Women Rock Science: The big Q&A
Hadiza Mohammed is the founder of Women Rock Science. You may already have heard of it – it was started by a single person with a dream and is growing into a really special, fun, safe community that’s making a real difference. But less of us talking, let’s hear from Hadiza herself!
Hi Hadiza, thanks for all the work you’ve done to help women in STEM grow and connect. How did Women Rock Science start out?
Thanks for having me! Well, I started Women Rock in April 2013 – I was tired of seeing women scientists overlooked and wanted to create a fun, safe space to celebrate female achievements in STEM (‘science, technology, engineering and maths’ ). It started with just me and a laptop but has grown into an amazing community. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to young boys and girls directly, link with other groups and organisations, showcase at fairs and festivals and support teachers in their STEM teaching.
“I know how it feels to be a woman in STEM and I wanted to inspire other young women and girls just like me, to give them role models and help them find their place.”
The lack of representation is an even bigger issue when you consider ethnic minority STEM heroes – and diversity has always been a core value for the community. At Women Rock Science, representation is not dependent on skin colour or geographical location but on scientific prowess and dedication.
Who are some of your personal science heroes (of any gender) and why?
Oh gosh, there are too many to count. I love love love Caroline Herschel. She’s the 18th century celebrity singer turned astronomer who was the first woman to discover a comet. She lived a true Cinderella story except instead of being saved by magic and pumpkins she rescued herself with maths and astronomy. Caroline was both disabled and a woman and it’s a real tale of overcoming adversity and surpassing people’s expectations of you.
I also love Cecilia Payne who discovered what the sun was made of when she was only a young woman at Uni. All her teachers and professors disagreed with her but she was proved right years later.
There’s Chien Shiung Wu who was excluded from a Nobel Prize by her two male colleges but handled the entire situation with grace and aplomb.
Or there’s the entire Wright family… starting with grandfather Ceah who managed to escape slavery, get his education, go to university and become a medical doctor; father Louis who fought segregation and discrimination to become a doctor and found one of the leading cancer centres in the US and daughter Jane who also became a doctor and developed the first ever chemotherapy treatment for solid tumours in the 1950’s.
I really love Lise Meitner and Irene Curie, leading nuclear scientists who hid their research from Hitler and Mussolini and promoted using science for peace.
And all the young women from the Tubou population… as young as 12, they are masters in geography and topography and are responsible for navigating the Sahara desert for water for their entire community.
There are just so many inspirations, and that’s why I run Women Rock Science. I want to share all these great, unknown stories with everyone.
Any recent young #WomenInSTEM achievements that make you smile?
Yes, there are there three teenagers from Ireland whose work is just remarkable; they are using microbiology to try to end world hunger. Their names are Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow and they’ve developed a bacterial treatment for seeds that has increased crop yields by as much as 70%. Emer got the idea from some gardening she was doing with her mum and got started on her experiment with her two friends. They won Google Science Fair 2014!
Any personal #WomenInSTEM stories you love on your site?
Young people today are more clued up and switched on than ever, they just get it. The internet and mobile technology has been so important for their empowerment because it gives them forums to express themselves, showcase their talents and be listened to without the shame and judgement that adults usually cast over them.
The young women I speak to are what inspire me to keep going. It’s hard for me to pick out any one in individual but their ideas, their motivation, their awareness; it’s really moving and makes me feel confident about the future of STEM in this country.
What are the main challenges facing women in science today?
Oh gosh, I would say there are two main types –
- The external challenges – that would be from employers, classmates and colleagues
- The internal struggles from within.
“Some people say women should just speak up more and be more confident but it’s not that simple. Studies show women and girls are more likely to be ignored, more likely to be interrupted and more likely to be thought of as incompetent in STEM.”
How can we expect young women to be confident and ready to change the world when they are systematically treated in this way?
Everybody already knows men have a lot to offer STEM. We see it in our magazines, on our TVs and in our science textbooks. It’s everywhere. What we as a society are still having trouble accepting is that women have a lot to offer too. And not just offer academically but also offer through our creativity, our experiences and our female perspective.
