By Sasha Weiditch, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, Mississauga where she studies the most plentiful entity on the planet – the bacteriophage! Her research delves into the inner workings of bacteriophage and how they might be used to kill bacteria that are harmful to human health. She is active on social media and runs an Instagram account that features female scientists and their work. You can connect with her @phdenomenalphdemale and on her soapbox at Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto at 1 pm on May 13, 2017.
Two of the main challenges for Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) are
- Keeping women in STEM; and
- Getting girls into STEM.
There has been tonnes of discussion about why girls are less likely to enter STEM fields and women are more likely to leave STEM fields – most cite the reason as lack of mentors or support and/or encouragement while some others refer to the seemingly popular explanation of ‘family and motherhood’. The verdict is still out, but many of us want to work on the problem nonetheless.
How do we “balance the equation”?
Why not use something that has become a huge element in our everyday lives – yes, social media. I hypothesize that if we, as millennial scientists, can show science in a fun, appealing and accessible way on social media than science, scientists and women in STEM can gain many well deserved ‘likes’.
The cool duality of being a ‘science blogger’ is that in a matter of minutes you can reach masses of people, many of which you would not normally have the chance to interact with. See, that’s the thing about being a scientist, it requires a lot of dedication and focus to a particular topic, which translates to the majority of your time being spent in the lab and discussing experiments with your academic peers. However, the ultimate goal is that our science can be used to affect the lives of so many more people than just our department at the university, so why not talk about it to a broad audience, and why not use social media?
Traditionally, STEM has not been associated with teenage girls – one of the most prevalent users of social media. Having the opportunity interact with girls through my involvement in a mentorship program for high school aged girls and teaching science labs at the university to undergraduates, I was surprised at how many are well versed in the world of social media (better than me I might add…).
Some few years ago when I was a teenage girl Facebook had only started becoming a thing and Instagram didn’t even exist. Now, social being is a very big thing. When meeting a new friend, no longer do these girls trade numbers or ride their bikes over to their friend’s house, they just grab their phone say “omg – what’s your Instagram?”. In a matter of minutes, you can know the last concert they went to, whether to eat the pizza at the school cafeteria and if ripped skinny jeans are still cool (note – they are). This rapid influx of information that is so readily accessible can be very powerful, and if used correctly, a great way to send a message.
So why not use this social media pandemic to send a positive message? What if in the midst of pictures of latte art (#coffee – 60,101, 499 posts), too-cool-for-school street style bloggers (#streetstyle -22,467,290 posts) and perfectly posed selfies (#selfie – 285, 503, 611 posts) there were some really cool science (#science – 4,064,469) posts that made even just one girl stop and wonder a little bit longer. Girls need to see that science is cool and exciting and that scientists are girls just them.
And that is why I post pictures of the above. I am not immune to the pull of a delicious cup of latte-art or a good selfie just because I am a scientist. In order to promote science, we need to destroy barriers and make science and those who do the science relatable. We need to encourage girls to be excited about the potential science holds and we cannot let girls be deterred because there is no one for them to aspire to become.
Still don’t believe me? Have a teenage cousin, sister, daughter or niece? Ask her how many followers she has – probably a lot more than me. But that’s OK, I don’t expect #NMR to be as on trend as the unicorn macaron. Although a unicorn macaron is a little rarer than a woman in science, we just have to show it.
How do we keep women in STEM?
But what about girls like me? Girls who are women, who are curious and scared and anxious and excited about their futures post grad school. How do we get these women to stay in STEM? I wish I knew. All I can share with you is what has helped me to persevere through the failed experiments, inconclusive data and a seemingly endless list of questions that is inevitable as a PhD student, which is the thought that I am not alone.
Although it may sound silly, I am very fortunate to have an excellent support system through my family, my lab mates and more recently, through my fellow ‘women in STEM’ bloggers online. I have found a community where I can talk without judgement about the ups and downs of grad school life, being a woman in science and most importantly, the thing that unites us, the science. It is through this community that I truly believe in a future of science where men and women are equally inspired to succeed and develop and innovate. However, this can only occur if we can talk about the good and bad, out loud and not allow ourselves or others to use gender as a crutch to place the blame for failed science. This is where I believe social media can help to communicate this message.
So this is why I am so excited to be a part of Soapbox Science. To get out there and talk about science. The truth is, science is really exciting, and you do not, by any means, have to be an Einstein to understand it, you just have to be curious. I guess, in a way, Soapbox Science is kind of like a ‘retro social media’; a platform to share, educate and promote science and the women who do some amazing science. And if you ask me, that is totally #awesome.