Live on air!

I have so much to write about at the moment but so little time – Antarctica, International Women’s Day, bits and pieces of public speaking… but I thought I’d start with something short, and exciting!

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Gentoo penguin at Barrientos Island, Antarctica (image: Raeanne Miller)

Last Friday I did my first ever LIVE radio interview! I was invited to take part in BBC Scotland’s ‘Out for the Weekend’ show, and to be interviewed by Fiona Stalker who hosts the programme. You can listen to my piece until April 10th, 2017, here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08h081v.

I did two segments, which were split by a brilliant piece about the penguins at Edinburgh Zoo, with their penguin keeper Lorna Moffat, who talked about their gentoo penguins.

To do the interview, I had to go to the BBC studio in Oban – sounds glamorous, but I assure you that it wasn’t! The studio is a small box – or a large storage cupboard (!), in a block of flats. To access it, you have to ask for a key at a local hotel, let yourself in, and turn on the power. It was a little daunting – I must have read and re-read the instructions about ten times. I had arrived in plenty of time, so I sat and ate a bit of lunch – a mozzarella, sun-dried tomato, and pesto panini from a shop below.

I must have been nervous… with 7 or 8 minutes to go, I got a bit of roll stuck, not in my throat, but in that awkward space between your throat and your nasal passages (you know how it’s all connected?). I coughed and spluttered and sniffed and frantically tried to drink my soda to dislodge this little crumb of panini for the next five minutes – what if I couldn’t go on air because I was coughing so much? What if I spluttered into the microphone? What if everyone listening heard me struggling with a rogue crumb of bread stuck somewhere in the wrong tube?

Luckily, it didn’t come to that. I managed to mostly get it under control, just in time for the BBC studio team in Aberdeen to call in. It was very strange – I could hear the radio in the background, but I wasn’t connected – I guess the Aberdeen team had to switch me on. After the news at two o’clock the programme started, and Fiona welcomed me to the show. I was nervous at first, but gradually settled into it, talking about Homeward Bound, Antarctica, and what it was like on board the ship.

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Gentoo penguin with a pebble at Barrientos Island, Antarctica (image: Raeanne Miller)

I loved listening in to the piece about penguins, and having the opportunity to react to it – we also saw gentoo penguins in Antarctica – they were picking pebbles to maintain their nests, and stealing them from their neighbours. Most had eggs, although some were still attempting to mate – and more than anything, they were smelly, and noisy! The sound of a penguin colony is not something you forget anytime soon.

Next time (hopefully there is a next time!) I don’t think I will be so flustered – it was a good learning experience! Often, I hate listening to my own voice when it has been recorded, but listening back – this time I don’t think it was so bad! Again, have a listen to the programme here and see what you think!

Hopefully this is the start of some more frequent posts again – one of our Homeward Bound Faculty, Marshall Cowley, wrote in a facebook post today: “It’s only too late if you don’t start now”. Great advice! So… watch this space!

 

A pizza in Buenos Aires: self evaluation, digging deep, and the adventure of a lifetime

I sat down at an Italian restaurant in Buenos Aires this evening to eat a pizza and have a drink, as well as to watch the world go by, enjoy the atmosphere, and clear some mental space for the next 21 days of my life. I know, pizza in Argentina, what was I thinking? I was thinking ‘simplify’ and ‘decompress’ and get in a place to truly ‘show up’ to the Homeward Bound programme expedition.

In less than 6 hours I will leap out of bed and catch a taxi to the Airport to make my final connection down to Ushuaia, the ‘town at the end of the road’, at the southern tip of Argentina. There, I will board the MV Ushuaia for three weeks of adventure and self discovery, hoping to develop as a better leader for science, and for the planet.

Wow. Saying that is incredible. One year ago I found out that I had a place on the programme, and now here I am, far, far away from my little town on the Scottish west coast. Where did the time go? 

I know where it went – we have been busy! Media pieces, public engagement events, and new projects. Interviewing female change agents and project managing across borders. Learning ,ore and more about myself, my motivations, and values than I ever have before. It is amazing how things come together.


In the past few days I have been reviewing all of the “brainfood” drip fed to us on a weekly basis by HB central, going back over things that now have so much more insight for me when taken together, as a whole. And it hasn’t been comfortable, either. Starting to truly examine myself has been hard – asking why I sometimes feel directionless, or lost in my career, or why sometimes I dwell on thoughts for too long, turning them over and over and over again in my mind, but not reaching any productive conclusions. There is a lot of good in there too (don’t worry!), but also a lot more to work on. And now, I really WANT to work on these things, rather than just knowing I should. “Want to” is so much better motivation than “have to” – see Susan Davids excellent talk for more on this! I am a little afraid to confront all of these things, but now I feel ready to “face my thoughts, emotions, and stories with kindness, curiosity, and courage”. I am ready to show up!

