I talk a lot in this blog about raising each other up and bringing your whole self to being a scientist. There is one woman who taught me that from a very young age. Let me introduce you to my mum Sandra.
My mum is from a generation where her options were limited by her gender. She was forced to leave school in order to work to support her family until the point at which she go married. Then she was one of the first generation of women to try to balance having a family with work. She is one of the smartest people I know and yet she was never permitted to use her intellect to contribute in what was still seen as a man’s world. Despite that my mum has contributed to science in multiple ways throughout her life and I want to honour that contribution by talking about it and recording it here. So that it doesn’t get overlooked and forgotten, like the contributions of so many of her counterparts.
One of Sandra’s first jobs was working at the University of Aston. She worked for an old school Professor, who from conversations about him was smart, kind and someone impractical. I believe (I could be wrong) that he was a biochemist, but he could have been a physicist. This was where my mother started contributing to the world of science. In those days Professors would dictate their scientific papers and mum was the one that typed them up, she captured their equations and hand drew out their graphs, so they could submit manuscripts for publication. The thesis of PhD students also needed to be typed up so that they could be submitted for examination. This is in fact how she met my father, she typed up his thesis. A thesis he still has and that I looked at when writing mine, including the hand drawn graphs inside. Like most women of the time when they married and she became pregnant she had to give up this job in science which she loved in order to have a family.
I am lucky enough to be super close to my mum, I know how fortunate I am and that this isn’t the situation for everyone. Part of the reason for that it that she hasn’t always had it easy with me, lets just say that as a child I didn’t sleep and then managed to become severely ill on more than one occasion. I know that and I know how much, although she would never say, she gave up for me. When I was ill during my GCSEs and I missed my 5th year in school and was facing never being able to go to university and losing my identity as an academic student she was there. She sat me down and looked me straight in the eye. She told me that she loved me and that that was unconditional. It didn’t require me to go to university, it didn’t require me to be anything other than I could both manage and want to be. She gave me the strength to gradually rebuild. Because of her I did eventually make it to university, without her I would never have studied science or made it to be a scientist today. When I felt too stupid, too behind, she gave me the confidence to continue. Anything I accomplish as a scientist is because of her. She was determine that she would open doors for me that were closed to her, and when I faltered that she would help me through them.
She continued to be interested in science. She took part in clinical trials, supported three children through degrees and masters degrees in STEM subjects. Edited dissertations, acted as a sounding board and asked more revision questions than I’m sure she’d care to remember. She came with me to the Blackpool mock exam when I was sitting FRCPath. Those four days were the biggest crisis of confidence I have ever had. At the start of the mock there were three scientists and about 25 clinicians. On the second day of the mock I was the only scientist that turned up. It was the only exam I’d ever sat where I thought not only could I not pass it that day but I was unsure whether I would ever be smart enough to pass at all. On the evening of the second day we were all due to go out for dinner as a group. I tried to leave the hotel to quit and go to the train station instead. So many of my medical colleagues had just told me I would never pass and that doubt had caught hold. She stood in front of me, turned me around and forced me to go and change for dinner, no matter how much I cried. I went to dinner and found out that all the others felt the same, I wasn’t alone, but she enabled me to see that. Her faith also helped me withstand the morning of the fourth day when a group of the medics surrounded me and asked why it was that a scientist like me should think they should be allowed to do the exam, or do a job like them.
My mother continued to use the knowledge she had established about PhD thesis writing when I was writing my PhD. She had been able to sit some academic degree modules herself as part of a great scheme run by Birmingham University and she had built upon the knowledge from her first post. She used those skills to proof read, edit and sense check every line of my 95,000 word thesis. She even took the week off work to be with me in the week prior to submission to do tasks I’d run out of time to do, like make abbreviation lists. The fact that the only correction needed after my PhD viva was to write an additional summary conclusion of 350 words is in large part due to her diligence and scientific understanding.
For the last 6 years my mum has been able to get even more involved with science. She’s been helping me run the Environment Network, Healthcare Science Education conferences and outreach events since their inception. She is project manager, events organiser and conference reception manager for every one. She has run events now for over 1000 scientists and Infection Prevention and Control professional. Her contribution is immense. She has supported the learning and practice improvements of everyone that attends and she does it because she loves both science and me.
So this is my tribute to the women that went before. The women that society didn’t see and put in boxes in which they didn’t fit but had no choice but to live. Here’s to the women that fought and opened doors, broke ceilings and paved the way for those of use who travel behind. I see you and I am grateful for everything you did.
Here’s to my mum. Who wrote papers that won’t bear her name on them. Who contributed to academic dissertations across disciplines, who has organised scientific conferences and raised so many up along the way. To my mum, who fought her share of battles so that I didn’t have to. I love you, I’m thankful for you and know that everything I accomplish is in part because of you.
All opinions on this blog are my own