the national WES (Women’s Engineering Society) University Groups Board. Alongside this, outreach is still a big priority of mine, and I do this in a number of ways – currently, my biggest outreach role is that I am the Head Judge for all Science projects at the Big Bang Fair competition, which is a STEM competition for children aged 11-19.

Helena was Vice Chair in 2015/16, and Chair in 2016/17 & 2017/18. She graudated with a MSci in Chemistry in 2018.

What was the inspiration behind founding the outreach scheme?

I came from a low socioeconomic background and grew up in rural areas, which meant that I never met a scientist during my schooling. In fact, it wasn’t until I was applying for university that I realised that it was possible to be a professional scientist! Despite this, I was very lucky to have incredibly supportive parents that helped me believe in myself and succeed. When I got to university, I started thinking of how many school pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly girls and other groups that are underrepresented in STEM, must not have had the supportive environment that I had growing up. I decided that I wanted to try to do something about this and to “even the playing field”, in a sense, for these children, and to provide, even if just for one hour a week, an environment in which they felt supported and could learn to enjoy STEM via practical learning. Being a part of WISE, I knew that I was part of a network of amazingly inspiring female scientists, which made me think that we could be good role models to future STEM generations!

I also thought that as undergraduates, we could have a really huge impact on younger generations, because we were young and had been through their educational stages fairly recently, which meant that we could empathise with them in ways that older professionals cannot. I also thought that as undergraduates, we would be seen as more relatable to the pupils, compared to their teachers or to older professionals!

By my 2nd year of university, I had been involved with a range of outreach organisations, such as the STEM Ambassador scheme, and I had worked with the wider University outreach office. Although I had found this work rewarding, I thought there would be a great benefit in having a student-lead scheme, and also that we could have a greater impact by having regular engagements with pupils, as opposed to one-off visits. I reached out to the local STEM Ambassador hub and asked to be put in touch with schools that were underfunded and needed more STEM support – I then reached out to them, and the rest is history! Initially I started out in a mixed primary school, but the teachers suggested that we run sessions with a group of only girls, because we were told that they came across as very shy and underconfident in STEM classes, due to many louder boys dominating the classes and being disruptive. We found that this worked very well, and continued focussing on groups of girls. I sourced funding for WISE and put this towards outreach – I decided that working with the same groups of pupils and delivering a different practical STEM workshop every week would introduce them to the amazing range of activities that STEM can offer, so I started recruiting new volunteers to help me design and deliver workshops.

By my 3rd year of university, I had personally trained over 25 volunteers and signed up several amazing people who were super keen to take on the organisation of the scheme so that I could focus on my 4th year MSci project. The WISE committee that superseded me, particularly Alex, Poppy and Beth, took the scheme from strength to strength, expanded to two new schools, developed loads of cool new workshop ideas and signed up loads of volunteers. The scheme would not be the success that it is today without them! It has truly been a group effort, and I will always be grateful to everyone who is carrying on the work and has made it into something so much better than I could have ever hoped for.

What inspired you to go into STEM?

As a child, I loved solving problems and puzzles, and always had the goal to have a career that would help people and have an impact on the world someday. STEM subjects were my favourite in school, because I thought it was amazing how science teaches us about how the world works, and how there is always more to learn!
Initially I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor, since this would allow me to use my love of STEM to help people, but after I started doing work experience to prepare for medical school applications, I realised it wasn’t for me, because I found the emotional aspect too hard! I then realised that doctors treat patients with medicines that are developed by scientists, and I thought that I could develop STEM skills to work as a researcher to develop new drugs for the treatments of disease, which is what I do now!

Alex Munro-Clark

What are you currently doing?

I’m now doing a PhD in chemistry at the University of Manchester.

Who do you look up to as a role model promoting women in STEM?

My female role models are the fantastic women I’ve been lucky enough to work with, from my masters supervisor Dr Aneika Leney in Birmingham, to my current colleagues now at the University of Manchester.

Alex was Outreach Officer in 2017/18, and Chair in 2018/19. She graudated with a MSci in Biochemistry in 2019.

What do you think the university/employers should do to encourage women into STEM fields?

I think both promoting STEM as a realistic career at a young age, and greater engagement with women once they are in the sector will encourage more women into the field of STEM.

Beth Soanes

What are you currently doing?

I’m currently in the first year of a plant science and epigenetics PhD at the University of Leeds. I’m lucky to be in a really dynamic and lovely research group that has been very welcoming and helpful whilst I get to grips with everything during the pandemic! I’ve also just accepted the role of University of Leeds Network Coordinator for a Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) group working on research surrounding drought and temperature tolerance in crops.

Beth was the chair of WISE in 2019/20. She graduated in 2020 with a MSci in Biological Sciences.

Who do you look up to as a role model promoting women in STEM?

That’s a really tough question! There are so many amazing people working to improve EDI in STEM. But I really really look up to Jess Wade, especially in her focus on accessibility and small actions that generate big impact. She’s been incredibly influential in improving the availability of info on female scientists, especially women of colour, on platforms like Wikipedia. Having the stories of underrepresented people in STEM out there for the world to see is really vital, especially when default examples of scientists and their work are 9/10 the same kind of person. It’s hard to imagine you can do something if you think there’s no one like you doing it! And putting female STEM stories online means anyone, anywhere can see it and feel represented. I’ve come to really think ‘how can EDI work have the biggest impact?’ since hearing more about Jess’s work over the years, and this has definitely been for the better.

What do you think the university/employers should do to encourage women into STEM fields?

One thing that I think is super important is celebrating EDI work to give it as much visibility as possible. This goes on to draw in more people with different experiences into getting involved, which ultimately improves the reach of that EDI work! It makes things like consistent and wide reaching outreach possible, which is so so important in giving young women and minorities the chance to see themselves in a STEM career one day. It also encourages people who maybe are more represented into getting involved with this important work and being allies. This alleviates the burden on underrepresented people and women from doing all the heavy lifting themselves! There’s a lot that can and should be said here, but it starts with universities and employers asking this very question.