Happy Monday folks. Here I am with yet another new blog series. This one is really close to my heart because it’s about women; specifically Women in Science. Im calling it the WISe (women in Science) Project because I thought that was clever. Is it really? I don’t know but here we are.
Meet Michelle Angwenyi
Michelle has a bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology from Yale University. She plans to pursue a doctorate in Zoology. She has worked on small projects in limb regeneration in axolotls (a type of salamander), cancer in fruit flies, and abnormal cell growth in mice. She is currently working on a malaria project in ICIPE, the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology, in Nairobi.
Phro: How did you become interested in Science? How were you exposed to it outside of school curriculum and did the exposure encourage your interest in Science?
Michelle: I became interested in science as a child, I think, watching cartoons, especially things like Dexter’s lab. I didn’t know exactly what “doing science” meant, but I thought mixing brightly colored liquids was great fun. The rest of the science I knew was the hard words on packets of soap, air freshener, processed food, etc. My exposure didn’t necessarily encourage me towards science, I just thought it was cool. Most of it was for entertainment.
Phro: What were your expectations/fears (if any ) when you entered the workplace for the first time as a woman scientist? Were they confirmed or challenged?
Michelle: To be quite honest, I didn’t really have any expectations or fears at the time I begun to work as a scientist. I just knew that this was something that I was doing, like anything anyone else was doing to either occupy their time, or to earn money. My first experiences in the lab were simply being told what to do, and how to do it. In my field, molecular biology, I’ve encountered quite a number of female scientists, which I expect wouldn’t be the same for fields such as engineering or physics. I’ve been very lucky to have worked with postdocs (postdoctoral scholars) who were women throughout my (quite short, so far) scientific career.
Phro: Studies have shown that women drop out of STEM fields at an alarming rate. Have you witnessed this first hand? If so, what do you think causes it?
Michelle: Yes, I have witnessed it. In my field, a lot of the graduate students and postdocs are women, but the tenured professors/supervisors/principal investigators tend to be men. I believe that this happens because women who may want to settle down at this time often face the unequally shared task of having to take care of their families and at the same try and forge ahead in their careers, and more often than not, their careers tend to suffer. Not that there are women who haven’t been able to do this, of course. But the trajectory seems to take a longer time than it would for a man of the same age and in the same position, given that he probably has more time to work on his career. Another reason is that some workplaces have toxic environments, which makes it difficult for some women to cope, opting to pursue different paths instead. There have been cases of sexual assault in labs, and so on.
Phro: Are you constantly aware of your gender when in your spaces of work? Do you ever feel like it is a barrier for you or in how others treat you?
Michelle: Not really, and maybe this is because I haven’t been in many different scientific spaces where women are under-represented/discriminated against, but I know of women who are aware of their genders and how it opens them up to certain kinds of discrimination.
Phro: Would you say that your work is a job, something you do for a living that is separate from your life or is Science a significant part of who you are?
Michelle: Science is both, it’s a job, and sometimes it becomes a significant part of who I am in that sometimes the questions I ask about the world that bother me can only be explored through my research.
Phro: Some women scientists have stated publicly that they feel gender-based awards for science give them special treatment and that they prefer to be judged on a level playing field with all genders. Do you agree with this? Or do you think gender-based awards are useful?
Michelle: I would say gender-based awards are useful, in that they highlight work by female scientists that would otherwise go ignored, especially in a world where there still remains some implicit bias against the work of female scientists, where the work of men is still taken more seriously than that of women.
Phro: How can society do a better job of sharing the stories of women in Science and encouraging women and girls to pursue careers in Science?
Michelle: I think encouraging women to pursue careers in science starts with all our individual interactions with girls and young women – how do we ask them what they plan to be in the future? What subtle biases do we often include in the things we say, whether we recognize them or not? Who are the people we entrust with giving our children advice, who do they look up to? All of these things can help, slowly, to open up the path for women in science. Stories should also be highlighted – in the media, by word of mouth, in literally any way we can.
Many thanks to Michelle for sharing her story and important advice on how to encourage girls to pursue Science careers. Keep a look out for more interviews from some pretty badass scientists!
This series is a collection of interviews from women studying or working in Science. Please note it is open to all transwomen and non-binary persons too. If you would like to share your story please contact me here.