I packed my bags last week, and now the adventure really begins! To anyone reading this from the Children’s University, Imhave my CU passport and a pack of bubblegum, as voted key items for a trip to Antarctica by the awesome CU Fridays group of Queen Mary University. Neville, my toy macaroni penguin is also by my side. I’ve also got a collection of beautiful Crubag silk scarves to keep me warm, and a new travel yoga mat so I remain sane (or else I would be running laps around the deck of the ship).

The departure messages of all the other women travelling to Ushuaia to join the programme have been flooding in – it feels like something big really is happening, like a pilgrimage of sorts to renew both ourselves and our motivation for science, sustainability, and a positive future. And this is just the beginning…..!

I will do my best to post updates from the ship here when I can, although internet connectivity may make it difficult. You can, however follow the programme as a whole on Facebook, on twitter (@homewardbound16), and on instagram (@homewardboundprojects). 

It is left for me to say ‘thank you’ to everyone who supported me to get this far: the Scottish Association for Marine Science, The UK Natural Environment Research Council, Accenture UK, colleagues, friends, and family. Thank you!

The untold stories of amazing marine scientists

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I’ve been wanting to get this down on paper for a while but I haven’t found a good opportunity. Now, it’s a sunny afternoon in Oban, not a cloud in the sky, and the trees have gone a lovely autumnal golden colour… I should be out cycling, but I can’t contain my enthusiasm any longer.

There are so many amazing women who have worked in marine science over the last 200 years. So. Many.

But nobody is telling their stories. Do you know about Helen Ogilvie? Or Agnes Eleanora Miller? Or Sheina Marshall? Or Isabella Gordon? These Scottish women carried out some inspiring research, but few have heard of them. Why you ask? I have a theory… and it centres around the narrative of marine science, oceanography, and exploration which emerged at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century – when our discipline really took off. That was the heroic age, where scientists accompanied explorers on expeditions all over the world, sampling the deep and writing logbooks and diaries which were lapped up by the Victorian public. Think Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, or of the Challenger Reports (Sir Charles Wyville Thompson and Sir John Murray). Epic journeys which captured the public imagination – men traveling into unseen lands and bringing back creatures never-before-seen.

The staff of the Marine Biological Station at Millport, 1914 (right), and Sheina Marshall (top left), Helen Ogilvie (middle left), and Isabella Gordon (bottom left).

So where were the ladies? They weren’t allowed on ships at sea, so didn’t feature in those expedition logs or journals. But they did work in museums and curate collections, identifying specimens, illustrating new species, and publishing their scientific work. Without them, many discoveries would not have been possible.

A few weeks ago I met with Catherine Booth, the curator for Science and Technology at the National Library of Scotland – a kindred spirit. While I knew about the travels of Sheina Marshall and enthusiasm for discovery of Marie Tharp, she told me about the letters Helen Ogilvie sent to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, and about Isabella Gordon and her great sense of humour. We spent nearly two hours trading stories about these ladies – stories which so few have heard.

Catherine had recently put together an exhibit at the National Library of Scotland highlighting the achievements of a handful of Scottish women scientists, some of whom studied the sea and its creatures. It is easy to be impressed with the recognition these women received for their work – they were inspiring in their determination to follow their passions for their topics of choice. But even more so, I was interested in what they were like: who did they know? who did they write letters to? were they happy when they travelled? what did they do in their spare time?

Isabella Gordon, for instance, had climbed nearly all the mountains in Scotland – a crustacean scientist, and a mountaineer! Clearly a woman after my own heart!

Yesterday was Ada Lovelace Day, and I managed to share some of the achievements of Jeanne Villepreux-Power, Helen Ogilvie, and Isabella Gordon on twitter, using #AdaLovelaceDay, but there is so much more to say. You can’t tell a story very well in 140 characters! So watch this space… I’m hoping to do a bit more work on this topic, on Scottish women and beyond. Every time I find a new connection or interesting fact, I want to follow its trail and see where it leads – to start to write our narrative. A narrative of marine science and the women who made it so.

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99 days!

