Edinburgh Science Festival celebrates the achievements of women in STEM

Edinburgh Science Festival celebrates the achievements of women in STEM

Amanda Tyndall, festival and creative director of Edinburgh Science Festival

Four women involved in this year's Edinburgh Science Festival tell us about their inspirations and how they found their passions

As the clever people over at Edinburgh Science Festival prepare to once more inspire, amaze and blow our collective minds, they're also shining a special light on the achievements of women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – this year. To celebrate the boundaries broken down by women over the course of history, we've asked four women involved in this year's festival about how they found their passions and who has been a source of inspiration to them.

Amanda Tyndall, festival and creative director of Edinburgh Science Festival

At school I was one of those people who kind of liked everything, but there was this tendency – which still exists – to push people towards one vocation. I considered medicine, but I didn't want my life planned out that much, so I did a degree in pharmacology and neuroscience. After working in science publishing, I did a Masters in science communication, which introduced me to the magic of making science relevant to different audiences.

After the course, I worked freelance as an event organiser for places like the Science Museum in London. Then I became head of programming at the Royal Institute in London, on the back of which my boss, Baroness Susan Greenfield, asked me to go to Australia to trial projects for the Premier of South Australia. I went over for six months and ended up staying for six years, as I set up the first international branch of the Royal Institute. Then I came here!

Edinburgh Science Festival celebrates the achievements of women in STEM

Ada Lovelace

In terms of inspiration, Ada Lovelace was the one who recognised that Babbage's analytical engine had applications beyond pure calculation and published the first algorithm. She described her approach as 'poetical science' and talked about herself as a metaphysician, so she was interested in the power of imagination in science. Hedy Lamarr was known as this film star, but between takes, she invented a communication system to guide radio-controlled missiles underwater, which the military used during the Second World War. I like these people who straddle these two worlds; it's something that means a lot to me personally and I think is an important way of providing new windows onto science and making it accessible to a more diverse audience.

Professor Evelyn Telfer, chair in reproductive biology at the University of Edinburgh

I started in mathematical modelling, predicting how certain conditions affect the rate of egg loss. I then became interested in developing a system where we could study egg development outside the body. I went to work at the Jackson Laboratory [in the US], and received a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation for the project. When I came back to Edinburgh in 1992, we moved from mouse models to domestic species, with the view that we could eventually move on to humans.

Edinburgh Science Festival celebrates the achievements of women in STEM

Professor Evelyn Telfer

At a conference, I met a Finnish scientist named Outi Hovatta, who invited me to come to the Karolinska [in Sweden], where they had ethical approval to ask women having elective C sections if they would donate a small piece of their ovary for research. This allowed us to look at the process of activating the immature eggs within that tissue. When I returned to Edinburgh, I collaborated with clinicians to develop that system, and we're also now working on a methodology to make new eggs from stem cells.

There's a Danish scientist named Anne Grete Byskov who did a huge amount of work in ovarian development. She led the Laboratory of Reproductive Biology in Copenhagen, which is now a world leader in fertility preservation. Anne Grete died five years ago, and she hasn't been as recognised as she should be. I think that's quite a common thing for female scientists. Normally you see obituaries or conferences, and that never happened for her. I raised this with some people, and they said to me, 'well, she was such a modest person.' But it's *3our*2 responsibility to ensure that she gets recognised now.

Professor Angela Gallop CBE, forensic scientist

At university, I researched the biochemistry of sea slugs for my degree, but I knew I wanted to do something that was more immediately important. While I was writing my thesis, a friend showed me an advertisement for a job in the forensic science service, and that shaped everything. Twelve years later, I left the service because I was worried about the balance of forensic evidence in the courtroom. At the time, the forensic science service was run by the Home Office for the police, and I thought that this stopped people from asking the right questions in court, so I set up a company called Forensic Access that reviewed the prosecution's forensic evidence on behalf of the defence.

Edinburgh Science Festival celebrates the achievements of women in STEM

Professor Angela Gallop CBE / credit: Nottingham Trent University

After a few years, we thought the balance was tipping the other way, so I set up another company called Forensic Alliance to help the police. In order to persuade them to use us, we looked into cold cases, and we ended up clearing up a lot of them, including the Stephen Lawrence case. When I left Forensic Alliance in 2010, I set up Axiom International, and since then have been providing security and justice services to developing countries.

For my inspirational woman, I would choose the astronomer Maggie Aderin-Pocock. She had a difficult start in school, like myself, but she got switched on by science and was so determined. She went on a course for making your own telescopes, and I remember making my own blacked-out tank out of bin liners when my course couldn't afford any, so there was a connection when I read that about her. When you listen to her speak, she has such a passion for her subject. She's doing an awful lot to inspire kids to be amazed by space.

Edinburgh Science Festival celebrates the achievements of women in STEM

Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Professor Margaret Bates, professor of sustainable wastes management at the University of Northampton

While I was studying applied biology at the Polytechnic of East London, I went on field trips to dig up samples from coal mines and landfills. I then applied to do my PhD on landfills, and as they say in waste management, once you're in it for six months, you're in it for life, and I haven't looked back since. I've since helped two African countries write their electronic waste regulation, and have led training on e-waste recycling in Nigeria.

Waste management is something people don't really think about, but it makes a huge difference to people's lives. What we're trying to do is help developing countries leapfrog the mistakes we've made. We treat recycling as if it were the solution, rather than waste prevention and re-use. We see waste as someone else's responsibility, when we've all got to take responsibility, and think more carefully about what we buy and how we dispose of things.

Edinburgh Science Festival celebrates the achievements of women in STEM

Professor Margaret Bates

The most inspirational woman in science has got to be Marie Curie. One of the things I love about her is that – other than the fact that she has a brain the size of a planet and a determination to match – these days people would name her first, rather than her husband, and I think she'd be really chuffed with that. Also there's a whole load of EU funding that's linked to her in developing young scientists. If you made a list of the greatest scientists of all time – not female scientists, just the greatest – she would be on that list.

Edinburgh Science Festival, various venues, Sat 6 April–Sun 21 April, sciencefestival.co.uk

Edinburgh Science Festival

Hands-on science for families in venues across the city with a programme ranging from the entertaining to the controversial and, of course, the icky. The theme for 2020 is Elementary with events focusing on earth, air, fire and water, plus fifth element 'aether'.

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