Saturday, 11 October 2014

ScienceGrrl: Science is for Everyone

On the 8th October, I went along to the Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield to attend the first inaugural lecture titled 'Science is for Everyone' by ScienceGrrl's Sheffield branch. 

The lecture began with Jen Lewis (founder of ScienceGrrl Sheffield) asking people to picture a typical scientist and engineer, something I have written about before here. Jen then showed a picture of Ada Lovelace and asked the audience if anyone knew who she was. It's safe to say that not many people did (or they were being extremely shy!). The lecture itself was arranged to coincide with Ada Lovelace day on 14th October, which is a celebration of the achievements of women in science. Ada is often associated with being the worlds first computer programmer after sketching out programs and plans for something called the 'Analytical Engine', which was essentially an early version of the modern computer.

Ada Lovelace Day - 14th October
Next up was the main speaker of the evening, Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, a Mechanical Engineer and Enterprise Educator at the University of Sheffield. She told us her story and how she became involved in the field of engineering. Elena is originally from Mexico, where she studied. There she met a new friend who had a disabled brother. Elena was astounded at the way his family had made a hand-brace for him. This was engineering. She was determined to help disabled people complete day to day activities and she discovered she could do this through engineering. 'Everything is enabled by science and engineering' and so these pathways make just as much difference to people's lives as medicine can. 

Professor Rodriguez-Falcon has spent her career dedicated to helping those with a disability through her knowledge of engineering. Someone with a 'disability' may not just be someone who was born with a physical/mental disability, as she explained that we all become disabled in one way or another as we age. She showed that the number of elderly people with a physical disability will be 50% of the population by 2020. As our strength and dexterity deteriorate as we get older, it becomes harder to do day to day chores and clever engineering solutions are the way to overcome this. Elena's talk was incredibly inspiring and it was extremely helpful of her to give an insight into what you can do with engineering and how helpful it can actually be to people. When you say the word 'engineering' people often think of cars or aeroplanes and vehicles, but actually it is so much more than that and the career possibilities you can get from engineering are endless. 

We then heard from some PhD students from the University, all ScienceGrrls and hence involved in STEM subjects. They were kind enough to talk us through their research and all four of them were involved in entirely different fields:

  • Firstly we heard about the subject of Bone Regeneration and the engineering behind aiding the recovery of broken bones through inserting a material between the gaps in the broken bone to speed up recovery. 
  • The second short talk was on Additive Manufacturing, or 3D printing as we all know it. The technology behind 3D printing is extremely cool, not only because you can make a 3D replica of your own face (really!), but really thin slices of material in any shape needed can be produced by the printer. This is very useful for the Medical, Automotive and Consumer Industries. 
  • We then heard from Priya, a member of Sheffield's NeuroGirls, who was researching Vasomotion and the dilation and constriction of arteries in the body. She told us that vasomotion is extremely useful in medicine as it can help predict whether a patient is developing a disease, before the disease is actually apparent. 
  • Lastly, we heard from another ScienceGrrl, Steph, who began as a chemist who was interested in environmental chemistry and is now an environmental engineer studying groundwater and the microbiology to clean up groundwater after petrol leaks. I found her talk most interesting as I think I could relate to it most, however all of the girls were absolutely amazing and so passionate about their fields and projects. 
At the end of the lecture, there was time for questions:

The first question asked Professor Rodriguez how she decided what kind of engineering she wanted to study. Elena replied that she didn't actually know what career she wanted, so she chose mechanical engineering as it is a very broad field and she decided it would be best for her as she could specialise later if she wanted to. Some of the other ScienceGrrls also said this and some said they 'fell' in to engineering; it wasn't their initital career plan but they discovered that they really enjoyed finding practical solutions to problems faced in the world. 

Following questions discussed the gender imbalance in engineering subjects at University and in Industry. Elena was quick to reassure people that she had never experienced discrimination even whilst working at a company where she was the only woman amongst 200 men. She said that the actual problem is not the vast number of boys in STEM, but the number of girls not taking STEM subjects. 

'That's not to say we're not awesome.
 We are brilliant!' 
- Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon on the lack of women in engineering

I had the most enjoyable evening at the lecture and I hope it inspired all of the younger people in there to study STEM at University. It was really good to see people of different ages and there were more boys there than I expected there to be, which was amazing to see. I really hope ScienceGrrl Sheffield hold more events like this at the Uni. I'd like to thank them all for giving up their time to share their knowledge and passion with us. You're an inspiration. 

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