Returning role models

This blog post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer

I write this (referring to yesterday as I couldn’t post it then) whilst sitting in one of Bath’s many fine pubs (I recommend a spot next to the fire in the Pulteney Arms, next to Henrietta Park), reflecting on today’s inaugural Daphne Jackson Trust (DJT) Research Conference. It is often remarked that the Trust does wonderful work helping women (and, since 2003, men too) return to SET careers following careers breaks. As it celebrates its 20th anniversary, with its profile ever rising under the leadership of the charismatic Dr Katie Perry, the Trust is putting more emphasis on demonstrating the research output of its fellows. This, Katie told me, is the best way of getting buy-in from the higher echelons of university management, and also reminds the scheme’s advocates – such as myself – that the Trust’s aims are not only extremely valuable at an individual level, but also for the UK science base. I’ll not go into the issues around the benefits of operating in diverse research teams here, but needless to say the DJT schemes certainly contribute in this way, if only at a relatively low level (for now) considering the number of fellowships available. With the conference showcasing the research of fellows from more areas of SET than I am usually accustomed to seeing, I personally found the day very interesting, and it was fantastic to see such a great turn-out.

Whilst in conversation with Professor Alistair Fitt (Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes University and a mathematician by research interest) and Professor Rob Eason (a Trustee of the DJT and deputy head of school in the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton), we noted that the balance of current fellows seems weighted towards biologists. We speculated that this was probably because there are more women (whilst the scheme is open to men and women, women are more likely to have a break to return from) from a bioscience background who had a research career to ‘return’ to. The percentage of female A-level physics students has lagged at around one in five for the past quarter century. Nevertheless, schemes such as the DJT fellowships are contributing to an increasing bank of role models (for more on this theme see last week’s post on Ada Lovelace Day) to help inspire the next generation of women to pursue research careers, as Daphne Jackson – herself a physicist – did. I hope that this, combined with the cultural changes which should accelerate as this issue continues to be discussed, will make a difference borne out by the numbers in years to come. One such role model on display at the conference was Dr Tzanka Kokalova, after whose presentation it was remarked that she might well end up with a Nobel Prize should her research in nuclear physics bring the ‘right’ results. Having given up physics at 16 (like many others I never had a specialist physics teacher due to the national shortage) much of the science was beyond me, but Dr Kokalova’s engaging personality made her an interesting speaker and certainly someone to look out for.

All in all, the day represented a successful divergence of the DJT’s programme of activities. I look forward to next year’s event (which will hopefully give me a chance to explore another of the UK’s lovely cities outside of London!) and to hearing more interesting research stories from engaging returners.

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