That’s right… 99 days from today I will be boarding our vessel in Ushuaia, Argentina, and setting sail for the Drake Passage! How did it become so soon!? So much has happened over the previous six or eight months, I couldn’t possibly write it all here, but in brief, I’ve reached my fundraising target (thank you again to all of the individuals and organisations who helped me get there!), started working on a small project with some of the other wonderful women on board, learned a bit about setting strategies, and have already had valuable feedback about some of my own leadership traits as part of the emotional intelligence work we are undertaking. I have learned a lot already, and I can barely fathom how that learning will grow during the intense time on board. I can’t wait!

Today’s excitement is partially because I have finally booked my travel to Argentina. Ushuaia is a long way from Oban! Out of curiosity, I have just asked google Maps to chart me a route, but it only returns “no route found”. I’m sure with a little creative thinking I could find a way to get there by bus or under my own steam, but there’s just not time! Incidentally, this is a good opportunity for me to thank the UKs Natural Environment Research Council for helping fund my travel to and from Homeward Bound as part of their Leadership Training Bursary scheme for NERC fellows. Thank you!

Now where will be going? One of my fellow Homeward Bound-ers has plotted a fantastic map of some of the places we might visit (details are still being finalised, and weather dependent):


We will be visiting at least four research bases, and while thi itinerary isn’t finalised, it looks like this could include:

  • The Carlini Research Base, an Argentinian base on King George Island, which is one of 13 bases Argentina operates. It was originally established as a small naval station in 1953, but was eventually transferred to the Argentine Antarctic institute in 1982. So it’s two years older than me (as a science base, at least!). Fun fact: Metallica performed at this base in 2013, unamplified (due to environmental concerns) and inside a specially constructed dome. The gig was streamed live worldwide!

    Carlini Research Base

  • Brown Station, another Argentine Antarctic base, established in 1951, but now only open in the summer season. The station was burned down by the station doctor in 1984, but has been rebuilt. Paradise bay, where it is located is meant to be a beautiful spot, and you can see Gentoo penguins there! 

Brown Station

  • Vernadsky Research Base, a Ukranian Antarctic base, but one which was originally established by the British (the British Falklands Islands Dependancies Survey). It was first called Wordie house, after Sir James Wordie, who visited it as part of Shackletons expedition (Shackelton! That’s history!). Wordie house has been restored as a historic site, and the present base has been located on Galindez Island since 1954. Ukraine took the base over in 1996, when it bought the station from the UK for a token sum of £1!. Geeky fact: in 1977 the base was renamed Faraday Station in honour of Michael Faraday.  

Verdansky Research Base

  • Rothera Research Station, a British Antarctic Survey base established in 1975. Usually 130 people can be found at the base in summer months, but this number shrinks to just over 20 in the winter (or so says Wikipedia!). Fun fact: Rothera serves as the capital of the British Antarctic Territory, although after the ratification of the Antarctic Treaty in 1961 most countries don’t recognise territorial claims in Antarctica. Britain has ratified this treaty. You can see what the weather is like live at Rothera using the Base’s webcam: https://www.bas.ac.uk/data/our-data/images/webcams/rothera-webcam/
  • Palmer Reseach Station, located north of the Antarctic circle, and operated by the USA. The station houses just over 40 staff in the summer, and much of the science focuses on marine biology (sounds like my kind of place!). It was named after Nathaniel B. Palmer, who is recognised as the first American to see Antarctica. Fun fact: Palmer was the setting for a gathering of the last human survivors of a virus in a Japanese film called Fukkatsu no hi, from 1981.

Palmer Research Station

I’ll try to write a bit more about some of these places in the next few months, as well as about some of the other places we will visit, and about preparing for the trip. 

It’s great to learn about the history of a place before you go, so I will do my best!

#GirlsInSTEM – Edinburgh

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Reserved seat next to Angela Constance MSP! Copyright photograph by Mike Wilkinson. mike@mike-wilkinson.com http://www.mike-wilkinson.com http://mike-wilkinson.photoshelter.com

The week before last I found myself in Edinburgh on a beautiful sunny morning, walking to the National Museum of Scotland. As I made my way from Haymarket Station, past the University of Edinburgh, and up to the National Museum of Scotland, my mind wandered to all of the incredible inventions and inventors which came out of this fantastic city – the Stevensons and their lighthouses (engineering marvels!), James Clerk Maxwell and his radio waves, and even Prof. Steven Salter and his wave energy converters. How the Scots invented the modern world… indeed!

It was a fitting start to the day, as I’d been invited to participate in one of Accenture UK’s Girls in STEM events, run in partnership with STEMettes as a closing plenary speaker to an audience of 140 11-15 year old girls. I was a little anxious – the rest of the panel taking part in the day were an incredible bunch of women in science and engineering, doing amazing things. ClydeSpace’s Jennie Doonan, for example, has built things which are now in space!

