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Women in science: absolutely zero boundaries

In honour of International Women’s Day, Science & Technology Reporter, Katie Holmes, takes us through the most influential and inspiring female scientists in Manchester’s history

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Wednesday 8th of March marks International Women’s Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the achievements, advancements and contributions of women in our society. Women are particularly underrepresented in science, with just 14.4 per cent of the workforce comprising female professionals.

However, more women currently occupy positions in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) than ever before. Women in science are celebrated at the University of Manchester, including our current President and Vice-Chancellor: Professor Nancy Rothwell is the first woman to hold the position, and is an esteemed physiologist and director of pharmaceuticals for AstraZeneca.

She is the embodiment of influence and prestige for Manchester’s women in science, and encourages women to push boundaries in order to achieve greatness.

Throughout history, Manchester’s girls have championed education, driven positive change, and shown limitless potential when it comes to STEM. Today we celebrate them for their success in pioneering research fields, and as role models in the campaign for gender balance in education and society. Here, we pay homage to three of Manchester’s most influential women in science.

Dr Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Heralded as the ‘Mother of the Sea’ by the Japanese, Dr Drew-Baker was a phycologist whose research revolutionised the development of commercial nori, a type of edible seaweed, in Japan.

Born in Lancashire, she was awarded a scholarship to study botany at the University of Manchester. She graduated with a first class degree in 1922 and continued on to postgraduate study, before specialising in cryptogamic botany at the university.

Her research into the life cycle of Porphyra umbilicas was featured in Nature in 1949, and this publication sparked the development of artificial nori seeding techniques in Japan. Termed the ‘gamblers grass’, nori was and continues to be a staple food resource in Asian countries.

However, harvests were unpredictable and new methods were required to keep up with growing demand for the edible seaweed, which had been in decline since the end of the Second World War. Her research stimulated a new understanding of the organism’s life cycle, and the industry was rescued.

Despite her success in phycology, Drew-Baker faced professional struggles within the university. She was dismissed from her position due to her marriage to Henry Wright Baker, as university policy stated married women could not be employed.

In order to continue her research efforts, she became an honorary research fellow with the Ashburne Hall resident’s fellowship. She continued in her pioneering work before co-founding the British Phycological Society and being elected its first president. Every year Dr Drew-Baker’s work is celebrated during the Japanese ‘Drew Festival’, where her monument stands in Sumiyoshi Shrine Park, Osaka.

Professor Danielle George

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Currently teaching within the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Professor George is a distinguished contributor to the field of radio frequency engineering. She also holds the position of Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Manchester. Her contributions to public outreach and engagement in engineering were rewarded in 2016 when she was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

Born in Newcastle, George completed her BSc in Astrophysics at the University of Liverpool before continuing to postgraduate study at the University of Manchester.

She specialises in research into low noise amplifiers, and is the UK lead for amplifiers in numerous radio telescope projects. Additionally, George has worked alongside NASA and the European Space Agency in studies exploring the ‘big bang’ theory.

George was honored in 2014 when she became the sixth woman in 189 years to be chosen to present the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Her lecture was a resounding success as she spoke live with astronauts on the International Space Station and transformed the London Shell Centre into a giant game of tetris.

At the time of the lecture, the 38-year-old professor was eight months pregnant with her first child. The Royal Academy of Engineering Rooke Award accredited these achievements in 2016 as acknowledgement for her successes in public outreach and promotion of engineering.

An inspiration for all aspiring engineers, but particularly for young women in science, George commented: “Hopefully, it sends a subconscious message that as long as your baby is fine and you’re feeling fine it doesn’t stop you from doing anything. So you can get on with your work, still make a difference and still change the world in a positive way — and you don’t have to stop for nine months because you are pregnant.”

Marie Stopes

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Stopes was a prominent contributor to plant paleontology, and the first woman in history to become an academic at the University of Manchester. Her vast research and publications in paleobotanical papers made her one of the leading paleobotanists of her time.

By attending both day and night schools, Stopes successfully attained a first class degree in botany and geology from University College, London in just two years. In 1901, she became the first woman to hold an academic position at the University of Manchester when she took up the role of lecturer of paleobotany.

Alongside her research, she was an avid campaigner for women’s rights and a pioneer in raising awareness for women’s issues and sexual and reproductive health. Although controversial and divisive, Marie Stopes’ influence lead to the establishment of sexual and reproductive health clinics worldwide.

Stopes moved away from the field of paleobotany after the success of her work regarding women’s issues. She was a philanthropist with a strong interest in birth control. In 1918, her book ‘Married Love’ was published, along with a follow-up entitled, ‘Parenthood: A Book for Married People’.

These publications were regarded as sex education manuals and argued that marriage should be an equal relationship between partners. Although the medical establishment and the church condemned the book, it was a huge success and sold out nationwide.

Women wrote to Stopes for advice, and she regularly engaged in public speaking. She also established the first birth control clinic in the country. Today the Marie Stopes International organisation is the leading independent provider of sexual and reproductive health services.