By Mhairi Stewart, Public Engagement Officer, University of St Andrews
The Chrysalis project in the University of St Andrews, in collaboration with artist Sophie McKay Knight, has started to address issues of diversity in science as they exist in our corner of the globe.
The project started as a series of conversations. We invited established and early career female researchers to talk freely, openly and confidentially. The conversations were initially prompted by the organizers with open questions, but very soon they moved into many areas based on the experience and interests of our attendees.
Subjects ranged from brutally honest life experiences, the best time to have a baby, relationships strained or strengthened by academic life and whether female mentors are preferable to male, right through to inspirations and even faith or belief systems.
Our early career researchers had the opportunity to find out about the challenges of the past they are unlikely to face, the challenges they might still have to face and the triumphs they can expect to experience. Our established researchers say they gained a renewed enthusiasm and often a less jaded view of the future for women in science.
The format of the Chrysalis Conversation events has in fact been so popular and successful that the University plans to continue and expand upon them in the coming year reaching out to more women across the University and all levels of academia.
Of course there is another dimension to our project. The conversations were also attended
by local artist Sophie McKay Knight. Sophie took inspiration from the conversations and individual interviews to create a series of artworks. She used imagery provided by researchers in a mixture of screen-print and acrylic painting. In the accompanying images you will find protein structures and x-ray crystallography alongside DNA and hummingbirds. Sophie said:
“Working with female scientists has been inspirational for me. I have really enjoyed learning about their particular disciplines and have been privileged to visit some of them in their labs and workspaces. I couldn’t have produced the work without the generosity and openness of everyone involved.”
Two of the paintings, chosen by the Conversation attendees, are remaining in the University. The influences and inspirations in these are described in Sophie’s words:
‘In ‘Duet’ I was thinking about the idea of mentoring – but also about the different parts of oneself being a woman in work in 2016, and having the pull of career & home life – unique as that is to every woman.’
‘Wish you were here’ was one of the final paintings I did in the process. Throughout it all I was thinking about what people had told me about being apart from loved ones in order to pursue their careers & the instability of contracts and not really having any permanence. The single figure in ‘Wish you were here’ represents that dual positive/negative sense of being alone and yet deeply connected to ‘work’– which both does and does not make up for any associated loss.’