For International Women’s Day, we asked Minerva Singh about her career in science and the challenges and improvements she is seeing in STEM. You can read all of our posts for International Women’s Day here.

Minerva has also written a blog post for the Applied Ecologist’s blog about whether zoos can help in the conservation of charismatic megafauna: ‘Giant Panda Conservation

What made you want to pursue a career in science? Were there any female scientists in particular who inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

Minerva Singh
Minerva Singh, PhD candidate, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.

In Asia, as a rule of thumb smart kids are expected to pursue a career in the STEM field. Luckily for me, my interest in natural sciences was piqued by my maternal grandfather (Nanaji) who cultivated a spirit of inquiry and logic inside me. His ideas on education (we used to go to the zoo every Sunday and long nature walks on Saturdays) were quite out of sync with exam-oriented Asia. His “unconventional by Asian standards” (read outlandish and foolish) ideas on education drove my school teachers to despair, but it helped spark my interest in STEM, especially environmental sciences. Nanaji encouraged extra reading and together when I was about 5-years-old, we read the abridged biography of Madame Marie Curie. Until today she really inspires me. She won two Nobel prizes in an era where discrimination against women was rampant. She also raised two smart successful daughters (her daughter Irene Curie Jolet also won a Nobel Prize) and managed to devote time to the causes of her liking.

There has been an increasing focus on encouraging women to join STEM fields in recent years, but there is still work that needs to be done. What are the biggest problems facing the push towards gender equality within STEM fields today?

Depends where one is!! Over the past several decades the world in general and the West in particular has taken several strides towards gender equality. This includes increased gender equality in STEM subjects. Today we see so many women across the world working in STEM subjects. But do we have enough female STEM role models? No. I believe these women should be promoted as role models to encourage women to pursue careers in STEM. But that is not happening. Another thing that is blocking the push towards gender equality is math anxiety. From an early age we inculcate self-limiting beliefs in girls, i.e. they are not naturally good at maths. In order to combat such self-limiting beliefs it is important we provide rigorous grounding in scientific concepts and coding skills. This should ensure by the time they are thinking of career choices at 16, they don’t make their choices on the basis of self-limiting beliefs. We cannot get women to take up STEM subjects if they have not been prepared and given the necessary academic and emotional tools since childhood. I think we can take a leaf out of the book of the former USSR. Between 1962–64 40% of PhDs in Chemistry were awarded to women, as compared to 5% in the USA. Mentoring efforts among others yielded rich results. Perhaps that system could be adapted to other countries.

What barriers are there to women entering STEM fields (at undergrad, postgrad, PhD or post-doc levels)?

I was raised in a highly conservative, patriarchal Asian society. In my society and so many other societies in Asia and Africa, women face massive barriers to access even basic primary education. The question of going up to university does not even arise in the lives of millions of girls. In many parts of the world girls have been shot in their faces or kidnapped en-masse for going to school. So from that perspective, women in the West do not face “barriers” to their entry into professions of their choice, including STEM fields. I have not heard of women in the West being shot or kidnapped for wanting to go to University to train in or work in sciences. Hence “barriers women face” is misappropriated in the context of the West given that women in other parts of the world have it much worse.

However, I accept women in the West face challenges to their entry in STEM fields which need to be addressed. Most Western countries have educational systems that do not really focus on identifying and grooming scientific talent from a young age. This leads to many talented women developing self-limiting beliefs and hence careers in STEM are put out of their reach.

Is there anything in particular that you are surprised hasn’t been fixed or improved?

Given that places like China (and up to some extent India) are fuelling their economic engines on the basis of investment in sciences and technology, it is surprising science training programs (from kindergarten to PhD) are not receiving priority attention and investment. STEM advancement is going to fuel economies the way petrol and steel did in the era of Carnegie Mellon. Hence in addition to lack of funding, lack of international collaborations (fuelled in part by the UK’s immigration policy) is quite surprising. Of course there is investment and international collaborations, but I am surprised more is not being done to invite talented scientists from abroad to work in the UK and vice versa.

Is there anything that you think institutions, journals, funders etc. should be doing to improve gender equality?

One of the biggest challenges working ladies face (and not just in STEM) is childcare responsibilities. Hence institutions should be investing in workplace crèches and flexi working. The 9am–5pm working model is rather redundant. If somebody is able to work, produce results while sitting in their swimwear on a beach, we should encourage that as opposed to expecting everyone to adhere to the same 9am–5pm schedules.

In recent years, what improvements towards gender equality have you seen in STEM fields?

More girls and women in STEM subjects, including “hard” subjects like computing. All of these ladies are my heroines. I see so many women getting STEM PhDs and even starting their own companies/start-ups. This is happening world over. It is inspirational beyond words. Today you have women from less developed and socially conservative countries in Asia doing cutting edge research. Every time things are tough, I remember them.

Is there anyone, or any institution, department etc., who you feel deserves specific praise in this area?

My supervisor Dr David Coomes is most encouraging when it comes down to encouraging us, especially the ladies, to take responsibility of our research ideas, plans and work. It is extremely empowering (although scary) at first. But when straight off the bat you start taking important decisions in your PhD fully knowing your supervisor will guide you as you stumble, it is a major life skill one acquires along with improved self-image and productivity. My department – Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge is also quite democratic in this regard.

What advice would you give to female students or Early Career Researchers looking to make a career in academia?

A career in STEM academia is very challenging. But rewarding. You may not earn as much as your management consultant friends and the journal reviewers might even (nearly) have you crawling up the walls. But all the tears, sweat and chocolates are worth it. If you really want to make a career in academia, there are occasions you will have to give it your 110%, living exclusively on coffee. But those phases are important for your growth as a scientist (and a human being). And academia gives you the space to be an Original (unlike all other professions). Please read this book for inspiration: “Originals: How Non-conformists Change the World”. All female students entering STEM academia are bit of the ‘Originals’ to begin with. Let us all strive to go the full mile.