Tuesday, 3 September 2013

You Like Astronomy? But You're a Girl!

You Like Astronomy? But You’re a Girl!

I have loved astronomy and science all of my life.  As a child, we had a set of Mitchell Beasley encyclopaedias in the house; I think they were called “The Mitchell Beasley World of Knowledge”. Before I could even read properly I had my nose in the Science and the Universe book, desperate to know how many stars there were in the sky, and to learn about other planets.  The artist’s impressions of the surfaces of other worlds captivated me. The general knowledge book also had an astronomy section too and I spent hours studying the star maps, trying to learn the patterns of the constellations.  One of my favourite books at school was a Ladybird book about the constellations. In there it told of the mythology behind the constellation names and I was fascinated by it. When I was 7 I told all my classmates that I was going to Saturn for my summer holiday and recently I found an old diary, where I written that my future ambition was to go into space on a rocket (to visit Saturn!). I got my first telescope for my 10 or 11th birthday.  I don’t recall having specific lessons in science at junior school but as soon as I had my first science lesson at high school I just knew that I had to have a career in science.  I switched around at first, wanting to be a doctor, then a dentist, but once I hit 18 years old, I didn’t want to go to university straight away; I just wanted to work in a lab. So I moved to London, and got myself a job as a trainee technician in a Diabetes and Endocrinology research lab. During my time there I worked my way up the ranks, whilst studying at University part-time for my biological sciences degree.  I loved learning. I constantly had my head in my books and was like a sponge, absorbing as much information as I could.  I ended up being awarded a First Class Honours Degree when I’d finished my university course and I was so proud of my achievements! At work, I loved the hands-on experience that working in a lab brought. During those years I learned so many different laboratory techniques.  I also had the opportunity to do my own mini-research projects and I loved every second of it.  A year after I had been awarded my degree, I was looking for a new challenge. I wanted to stay and work towards a PhD but was frustrated by the funding issues in academia so I moved away from research and ended up working in scientific equipment sales. I loved the technical sales most; learning the ins and outs of the more complex pieces of equipment, and going and talking to the customers, who often assumed that I wouldn’t possibly know the technical stuff with me being a girl, and even worse, being blonde!  Even when my spinal surgeries put an end to that career, I got a job as a high school science technician. This involved helping to set up all the science practical lessons and it was great fun!  I figured that if I could help to inspire just one young person into a scientific career, then I would have done a good job.

Throughout my life, my love of astronomy continued. It was more of a part-time hobby for many years, due to work commitments, but once I had the chance of studying for the Astronomy GCSE I became totally absorbed in it again. It was during this course that I first started trying astrophotography. Once I’d finished the GCSE, I knew I had to continue studying so I’m currently working towards the Certificate in Astronomy and Planetary Science via the Open University.  It was through this love of astronomy that I met my current partner, and soul mate, Mark. Our first day together was at a NASA astronauts talk - how wonderfully geeky, and so very us!  I found out that like me, Mark also had a life-long passion for astronomy, and we discovered that we would be studying the same astronomy modules as part of our respective Open University courses. 

Just recently, people have started to ask me if I have got into astronomy just because Mark likes it. This infuriates me! I find this question offensive on many levels.  Firstly, just because I’m female it doesn’t mean I can’t love science and astronomy. Secondly, just because I’m female it doesn’t mean that I can’t have hobbies of my own; I don’t have to “mould” into something to fit what my boyfriend is interested in. OK, I admit that it is very useful having a guy around  to help me to lift my telescope outside on the days I’m stuck in my wheelchair, and I often bounce ideas off him when trying to improve my photography.  But it is the 21st Century; why does society as a whole still think that science is a “boys” game?  Only recently, there was a big fuss in the press on the discovery that the extremely successful “I F**king Love Science” Facebook page was run by a female, the British blogger Elise Andrews. To read about some of the fall-out, take a look at the Guardian’s and The Independent’s articles referenced at the end of this post. 1& 2 I admire Elise, and the way she handled the fall out.  I have to admit that I myself was guilty of assuming the page was run by a man, but wasn’t in the least bit shocked or offended when I found out that it wasn’t; if anything I just felt admiration for her. The page is wonderfully run, and every single post she makes is utterly fascinating.
So why do some of us still act surprised when we encounter a female who actually has something between her ears? A female who needs more than soap operas and glossy magazines to make her tick?  There is a long history of women in science, yet when asked, very often the first and only female scientist people can name is Marie Curie.  She was certainly a formidable and very inspirational lady, but she is not one of a kind.  One of the first recorded female scientists was actually Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 - pre-dating Marie Curie by almost 1500 years!) She was a Roman Mathematician and Astronomer, and actually invented some of her own scientific instruments. She died for her art; a new leader was very unhappy about her teachings and had her murdered. All of her writings and teachings were destroyed.  Another famous lady scientist who also pre-dated Marie Curie by a long way was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She was a convent educated German lady who was actually the first person to write about the benefits of boiling drinking water for sanitation purposes. During the 19th Century there were many more famous women scientists, and an even longer list covering the 20th Century to present day. 3 I’m not going to list every famous female scientist through the ages because it’s been done to death already (I’ve posted some interesting links at the end if you want to read more). On a personal level, I’ve met some incredible female scientists. One of the most amazing people I’ve ever met was one of my supervisors when I worked in the pituitary research group, Karen Akinsanya. She was incredibly intelligent but so lovely and she patiently spent hours teaching me many lab techniques and sharing her wealth of knowledge. She went on to have a very successful career in the USA. At University I was really inspired by one of my molecular biology lecturers, Dr. Pamela Greenwell.  If ever I was physically able to study a Masters Degree, it would in molecular or cell biology - I am utterly fascinated by both!

