I was privileged to attend two of the NI Science Festival events last week, featuring Britain’s first astronaut Helen Sharman, followed by astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.
Female STEM role models are few and far between so I took my (nearly) five-year-old daughter with me to listen to Helen Sharman. She was an outstanding communicator, bringing the excitement of space travel to life. Helen also helped invent the Mars ice-cream, demonstrating the variety in her career.
One memorable moment which resonated with me was when she was considering applying to become an astronaut having heard a radio advert for the ‘vacancy’. She thought she would enjoy the training from a scientific point of view, but if she didn’t send her CV off then she would never get the opportunity.
This is something we can all learn from. You may be the best person for the job, but if you don’t apply then you will never get it.
Helen Sharman’s talk ended with questions from the audience, and many of the children present, as well as some adults, raised their hands. The (nearly) five-year-old didn’t want to ask a question however when we were finished and on the way home, having got an autograph and photograph with Helen, she asked ‘Mummy, why didn’t you put your hand up’?
A good question to which I had no answer, given I would have happily spent another hour or three listening to Helen Sharman and I am never short of things to ask. It got me thinking as to what held me back, and how I need to demonstrate to my children how to have confidence to ask any question.
I went on my own to hear to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Lurgan College educated astrophysicist who, in her words ‘failed the qualifying’ and had to get her parents to create a fuss to enable her to study science. She was in conversation with Jim Alkhalili.
Almost immediately, Dame Jocelyn made a few comments which, I believe, many of us can identify with. Describing her CV as ‘a mess’ rather than a career, Dame Jocelyn cited her 20 years spent jumping from job to job while she raised her family as a good way to try lots of things.
She also discussed her imposter syndrome, which she said was a normal feeling and can be put to use. Dame Jocelyn put her imposter syndrome to use by building a radio telescope and checking everything over and over again to make sure she didn’t miss anything so that when (not if) she was asked to leave Cambridge, she would have plenty of experience behind her.
Of course, while she was putting her imposter syndrome to use, she discovered radio pulsars which subsequently contributed to the first Nobel Prize in Physics.
Imagine what we could all achieve if we embraced our own imposter syndrome!
The discussion ended and moved to questions from the audience. There were questions about physics, stars, but I wanted some advice. So I raised my hand and took the microphone, to say ‘I was struck by your description of your CV as a mess and your imposter syndrome, which is something I can identify with. What advice would you give women in STEM of any age?’
Nodding in agreement, Dame Jocelyn advised to ‘stick at it’ and to use every experience as a learning one, even managing a household budget. It is all valuable. She then said, while holding her hand out at the height of a (nearly) five-year-old, that ‘if you have one of these, and can get them to do what you want, then you will be able to manage your boss’.
Judging by the reaction, this message resonated with many in the audience.
Finally, as Dame Jocelyn went to leave the Whitla Hall, I took the opportunity to go over and thank her for her talk.
It is good to meet your heroines.
You can follow Sara McCracken on Twitter @dougalhorse