On ‘Headstrong’: 52 Women in STEM

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the WorldHeadstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World by Rachel Swaby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Women in STEM. Yes! Yes! Yes!

This delightful book places women firmly at the centre of their work and contributions to various breakthroughs and discoveries. Rather than being relegated to the status of ‘wife’ or ‘assistant’, they are the pioneers in their respective fields. It’s ever-so refreshing, although at times infuriating if only that some women did not receive the recognition they deserved until after their deaths.

Whether as a ray of light and hope during these odd times, or as inspiration for young scientists, this is a lively read. If I had a daughter, I’d read it with her, and perhaps dive into the extensive bibliography documenting women’s many contributions to STEM.

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Their success…

I am shattered.

In truth, I’m running out of ways to describe just how exhausted and spent I am at the moment — mentally and physically, but particularly mentally. This does not serve me well when my vocation depends upon the mental acuity to not only communicate well, but to help others communicate their own ideas, plans and findings more effectively.

As a consequence of the need for a mental break and at least a week (or more) of decent nights’ sleep, I confess: lately, I’ve felt less than successful at my job. In fact, I’ve felt like I’m letting my colleagues and my students in particular down.

Today, however, two things happened which reminded me that I’m still doing okay. First, I received an email from a former student, thanking me for helping her with grant writing. After multiple attempts and failures in the past, she received two years of funding for her PhD research. Reading this over my morning coffee made me smile. But, this evening, during an entirely different class on conference presentations, one of the participants shared that she actually won a prize for her presentation at a local conference last week. And, she believed that recognition resulted from her experiences in and feedback from that class particular over the preceding three weeks.

Today was a good day.

My success as an instructor and a member of the extended University of Helsinki community isn’t so much about cataloging accolades for my own resume. It’s much more about these seemingly small-scale successes for my students and colleagues. Their successes are my successes. Their awards reward me even if I am neither recipient or beneficiary. I don’t need to be.

If I am at all effective in my job, these individuals—who spend 12 to 24 hours sitting in a classroom with me or painstakingly address each of my seemingly infinite number of suggestions and revisions—gain one skill or another to help them along in their careers. Whilst I don’t often know what happens to them once they leave my classroom or inbox, I thrive on hearing their success stories and victories. And, it could not be more meaningful; it could not make me happier.

Several weeks ago, I noticed balloons randomly placed around the city centre campus. They seemed so celebratory, although at the time I did not feel at all festive. I honestly cared now why they were there; I just liked seeing them and snapped a picture.

This evening, they seem relevant. And, celebratory in an altogether different way. And, this evening, as with most, I am immensely proud and honoured to serve as a member of this community of brilliant scholars. Here’s to our collective success.

University of Helsinki

 

Bigger picture & wider lens

einstein-picture-full-uncropped

Arthur Sasse / AFP

Maybe it’s because I love the notion of the mad scientist. But, I love Einstein.

His brilliant mind aside, I love his wit and eccentricity, along with his passion for communicating science and his own work within it.

One of my favourite images of Einstein other than him sat in wacky dress donning furry slippers (naturally) features the not-so-mad scientist sticking his tongue out. I’ve had a version of that image for as long as I can remember, and it never fails to cheer me up and remind me to embrace the silliness whenever I can.

I decided to use the image for a talk I’m giving later today to women in STEM at the University of Helsinki. The talk itself is on communicating science. And, as I’ve been thinking about and formulating precisely what I want to say on communicating science vis-á-vis the dreaded conference presentation, that image of Einstein has popped up in my head over and over again.

When looking up images as I was preparing, I found a bit on the history of it, and love it even more now.

My original intention and own message for including it focused on simply ‘being yourself’ during presentations. When we attempt to assume someone else’s notion of what it means to be a researcher or scientist or instructor (in my case), we become disingenuous and lose credibility amongst our audiences. We aren’t actors, after all. And, we shouldn’t pretend to be.  We also lose the plot of our message as well. Rather than water down our own personalities and individualities, I say bring them to the forefront when presenting.

But, also, I think this image reminds us to have fun with our presentations, particularly when we care most about the messages we are communicating. Most of those with whom I work research incredibly interesting yet at times troubling or difficult topics. It’s hard work no doubt. But each of us are truly passionate about our work (I hope) and I’d like to think that we also have fun with it.

In addition and after reading the back story behind this image of Einstein and his tongue, to me the image now serves as a reminder to never assume that the audience will intuitively get the full picture of the story we’re attempting to tell. Unless, that is, we actually tell the story well.

Details matter. As does the bigger picture and wider lens.