Ada Lovelace Day asks people to think about the women that have inspired them to be the person that they are today. The Day remembers the incredible woman who developed the world’s first computer program – long before computers existed – and asks us to consider and write about all those women who work in tech and other male-dominated fields, like science, engineering or manufacturing.
The first Ada Lovelace Day in 2009 saw more than 1,200 people write about the women they admire who work in STEM and four years later, the Day is still going strong.
In the spirit of Ada Lovelace Day, here are 10 women that have been an inspiration to me, both during my childhood, and as my academic career has developed.
Jean’s a pretty remarkable woman, and I was lucky enough to interview her recently for a book about women in science and technology, published today. Jean was instrumental in setting up Children of the 90s, a multi-generational birth cohort, which recruited about 14,000 pregnant women in the early 1990s, and followed them, their children, and other family members since then. This dataset (which I’m lucky enough to work on) is an incredibly detailed study, with interviews and questionnaires being completed by the participants, as well as biological samples collected. It began before the kids were born, and is still going now, over 20 years later. Jean’s vision as to what data would need collecting means the dataset is being used today for cutting edge genetic and epigenetic research.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Jocelyn was still a PhD student when she made a discovery which won her supervisors a Nobel Prize (a lot of people at the time, and since, believe she was very unfairly overlooked for the prize).
She was using a radio telescope to study quasars, when she noticed a weird signal. Rather than ignoring it, she investigated further. It turned out to be the first recording of a pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star.
And how could I not be impressed by the woman whose pulsar became a truly iconic image, after it was pictured on a Joy Division album cover?!
Athene was voted by The Daily Telegraph as one of Britain’s 100 most powerful women, and it’s easy to see why. She was the first female physics lecturer at Cambridge University, and since then, as well as having a highly successful academic career, has done a great deal to support women in physics, and science and technology more generally.
Her blog, on Occam’s Typewriter, abounds with honesty about being a woman in science, and I’ve found a lot of the posts to be incredibly interesting and useful; full of guidance for early career scientists like myself.
I’d been in the same room as Sophie Scott (pictured) for approximately 30 seconds when I realised I wanted to be her when I grew up (disclaimer: this was earlier this summer).
I was interviewing her about a piece of kit, an MRI scanner: perhaps not a particularly thrilling topic, but she was making me laugh so much I was worried I was ruining the recording.
Sophie is a neuroscientist of high regard, and has done some fascinating research on speech perception, including, amongst other things, understanding laughter. When she’s not in the lab she can on occasion be found onstage, where she’s an excellent stand-up comic too. Awesome or what?
Helen’s barely older than me, but the amount she’s achieved in her career to date is utterly inspiring. She’s already established herself as a very successful physicist and oceanographer, working in Cambridge, Toronto, Los Alamos National Lab, Scripps in San Diego and Rhode Island, before moving to Southampton University.
Not only this though, she somehow squeezes in media and broadcasting roles, including most recently as a presenter on the excellent Dara O’Briain’s Science Club for the BBC. And anyone who, on her website, lists hot chocolate among her passions, is alright by me.
I was lucky enough to have been brought up by parents who instilled in me the belief that I could do anything I wanted to, could be anything I wanted to be. At age seven or eight, this was an astronaut, after a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and witnessing Discovery launch from our motel balcony.
My parents were also realists though, and pointed out that since I was once seasick on a pedalo, space travel may not be for me. But around the time I had this dream, a British woman was up there living it.
In 1991, Helen Sharman (pictured above) became the first British person in space, as part of project Juno. She won the place after a rigorous selection process, and spent eight days in space, mostly on the Mir space station. I bet she was never seasick on a pedalo.
Ange is co-director of my lab group, the Tobacco and Alcohol research group at the University of Bristol. She is the academic equivalent of a swan: presenting a serene image, which almost belies the incredibly hard work she puts in to her highly successful career in addiction research. Not only is she active in research, but she lectures, manages the lab group, and is in charge of a number of students, both undergraduate and postgraduate.
She always has time to offer advice to members of the group, including myself, struggling with work or more personal issues, and I feel privileged to work with her.
Every August, my lab group head to Harrogate, for the British Association of Psychopharmacology’s summer meeting. It’s a little bit like a family holiday, but with a lot of excellent science thrown in. The current president of the society is Barbara Sahakian, and she is awesome.
Barbara (pictured) is an internationally renowned neuropsychopharmacologist, meaning she researches how drugs affect the brain. She co-invented a battery of tests used by psychologists and neuroscientists across the world, and has recently spoken extensively to the public about neuroethics, in particular related to the use (or abuse) of Alzheimer’s and dementia treatments by healthy people, as cognitive enhancers.
Apparently Dorothy hated the phrase ‘role model’. However, as the only British woman to win a Nobel Prize for science, it’s not surprising that people were, and still are, inspired by her.
As early as the 1930s, Dorothy was using the then very new technique of X-ray crystallography to ascertain the structures of various complex proteins and other biological molecules, including penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin. As well as studying at both Oxford and Cambridge, Dorothy was Chancellor at the University of Bristol later in her career, and a building named in her honour stands testament to her legacy.
While chancellor she campaigned against cuts in university budgets. She also spent a lot of time travelling abroad to foster exchange programmes to bring scientists and students from developing countries over to use the resources of western institutions.
Elizabeth is another inspiring lady with ties to Bristol, where I live and study. She was born here, before at age 11, moving with her family to the USA in 1832. There, she would become the first woman in USA to be awarded a medical degree, by the Geneva Medical College in upstate New York.
She later returned to the UK, and became the first woman on the General Medical Council’s medical register. She, and her sister Emily, who also gained a medical degree, blazed a trail for female doctors, both in the USA and the UK, encouraging women who followed in their footsteps, both then and now.
A Passion For Science is published on October 15, to coincide with Ada Lovelace Day. All profits will go towards supporting Ada Lovelace Day and the FindingAda website.
Suzi Gage is a translational epidemiology PhD student at the University of Bristol, studying relationships between recreational drug use and mental health. She also starred in a certain spoof video about women in science and regularly blogs about all things science. She tweets @soozaphone.