International women’s day, inspiration from the past, present and hope for the future
By Nagore Sabio, on 8 March 2016
I am a Research Associate in Energy Systems Modelling at UCL-Energy. I studied chemical engineering and for my PhD I developed multi-objective mathematical programming models that can help building more sustainable process industries and energy systems by looking to many different environmental life-cycle performance metrics in addition to economic criteria. My current job at UCL allows me to take the theories behind my modelling frameworks, with an initial focus on engineering and process unit operations, a step in further in aggregation to a systems level perspective. Within this systems perspective, the demand-side influence starts to take a bigger role and as much relevance as the supply-side operations. This allows me to exploit the synergies between my previous and current research experiences, which are very complementary in their theoretical perspectives. The arising combinations specifically tap on the pillars of sustainable development, which are based on integrating the economy, the environment and society, in a holistic manner.
With regards to ‘women in science’, there are more than a few who inspire me. The earliest ‘women in science’ story that I heard about was Marie Curie’s one. Her life and career brought to my consciousness the very limited roles that women were expected and trained to play in society from their very early ages. These limitations of course translate in all the sorts of additional struggles and preconceptions that women face in society nowadays, and in particular in science still. I found very interesting how her success was in the end mostly in the hands of her husband, Pierre Curie, who decided to complain to the Nobel Prize jury against their discrimination towards his wife. Marie was about to be excluded from the nomination of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 just because of her gender.
As ‘women in science’ role models that most inspire me, I would pick Hedy Lamarr as the most complete icon to me. First because of her engineering background, second because of her brilliant inventions most commonly tied up nowadays to the programming and coding world, and third because of her fabulous multidisciplinary and original personality. Her interesting infusion of qualities led her towards a successful career in cinema being consolidated as one of the most beautiful actresses of her time, but also to the National Inventors Hall of Fame more recently, for her invention of what is seen as the first version of the spread spectrum. I find her persona especially relevant because not only had the contested mix of beauty and intelligence, but an extremely sharp and strategic mind that led her to tackle major security and communications problems of her era, that are still helping develop the current ‘telecommunications boom’. Then I should mention Ada Lovelace, for being the first computer programmer and the mother of computer programming. Nevertheless, due to my chemical engineering background, I think Ruth Graves Wakefield story makes the best one for women entrepreneurship. Her invention of the first chocolate chip cookie is an extremely fun and extraordinaire achievement to think about.
Since one of my first contacts with research at my University of the Basque Country in my hometown involved the use of an infrared spectrometer based on Fourier transform, and given the omnipresence of the benzene ring in chemical processes, I find Kathleen Lonsdale’s work of extreme relevance too. She was also the first woman tenured professor at UCL and fellow of the Royal Society.
The exceptional and irrepressible scientific spirit Gertrude Falk, who was the first UCL woman professor in the Physiology Department and who studied the now so much relevant mechanisms of photoreceptor cells in the retina, but that unfortunately left us very recently, makes me constantly think about the invaluable lesson that our passions are the never ending sources of our so much persuaded strength. As such, we should therefore make sure we devote ourselves to them intensely, no matter how many difficulties we find in our ways.
As more recent examples, I would mention Alice Bentinck, London based ex McKinsey & Co and the founder of CodeFirst: Girls, whose aim is to close the gap between women and coding; Laura Weidman Powers, awarded Stanford Social Innovation Fellow, one of the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs by Goldman Sachs and CEO of Code2040, a non-profit organisation whose aim is to close the gap between black and Latino population and programming; and Baroness Martha Lane Fox, whose personal story together with her success as founder of the online and travel gift business lastminute.com and fundraiser of the Women’s Equality Party, make all them extremely relevant and strongly inspiring public women figures active for the cause.
Although I believe figures of women in science are an important source of inspiration, in my particular case I decided to study Chemical Engineering inspired by my uncle. He has been by far the largest support and major source of inspiration in my professional life. Being baldly honest, no woman in my life inspired me as much as he did to follow the professional path towards engineering that led me to the place I currently hold at UCL. His story of very humble origins, from a family that could not pay his bright child a career in engineering and him who taught himself the secrets behind mechanics and machines to grow as a machine inventor and builder working for major electro domestic and car making companies always caught my admiration. But not only he was an extremely bright man, he was a profoundly good person who saw no sex differences and never had in his dialogues any reference to the sex relating to the capabilities or tastes of anyone on my family. He also was the backbone joining all the family together. For that I think he is for me one of the many man champions that exist, existed and continue to exist towards the women cause.
I believe is important to remember that men have also intensively worked for the cause (and continue to do so), championing and helping debunking myths around gender-based intelligence, strength and capabilities. For instance Nikola Tesla, the man whose inventions have driven most of the technological world of communications we know today in the 21st century and a clear visionnaire, already saw the power of the connection between technology and the realisation of women’s true potential and gender equality.
Ashley Montagu’s anthropological work revealing and making publicly accessible the relationships that race and gender have with policy and development was key to bring public awareness about the real impact that the political dialogues and perspectives taken about these issues have in our opinions, lifestyle and end the end behavioural patterns.
More recently one of the smartest talks I have come across on this specific topic was the one given by UCL Professor Adrian Furnham a couple of years ago for TEDxUCLWomen, entitled ‘Debunking the myth that intelligence is gender-based’, and absolutely recommended mainly due to its positive and humorous tone, on top of its strong scientific basis. This together with UCL lecturer Isabel Pineda-Torra‘s talk on ‘What does a scientist look like?’make for a perfect instructional and entertaining TED evening.
It is difficult to predict what the future holds for women in science, I have the hope that it should get better and better, but unfortunately in my humble eyes looks like the education sector, despite its major successes in other areas and its advantageous position to lead change, still lies far beyond all expectations in terms of gender equality. But with so much amazing work being done by women today in science and drawing on inspiration from our past, I can only continue to be optimistic.
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