Leading the conversation

In her opening blog for ScienceGrrl, our producer Louise Crane described me as ‘leading the conversation’. On reflection, I think this is a fairly accurate description of my role as ScienceGrrl Director.

I joined Twitter back in May, after reading an article about how more researchers needed to join to promote their work, network with others, and engage the public with the work of professional scientists. Also, Dallas Campbell (who I met volunteering at Bang Goes the Theory Live in Manchester) asked me why I wasn’t on Twitter, and I didn’t have a decent answer. I’m a scientist, big on evidence-based practice; I need a good reason for my decisions.

Initially, I tweeted about my professional life but soon connected with a network of like-minded scientists who became a genuine support network, who I shared the ups and downs of life as an NHS Medical Physicist with…and increasingly, some of the other corners of my life, too.

At the end of June, the European Commission launched ‘science, it’s a girl thing’ using THAT video. Twitter went nuclear that Friday, I was at home with my youngest son and kept checking my feed to see more of my contacts exploding with indignation that women scientists had been portrayed in this fashion. I joked with them that we should do a calendar of women scientists to counter the fake images used in the video… and a few people responded saying it was a great idea. Gia Milinovich was particularly keen (I quote: “Do it! Do it!”) and put me in touch with Louise, who was artistic director for the Geek Calendar 2011 and had the contacts and experience to bring this idea to life. Enthusiasm continued to grow. A variety of people volunteered to be photographed, including some famous names, and I realised that this idea had wings of its own but that someone – well, me… who else? – would have to step up and make it happen.

In the last 6 weeks, I’ve worked with Louise to shape our ideas into a series of images that represent a wonderful variety of women doing a real mix of amazing science, in partnership with their male colleagues. We also have the support of a great number of willing and able volunteers, who’ve been helping with social media, researching, writing, assisting with shoots, photography, design, building websites, communicating with media and press, fundraising, and so much more… Pulling all this together and delivering in time for our launch in mid-October is going to a be a Herculean effort and I feel like have taken on a second job. But the energy, encouragement, support and genuine positivity of our collaborators is carrying me along. Hardly anyone is getting any money for all this hard work, and most of those who are doing so are being paid at heavily reduced rates. The goodwill is breath-taking and heart-warming.

I’ve also been talking to potential funders (of photography, design and print costs) and potential beneficiaries of the money we are raising, as well as various other contacts… I’ve found myself on e-mail and the phone to organisations as diverse as the Science Museum, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, Science Council, Women in Physics Group at the IoP, UKRC/WISE, STEMNET, BBC Radio Manchester and the Breakthrough Gender Stereotypes Project. I’ve talked about things I had no comprehension of six months ago with people who have considerable influence and financial resources, and found I can still think through things to sensible conclusions with the right input. Studying science has taught me more transferable skills than I realised.

In all of these conversations it has become apparent to me that there are so many in the scientific community who are passionate about representing who scientists really are and what they do, getting us out of the geek ghetto and reconnecting us and our work with mainstream culture, to impress the next generation and inspire them to follow in our footsteps and achieve even greater things.

‘Director’ conjures up an image of a suited and booted high-powered executive, barking orders from a corner office with spectacular views. As ScienceGrrl Director, I am… erm, rather different. My directing is exactly what it says on the tin – steering the conversation, keeping an eye on the overall direction of our efforts, and whether individual decisions propel us towards our goals or distract us from them. Looking forward, ScienceGrrl is maturing from a body of volunteers working on a rather excellently groovy calendar into a network of (mainly) female scientists who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and maths to the next generation through a variety of grass-roots initiatives. ScienceGrrl is not mine, it is ours – the fruit of all our labours, motivated by the enthusiasm of women (and men) who are as keen to engage the next generation with STEM as I am.

Dr Heather Williams

Senior Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine, Central Manchester University Hospitals…
and Director, ScienceGrrl