In the field of astronomy, women were historically encouraged to work within the field of solar observing. I heard a remarkable quote about this during a talk at my local astronomical society, where it was said that women should focus on solar work because going out at night into the cold and dark would be detrimental to their delicate disposition!  Luckily there have been many women of strong enough dispositions over the years to fight back against this kind of prejudice!  As I’ve already mentioned, Hypatia was a famous Astronomer during Roman times.  There are many more; Antonia Maury, born in 1866 was responsible for some incredible work on stellar spectra, despite being actively discouraged by her supervisor. There was Henrietta Swan Leavitt, born in 1868. Not only did she devise a system for ascertaining the magnitude of stars on photographic plates, she also studied Cepheid Variable stars, and made the phenomenally important discovery that variable stars have a period-luminosity ratio; this ratio allowed her to calculate the absolute magnitude of stars for the first time.  There are many more. But one of the most inspiring stories of women in astronomy has to be that of Caroline Herschel, brother of William Herschel. She was born in 1750, and had a number of childhood diseases which where to affect her in later life. She was left scarred and disfigured by Smallpox and was very short in stature due to Typhus. Her family wrote her off, told her she would never marry and planned for to become their maid. Her brother William came to her rescue.  First of all, he taught her how to sing, but more importantly, he took her on as his assistant when he began working in astronomy. She flourished in this role and became the first woman to discover a comet. She went on to discover more comets and nebulae, and have her own star charts published. She is one of the few early women astronomers who have had their lives very well documented.4  

There is no doubt that is has been an uphill struggle for women. The Royal Astronomical Society did not allow women as fellows until 1916. Around that time, women could study at university but were not allowed to be awarded degrees. Any women who did manage to obtain professional employment had to give up their job once they married. Luckily things have moved on!  In the present day, one third of astronomy PhD students are women, 28% of astronomy lecturers are women and 7% of astronomy Professors are women. 5 Modern day female astronomers of note include Dame Jocelyn Bell-Bernell , who was involved with the discovery of pulsars, and Catherine Cesarsky who in 2006 became the first female president of the International Astronomical Union. There has also been a notable increase in the number of women presenting science documentaries, such as Lucie Green and Maggie Aderin-Pocock. Surely it is time to move away from pre-historic gender typing?  Supermarkets still to this day market science toys as “toys for boys”, claiming it is due to public demand!  This is something which has to change.

Science and astronomy have become very popular subjects recently.  As geekiness has become sexy there has certainly been an increase in fakery; there are people out there (both male and female) who claim they are turned on by science, who tweet links to articles they probably don’t even understand the title of, just because they think it makes them appear more interesting or attractive.  But there are many genuine female science and astronomy fans out there.  Modern technology has made astronomy much more accessible to the general public, probably more so than any other branch of science.  Amateur astronomers can work hand in hand with professionals, sharing and analysing data from their own back garden. The success of Galaxy Zoo is a great example; volunteers classifying galaxies from their arm-chairs. Many of you will have heard of Hanny van Arkel and “Hanny’s Voorwerp”.  Hanny is a Dutch Biology teacher, and she discovered the unusual object in 2007. Since then she has become a minor celebrity within astronomy circles! The internet also allows people to control and take photos remotely using some of the world’s largest telescopes.  Distance learning is also playing a vital role in bringing astronomy to the masses. People can study any number of astronomy or science qualifications part-time whilst still working, and once achieved, these qualifications can open up a whole new career path for people.  All of these things provide an awesome opportunity for amateurs, but also could be really important for women who want to have a career in science or astronomy but who may find it more difficult to make an impact through the traditional channels.
It is true that many branches of science and astronomy are still male dominated, but women are fighting back. I know I’ll never be a professional, but I’m a girl, and I’m proud to love astronomy. To paraphrase the late Ann Richards (Govenor of Texas) “A woman’s place in the dome” - in this case, an astronomy dome!


For a more in-depth look at women in astronomy, please take some time to read this fabulous article: http://academinist.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/Woman_Place_Larsen.pdf

And for a female astronomer’s perspective on things, please read this: http://spacemom.net/adventures/2008/03/19/a-womans-place-is-in-the-dome/

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