Last week I happened to pass a room in the building where I work, in which a meeting of world-class scientists was taking place. A quick glance through the glass wall revealed a disturbing gender imbalance – there were no women in the room at all.
I often read about how there aren’t enough women in science, and part of this is a generational thing. Most of the men in that room were in their 50s, and 35 years ago when they were choosing their careers it wasn’t very common for women to go into science. But nowadays we hope for better – young women should feel just as able to become scientists as their male fellow students.
So it’s great that Ada Lovelace Day is encouraging women in science to take a moment to think about the ladies who inspire them (Ada not only had a brilliant name, she was also a trailblazing 19th century female computer programmer). They say everyone remembers a good teacher, and two of the women who taught me science at school have really stuck in my mind.
I always loved biology – that was mainly thanks to my parents, David Attenborough programmes and many visits to the Natural History Museum. But it’s very easy for a bad teacher to make you hate a subject. Luckily for me I was encouraged.
This started at primary school – I went to a private school where they seemed to get away with some pretty crazy stuff in our science lessons. Our teacher Mrs Pechon used to get all kinds of animal parts from her butcher, which were fascinating and digusting (disgusting things are always fascinating for people under 10).
The best was an intact pair of pig lungs (plus windpipe), which she blew into using a straw. I remember so clearly seeing all the tiny air sacs inflating – I was mesmerised. She also showed us how teeth dissolve in coca-cola, and broke a mercury thermometer on the floor and chased the little silver pinball blobs around the floor while shouting at us all to get out of the way.
After the health and safety nightmare of key stage 3, I moved on and decided biology was the science for me. At secondary school I had another great teacher – Dr Sarah Lindfield. I remember other girls at my school saying that they only took biology A-level because she was teaching it – pretty high praise from a group of teenagers.
She was really great – never patronising, with a sometimes annoying habit of refusing to answer questions she knew you could figure out for yourself. She’d always say ‘what do you think?’ – and you’d realise you did have an idea, or at least a good guess.
I’ve got a very vivid memory of my A-level class moving desks out of the way and drawing a cross-section of a kidney nephron on the floor of our classroom. Dr Lindfield labelled us all as different types of molecule, and we had to run around the tubule and pick the correct point where we were filtered into the blood or urine. We also made (very slightly) alcoholic ginger beer to learn about fermentation – I was touched by the millions of tiny yeast cells that have to die for us to enjoy beer.
When I left school to do a biology degree, Dr Lindfield sent me a letter wishing me well and encouraging me to make sure I enjoyed my degree as much as I’d enjoyed my A-level. I really did, and I even rather foolishly agreed to do a bit of (unqualified) science teaching myself once I’d graduated.
This only made me appreciate my former teachers even more – teaching is never boring and never easy. But I also saw what must have got them out of bed every day – that wow moment when you watch someone’s mind expand. I bet that was exactly the look on my face when I saw those pig lungs. And although I know I’m biased, I think science teachers must get more of that wow factor than anyone else.
So thank you to my science teachers! Writing this post has really made me realise how they affected my life – I’m now in science communication, doing something very similar to what they did for me every day. This week I took a group of people around some science labs, and I watched those light-bulb moments as they realised just how amazing science can be. That’s what brought me to where I am – doing something I really love, and hoping I can show others that science is a great path to follow.