Women in science Q&A - Professor Marian Scott
The last of Holyrood's series of Q&As with leading women in science is with Marian Scott, Professor of Environmental Statistics at Glasgow University
Marian Scott OBE researches solutions to the sustainability of the world’s water, energy and food systems.
What barriers did you face going into science growing up, and how did you overcome them?
I think that one of the main attributes of a scientist is a deep sense of curiosity about how, whatever area of science we study, that world works. At school and university or college, we often need to make decisions and choices, and for me, the greatest barrier was an internal one, which I would describe as ‘fear of the unknown, a self-doubt, a lack of certainty and a fear of failure’.
I am sure that we all ask ourselves – Can I do it, am I capable? – and what helps in resolution is the support and encouragement offered. Are these feelings unique to women in science? No, I don’t think so, but especially as our peer group might be rather small, it does mean that you need to be more determined and not to give up.
I personally have always felt supported by my colleagues.
I did not have a grand vision or plan to be a scientist. At school, yes, we did have to make an element of choice, languages rather than science, and I tried to mix both and as a result, I did not study biology, but I did study French and Latin as well as physics and chemistry. I studied what I enjoyed, and what I was good at without a specific career in mind at that stage and certainly not an academic one. I remember as a small girl being excited by the Soviet space missions (sending a dog into space) and of course then the landing on the moon, so maybe I was inspired by those events.
Did I have a role model? Did I think that women didn't become scientists?
I can't think of a specific role model, but I did always like Star Trek and Dr Who (and I still do!) and I continue to devour science fiction novels, so maybe all that helped shape my career. In those early series, there was neither a female captain, nor science officer (although there are now) but there were women on the bridge. Granted, it has taken till the 13th doctor for there to be a woman in that role and consider some of the outcry we saw in the press about this, but there were often strong women companions.
I should also mention that recently I watched the movie Hidden Figures, about female mathematicians in the American space programme, if I had known about those women, they surely would have been my role models. The fact that I didn’t perhaps suggests that we don’t tell the stories that we need to.
Did pursuing science become harder at later stages in my education? At university, I studied Mathematics and Statistics. There were reasonable numbers of female students in my classes and there were and still are some extremely impressive and leading female mathematicians and statisticians, so I never felt isolated.
I followed an academic career so that meant a postgraduate degree, which in my case meant spending time in chemistry in a laboratory which was great fun and again there was a small group of female PhD students and we formed tremendous friendships but we all (male and female alike) shared the same experiences as we all struggled with experiments that didn’t quite work the way we hoped they would.
At each stage in academic life, whether applying for an academic job, or for a promotion, each application is judged on the scientific papers written, research grants won and relevant teaching and administration experience.
In an academic career, there are opportunities to travel to meetings and conferences, this can be difficult for any individual with caring responsibility. While travel is not compulsory, it is expected and important since much research today is carried out in teams of multidisciplinary scientists, and while modern meeting technology means you don’t need to leave your office, it is still true that face-to-face meetings bring a depth to the collaborations.
Periods of leave such as maternity leave or looking after young children can mean it is difficult to keep apace with developments in your research area, and keep up with your collaborators.
The Scottish Government has recognised women in science as an untapped resource, but what barriers remain?
In that first decision or choice, a natural barrier is the perception or mis-perception of what being a scientist entails. That barrier still remains, and we can do better at communicating what each of us does.
Once the initial decision has been made to choose a science career, then there are still barriers to progression, we need to find ways to encourage and support women to stick with that choice, again, networking and support are important mechanisms (and this is improving).
Finding business systems that are more flexible to allow part-time working, that recognise different life choices and that give encouragement to younger colleagues to show that not everyone has followed the exact same path to reach their goal.
Do you see yourself as a role model or pioneer, and what advice would you give a young woman entering science today?
I have never considered myself as a role model or pioneer. I look around me and see other women, and men, at all stages in their career, all trying to do their best in satisfying their curiosity and in responding to some of the global challenges we face.
To any person starting out, I would say don't give up, don't be disheartened when sometimes you don't succeed. Enjoy what you do and never lose your curiosity. A career in science is immensely rewarding intellectually.
Can you think of a moment in your career where you have felt undermined or patronised because you are a woman?
I wanted to be recognised for my value and my achievements. I wanted to be described as a leading scientist, not a leading women scientist, so perhaps one of the most awkward and patronising statements would be "for a woman, she has done well".
I occasionally attend events where I am the only woman present and sometimes that does feel strange, and I cope with that by being positive, being determined and by continuing to tell myself that I have a voice, a point of view and an opinion that should be heard.
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