Trying to keep the classic ‘impostor syndrome’ at bay, I met the other ladies on the “Women in STEM” panel, and some of the other Accenture organisers over coffee before the students arrived. What always occurs to me is that regardless of career level, events like this are real levelers… we are all just people, at various stages in our lives, trying to pursue the careers we love, and enjoy the lives we have outside of them. That, and everyone was incredibly friendly!A few minutes later, the noise levels in the hallway downstairs increased, and… you guessed it! Our audience had arrived!

As they filed into the auditorium, chattering merrily to each other, so did we… also chatting to each other. Bill Macdonald, Scotland Managing Director for Accenture UK gave a lovely talk, and showed the girls a brilliant video about where STEM subjects can take you. With and from Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti (she spent 199 days in space!), lots of robots, and other cool science, I was feeling totally inspired already – and it wasn’t even 11 am!

The panel then took their place, and Bill invited a few girls up to ask the panel some questions. “What inspired you to do your job?” “What subjects did you take at school?” “What do you do outside of your job?”. But by far the best question of the day was: “What is the biggest mistake you ever made?”.

Some of these ladies had made some good mistakes! Designing a circuit, then ordering a batch of them, only to find they didn’t work was pretty good, but Jenni had accidentally pointed a huge satellite dish away from the satellites it was communicating with, bringing systems to a halt and leaving her (at the time) much more experienced colleagues wondering what on earth had gone wrong. She had to put her hand up and admit that she’d made a mistake. I know we all make mistakes, but that really brought it home to me – we all really do make mistakes, and sometimes really big ones! But we also recover and learn from them, and often end up more resilient and better off for them.

After the panel the girls headed off upstairs to start the activities led by STEMettes. In teams of five or six there were a few little ice-breaker competitions. Which team knew the most languages? I was amazed – one team had eleven languages! Eleven! What a diverse group of girls we had! They also had to make up rock band, complete with a name, hit single, and signature move – I wish I could remember more of the names, but they were mostly science-y and really good!

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Angela Constance MSP at Girls in STEM. Copyright photograph by Mike Wilkinson. mike@mike-wilkinson.com http://www.mike-wilkinson.com http://mike-wilkinson.photoshelter.com

Angela Constance MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning also dropped in, and gave a fascinating, inspiring talk about all of the unsung Scottish heroes of science and engineering  – all women. I didn’t know more than a handful of them – and definitely have a few more to look up! For me, it was nice to see the minister again, and I definitely support their initiatives to encourage girls and women in STEM in Scotland. Hopefully I can do more over the next year, looking forward to Homeward Bound and Antarctica in December.

Then came the hack-a-thon, teaching the girls how to code. Teams of two got a laptop and had to use JavaScript to battle it out against other teams of two in a game of robot warfare. The robots were driven by lines of code, which told them where to go and what move to make against the competition. I wish we’d had that at school! Much, much more fun (and more intuitive!) than LOGO and driving a turtle cursor around a screen. The competition was fierce, and much more so with the knowledge that a really good prize would be awarded to the winners. When the internet broke down for a few minutes, preventing play, I overheard one team say “but this is really stressful! we want to keep playing because other teams are winning and we can’t play anyone right now and they might win the prize!”. Brilliant! Hats off to STEMettes for being so engaging!

With the winners settled, and tablet PC prizes given out… it was my turn. What could I say to top off what was already an inspiring day for STEM? A bit of inspiration, a bit of fun, a bit of my story, and a message to take home – I hoped! So up I got, in front of the audience, and went for it.

The time went so quickly – before I knew it I’d reached the end of what I wanted to say. Psychologists call it ‘Flow’ – when you are concentrating and fully engaged in what you are doing, and at your best and most creative. That’s how I felt talking about science, why I love it, and why I want to help more people to become involved with it. We don’t all need to become scientists, but encouraging more and better engagement with science can really benefit us all. It’s not scary, is what I wanted to say, though I was scared of math when I was at school (not any more!). Science takes you places and helps you to understand the world around you. Science, technology, engineering, and maths are so essential to modern life and so entwined with everything we do.  We simply can’t afford not to be engaged. Science opens doors. And if I inspired even just one of those girls to step up to that door, turn the key, and open it, then I will have succeeded.

A brilliant day, and a huge thank-you is due to the organizers, Accenture Tech UK and STEMettes, all of the Accenture volunteers, the totally inspiring panel of amazing women in STEM, and all of the girls who came along. Let’s hope there are more like this to come!

