For International Women’s Day, we profile inspirational Manchester female scientists, from past and present
Thursday 8th March marks International Women’s Day, a day that has been celebrated across the world from the first years of women’s suffrage in the 1900s. It commemorates the progress that has been made in the movement for women’s rights and is a reminder that gender equality is yet to be achieved in many aspects of society, and in many countries around the globe.
The STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) are notorious for being a male-dominated world, and there is still much room for improvement in the UK. In this country, women make up only 42 per cent of science professionals and just 24 per cent of all those employed in STEM industries.
The University of Manchester has fostered many successful female scientific researchers in its history. Here are just a few of those inspirational scientists, past and present.
Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker – Botany
Drew-Baker’s scientific work is probably better known in Japan, where she is known as the ‘Mother of the Sea’. Named so for her research on Porphyra laciniata (nori), the edible seaweed used in sushi and in much Japanese cuisine.
Her discoveries led to a greater understanding of how to cultivate the seaweed when traditional methods were failing, and she is thus hailed as the saviour who prevented the nation’s nori industry from collapse. In 2013, Uto, Japan, hosted it’s 50th annual Drew festival in her honour.
She was born in 1901 in Leigh, Lancashire, but spent most of her academic life in Manchester. She completed her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in botany at the University of Manchester. Upon her graduation in 1922, she became a research fellow of phycology, the study of algae. Drew-Baker eventually founded the British Phycological Society and was its first elected president.
She worked in the botany department at Manchester until her death in 1957, during which time she published prolifically, mainly on the subject of red algae, as well as on Japan’s beloved nori.
Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw – Mathematics
Ollerenshaw became partially deaf due to illness at a young age and did not receive her first hearing aid until the age of 37. Despite this, she was very successful academically in school and continued to pursued maths professionally. She was known for reiterating that “mathematics is the one school subject not dependent on hearing”.
Born in Withington in 1912, Ollerenshaw was dedicated to the city of Manchester, serving as councillor for Rusholme for 26 years, and as Lord Mayor of Manchester from 1975-1976.
As well as being politically active, Ollenrenshaw was an esteemed mathematician, publishing more than 26 mathematical papers during her research career. Including perhaps her most famous work: ‘Most-Perfect Pandiagonal Magic Squares’. Magic squares are grids in which all of the rows, columns, and diagonals add up to the same number.
A lecturer at the University of Manchester after WWII, she was a founding fellow and president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and integral to the formation of the Royal Northern College of Music.
She died in August 2014 at the age of 101. In her name, Manchester now has a distinguished research fellowship, an annual public lecture, and a room in the Alan Turing building.
Professor Carole Goble – Computer Science
Professor Goble was born in Maidstone, Kent, and completed her undergraduate degree in Computing and Information Systems in 1982 at the University of Manchester, where she has been a researcher since 1985.
Goble’s research interests lie largely in e-Science, and she is a leader of the UK’s e-Science programme, helping scientists and citizens with large-scale information processing and management. In 2008, she was the only woman to have ever been awarded the Microsoft Jim Gray Award for outstanding contribution to e-Science. Goble was made a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2010, and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2014 by Her Majesty the Queen.
Goble tells The Mancunian, “I wanted to do Computer Science since I was 13 years old and I programmed mainframe computers at school, in 1977 (!). I came to Manchester to do my undergraduate degree in Computer Science in 1979, it hadn’t occurred to me it was a “gendered” subject. It still hasn’t.”
“I am surprised that after all these years I am still a relative rarity – a senior female computing academic. I guess I am tenacious and just decided to do what I wanted to do. Importantly I had a partner and mentors who really supported me.”
When asked what advice she would give to aspiring women computer scientists, Goble adds: “The best advice I had? Just being smart is not enough – you have to work, read, listen and surround yourself with smart people. Computing is often a team game.
Be prepared, be forward, and assume you know as much (or more) than other folks. Get a mentor. Be brave enough to say yes in the first part of your career, even when scared, and brave enough to say no when the time comes.”
Professor Kathryn Else – Immunology
Professor Else’s research largely surrounds the immune response to gut-dwelling worms. After getting a BSc in Zoology from Nottingham, she pursued her interest in immunology against these parasites. She joined the University of Manchester in 1989 as a postdoc, becoming Professor of Immunology in 2009.
Parasites are highly common worldwide and are a huge cost to society, both in healthcare and in productivity of the workforce. Else has published extensively in this field and has received funding from important bodies such as the Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust, of whom she is also a senior research fellow.
She spoke exclusively to The Mancunion with some top tips for women at the start of their scientific careers: “Resilience matters. If you don’t succeed [the] first time around, be that a grant application or a promotion case, get feedback and try again.
Don’t spread yourself so thinly that you are not spending enough time on the things that matter to you — research into the things you really care about; things that when you work on them you lose track of time. Do at least one thing that you want to do every day and block that time for yourself in your diary, e.g. time to read that really interesting paper or just time to think.
Remember family comes first and if you focus on the important things, you can have a good work-life balance. Academic life brings a certain amount of flexibility so if it fits, start your day early and finish work early –and don’t feel guilty about leaving work before others.”