Get with the programme
Across the globe women continue to break new ground in science and technology, as KEIRON PIM explains
Margaret Hamilton in 1969, standing next to the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo project
There’s a thrilling history of science and technology to be written peopled only by female characters: from a pioneering alchemist known as Mary the Jewess, who lived circa 200 AD, through to the chemical physicist Rosalind Franklin, who helped reveal the structure of DNA; and from Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century mathematician whose work paved the way for computing, to Grace Hopper, the 20th-century American mathematician who developed the world’s first commercial computer.
That story continues today, when wherever you look women are pioneering extraordinary work that expands human knowledge and makes our world a better place – whether by using fingerprint recognition to connect people to their medical records, or revolutionising how we power the mobile devices that are now central to our lives.
The shortlist for last year’s ‘Women Startup Challenge’, run by the American non-profit organisation Women Who Tech and Craig Newmark of Craigslist and the Craig Newmark Philanthropic Fund, offers a snapshot of the field’s rising stars. The winner, Alexandra Grigore, co-founded Simprints after her PhD in nanoscience at the University of Cambridge. Working with organisations such as UNICEF, Simprints uses a fingerprint-sensing device to link patients to online medical records, and the non-profit company delivers better medical care to an estimated 90,000 people in South Asia and Africa.
Also shortlisted were British entrepreneur Samantha Payne for her Open Bionics project, which is 3D-printing bionic limbs for children; Lifebit, an operating system for genomics developed by Maria Chatzou, from Spain; Kristina Tsvetanova, a Bulgarian entrepreneur based in Vienna, whose company BLITAB Technology is making the first tactile tablet for blind and visually impaired people; and Tespack, co-founded by Caritta Seppa and Yesika Aguilera, who are Finnish and British respectively. Based in Helsinki, Tespack aims to make everyone ‘energy independent’ via wearable technology that uses solar power to charge your phone or tablet in minutes rather than hours.
“On average, half of us will run out of battery once a day,” says Caritta, “and this is just in the city.” For people in isolated areas or, say, the military “on rescue missions, access to energy becomes vital”. Tespack has clients ranging from Vodafone to the United Nations, and even the Austrian Space Forum, with which they are “testing and developing mobile energy solutions for a Mars mission”.
Over in Canada, Sara Seager discovered the thrill of exploring other worlds early in life – one of her earliest childhood memories is of viewing the moon through a telescope with her father. Now she is an astrophysicist and planetary scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she’s leading the search for another Earth, using the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to seek similar planets around the universe. The satellite will monitor more than 200,000 stars for temporary losses of brightness caused by an orbiting planet obscuring their light.
“A lot of people, including myself, want to find signs of life on another world by way of gases that don’t belong: signature gases, we call them,” she explains. “That’s the point of finding nearby planets. The larger application is to be able to understand planets better: why is our solar system so rare, how do planets form and evolve, are planets out there like our planet, and what does that tell us about our own Earth?”
Professor Seager is one of many women whose work has uncovered the universe’s secrets. Northern Irish astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered radio pulsars in the 1960s, for instance, and Margaret Hamilton has gained belated credit as the computer scientist who developed the software – in fact, she even coined the phrase ‘software engineer’ – that guided NASA’s Apollo missions and put men on the moon. When Barack Obama granted Hamilton the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the USA’s highest civilian honour – in 2016, it confirmed the belated respect she is now accorded.
And in that example – no women have set foot on the moon, but a woman’s ingenuity put men there – we have an indication of the difficulties women can face in gaining the status their talents deserve. There remains much to be done but many women, and men, are intent on bringing about change. Yesika Aguilera of Tespack feels that “in order to make a change and see a change, we need to be the change. We need to push for equality and avoid any battle of the sexes, and rather build a community where talent gets rewarded regardless of gender, sex, background, etc.”
Julia MacMillan is doing her best to bring this change about and make tech more welcoming for women. Kaggle is a platform for data science competitions, and Julia set up a regular ‘Women in Kaggle’ meeting in London for data scientists to discuss their work.
“I had seen a need within the tech community for women to have a space where they weren’t in the minority,” she says. “It’s in no way anti-guys, it’s just a little haven where they could go and be in the majority and exchange skills and knowledge. People loved it and it took off.”
Members include Gemma Milne, aged 26, a writer who is well-placed to survey attitudes across the industries she covers. Gemma is co-founder of Science Disrupt, which records podcasts, writes editorials and runs events with the aim of changing science’s culture. She notes that in biology, women are well represented at junior levels, but this does not extend to proportionate representation in leadership positions.
“We still have a problem when it comes to who are the leaders of departments, or who are the speakers at conferences,” she says, mentioning a forthcoming conference in Austria on cell migration. “It’s all about biology and they don’t have one woman speaker, and there’s talk of boycotting it. This is the one area in science where there are plenty of women and you don’t have any!
“Without making a sweeping statement, I think women are more encouraged to do subjects like biology than maths, physics or chemistry, because it’s seen as being more about people.” Taking the USA as an example, the ‘Science and Engineering Degree Completion by Gender’ report released in April 2017 by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center illustrates the situation at PhD level. The report breaks the degrees down into eight fields: engineering, computer science, Earth/atmospheric/ocean sciences, physical sciences, maths, biological and agricultural sciences, social sciences and psychology. The number of PhDs in scientific disciplines awarded to American students leapt by 50 per cent between 2006 and 2016, but the proportion of women gaining those degrees increased only by one or two percentage points, and across the board there was an average 40:60 imbalance towards men.
Biological and agricultural sciences were indeed one of the few areas where women are in a majority, receiving 51.6 per cent of PhDs; another is social sciences and psychology.
REGIONAL AVERAGES FOR THE SHARE OF FEMALE RESEARCHERS IN SCIENCE:
• 40 per cent for Arab States
• 40 per cent for Central and Eastern Europe
• 47 per cent for Central Asia
• 23 per cent for East Asia and the Pacific
• 45 per cent for Latin America and the Caribbean
• 32 per cent for North America and Western Europe
• 19 per cent for South and West Asia
• 30 per cent for Sub-Saharan Africa
Elsewhere in the world the statistics reinforce the idea that progress is being made at undergraduate level. In 2015, Australia reached gender parity in the natural and physical sciences, when 50.1 per cent of undergraduates were women. And in 2014-15, women made up 46.7 per cent of science undergraduates in India.
But if figures from a separate American study conducted at MIT in 2014 remain broadly accurate four years on, they back up Gemma Milne’s comments about women’s representation at senior levels. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article authored by biology graduate Jason Sheltzer and software engineer Joan Smith, only 36 per cent of assistant professors and 18 per cent of full professors are women. In laboratories run by female professors, women formed 53 per cent of graduate students and 46 per cent of postdocs; but in labs run by men, those figures were 47 per cent and 36 per cent respectively. The gender differences were heightened in ‘elite’ labs. Those run by male Nobel laureates, for instance, had a ratio of two male grad students to one female, and this ratio was three-to-one among postdoc students. Such imbalances were not evident in labs run by elite women scientists.
“What we found is that these labs really function as a gateway to the professoriate,” Sheltzer explained. “So we think the fact that they’re not hiring very many women is important for understanding why there are still so few female faculty members.”
Meanwhile a 2017 UNESCO Institute for Statistics report puts this in a global context, showing that worldwide women represent 28.8 per cent of scientists involved in research and development (see panel on previous page for a regional breakdown).
It’s clear that brilliant women are continuing to enter the realms of science and tech and changing the world for the better, whether by widening access to healthcare or understanding our planet’s place in the universe. The challenge now is to change the culture at senior levels so that they can go as far as their talents deserve.