It needs a two-pronged approach. Yes women need to gain more confidence – but at the same time the industry and society needs to be more welcoming and embracing of us. It’s changing but not fast enough.
You’ve been collaborating with @equalityforher? Exciting!
Equality for HER is a really exciting organisation based in the US run by the amazing Blair Brown. They’re dedicated to promoting Health Education and Rights for women, so after chatting a bit online it was really only natural that we would work together.
We are currently running a series on powerful women in STEM. These are women who are pioneers in their field but also worked to change the political and cultural climate for the better. We have more planned for the future, so watch this space.
How can science get more inclusive at school?
Women Rock Science have made these cool A3 posters for UK schools
You know, in all the years I spent in school I never studied about a single non-white person, not one, and only two of the many scientists we learnt about were women.
“If schools want to get more inclusive they need to actually include a wide range of faces and voices in their curriculums.”
How can you expect to uplift or motivate a young person when you are showing them through their studies and textbooks that you don’t actually value people like them? That is something Women Rock Science is working really hard to change with our community work and we have worked directly with schools to provide informational booklets on diverse people in STEM.
It is also important to foster an inclusive and respectful atmosphere in the classroom where each individual’s experiences and contributions are valued.
Do you have any advice for young people who want to get science jobs without a degree?
There is a massive STEM skills shortage in the UK, particularly in engineering, and because of that it can be easier to find funding here than in other sectors. There are so many companies and organisations out there who are ready not only to fund your university studies but also give you a guaranteed job afterwards. They are looking for enthusiastic young people to invest in, so it’s just a case of you getting stuck in, doing the research and applying.
Have a look around, talk to people, visit company websites, intern, anyway to get your leg in the door and be ready when the opportunities present themselves. There are also a whole host of bursary and scholarship opportunities out there, so make sure you look around.
Beyond that, I would say that university is not the only avenue. Apprenticeships are another great way to get yourself on the career ladder and learn new skills at the same time.
What kind of plans has Women Rock Science got for the future?
We are currently linking up with employers to get interesting internships for young people in STEM. Internships and work placements are so important for personal development and to get your foot in the door. Unfortunately, a lot of internship opportunities are just about who you know – and this leaves a lot of keen, capable people out in the lurch. We are using our network and our community to bring exciting opportunities to people who might otherwise not get the chance.
How did you get to where you are in STEM today?
Well I’m a civil engineer specialising in environmental sustainability and gender in the built environment. The world can seem so crazy and random and overwhelming: Floods, disease, electricity, magnets… there’s a lot to grapple with. Science is the best tool and really the only tool we have to decipher exactly what is going on and understand how we can control it. The more we understand things scientifically, the deeper we can understand the order and the beauty of the world. I love engineering specifically because we take scientific concepts and mould and manipulate them to create things that are useful for people.
I haven’t always been the brightest; I struggled throughout my studies just like everybody else and even failed some modules. What got me to where I am now is that I kept going, I persevered and always made sure to follow my dreams even if wasn’t the easiest option.
Civil engineering is a very male dominated profession but I knew I wanted to bring my passion, my creativity and my feminine touch to the field. When I told my professors I wanted to focus on gender in the built environment they literally laughed at me, but I followed my dreams and ended up pioneering new research on gender inequality in London sanitary provision. This research is to be published in a scientific journal which is very exciting.
“I took a huge plunge in starting Women Rock Science and I’m about to take another in starting my own sustainable building company. My big advice would be to follow your passions and your curiosities and don’t be deterred by your failures.”
Is there something we really, really should have asked you but didn’t?
Well, I’m not all about STEM – I actually moonlight as a professional DJ (look for the name Dizzietron). I work at parties and concerts and hosted my own show on BBC 1Xtra. I mainly focus on African music and it’s a great way to express my heritage and creativity and have lots of fun at the same time. Here’s a video of one of my past events.
Thanks, Hadiza. You rock, and so does Women Rock Science.
Women Rock Science links:
Republished with permission from Plotr.