 

So… you wanna be a scientist?

“Shake off your mistakes, be bold, and keep going!”  – Karen Lambley, Virgin Media UK

Yesterday I attended the Accenture Tech UK / STEMettes Girls in STEM event in Edinburgh. It was brilliant! We had about 140 11-15 year old girls come along to the National Museum of Scotland, where they had the opportunity to ask questions of a fantastic panel of women working in STEM, to hear about Scotland’s unsung female STEM heroes from Angela Constance MSP, and to learn a bit of coding in Java as they battled it out in the ‘Hackitzu’ game. I was invited along as the closing plenary speaker – not only to sum up the day, but to inspire and encourage the girls to meet the challenge of STEM head on.

It’s quite a topic to speak about, and I was honoured to be asked to take part, alongside some incredible women with amazing careers in STEM. To get some inspiration, I polled my colleagues working in marine science, as well as the women taking part in the Homeward Bound Project about how they got into science, and what they love best about their jobs. I thought I’d share what some of them wrote here, as it makes a wonderfully inspiring read!

What women in science love about their jobs:

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“What I love about science is that I get to continuously learn about new things. Especially how the beautiful natural world works, and how I can use this knowledge to help look after the world – including people!”

“You get to discover and explore the world in ways few others can.”

“You get to be like a detective, exploring things potentially no one else has looked into – each finding fueling your curiosity to find out more and making you realise how little you still know – and contributing to solving some of the world’s pressing problems.”

“My work in particular means I get to see incredible phenomena from space, pretty much every day, and that never gets boring. Other than the work itself, getting to meet fascinating people and travel to many different places is a huge perk!”

“I love the freedom to pursue an idea that rings true to me, and being able to inspire others to join me on the journey.”

“Working in science offers you the chance to learn everyday, cultivate your knowledge and acquire experience in very diverse areas as statistics, presenting your work at conferences, team management, writing effectively, interacting with the public, motivating young audiences… it is very enriching!”

“Science is like one big voyage of discovery where we don’t yet know how much we don’t know – it’s an adventure.”

“You get to make things better and better. It’s science that allows you to figure out what is working best and what is helping or obstructing you to get to your goal. Whether that’s getting a farm to have better soils or to grow plants on the roof of a skyscraper. It’s not just a new idea but the process of monitoring and improving.”

“Science is about discovery; You will learn new things all your life, with science you can discover what these new things are and what they are made of; Science is about being able to ask all the crazy questions you have always wanted to ask, deep down we are all scientists.”

“Systems thinking applied to world I care about, creating opportunities to help people, nature, our planet.”

“I love that every single day is different, and every single day I’m learning something new. Every day is what you make it and you can never be bored as a scientist.”

“I love science because its fascinating and every new piece of the puzzle we uncover leads us to understanding just a little bit more about the world we live in. I love it because it doesn’t yield its mysteries with the press of a button and we have to think, really hard and long (years not hours), to earn this reward. If you are prepared to commit to the challenge, you will be repaid in ways beyond your dreams.”

Advice for those wanting to take up careers in STEM subjects:

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“My main piece of advice during their studies was to talk to their lecturers and demonstrators about how they got where they are and not to be afraid to ask for help or work experience. Most people want to help you succeed so grab opportunities with both hands!

“The one key thing that got me where I am, is the support of inspirational people – school teachers, university supervisors, mentors I meet at events like the one you’re doing. These are the people that have given and continue to give me the confidence I need to be a scientist. I can also say that being a mentor is something people love (I know I do – just signed up to be a STEM ambassador), so the girls you’re speaking to should never be afraid to chat to people in science about their interests.”

“When I was that age, I was bonkers for animals (well, I still am, actually), but the only career path I knew about was becoming a veterinarian – and at that time, the math and science scared me off. I desperately wanted to be like Jane Goodall or be a dolphin trainer, but nobody could tell me how I could do either of those things. What I didn’t understand at that age was that science was the route to those careers. (In my mind, science was old white men in lab coats.) So, I often ask kids if they want to work with animals, or if they’d like to work in a zoo or aquarium, or if they dream of helping to save a species from extinction, (or if they want to build robots, or cure diseases, etc.) I then tell them that they’ll need to do well in their science classes, and pursue a degree in science if they hope to have any of those careers.”

“Always keep your sense of wonder and never stop asking questions! Also thought that the girls could start e.g. from being citizen scientists in their area (see for instance http://bit.ly/1lQbJQe) and test if they like it.”