Thursday 19 September 2019

'We're still not doing enough to encourage women into science'

Originally from Limerick, Dr Caitriona Jackman is forging a stellar career as one of the UK's top planetary scientists. But, she says she's angry that we're missing out on potential talent by telling girls science is not for them

Stellar career: Dr Caitriona Jackman is planetary scientist at the University of Southampton
Stellar career: Dr Caitriona Jackman is planetary scientist at the University of Southampton

Joe O'Shea

It's the final frontier for science and exploration, the most exciting, mysterious and profound field for the enquiring minds of this and many generations to come.

But as we journey further out into space, with missions such as Kepler, K2, Rosetta and Cassini, the Irish scientist considered a leading advocate for deep-space exploration fears women will be told to stay at home.

Dr Caitriona Jackman, a planetary scientist who lectures in Space Environment Physics at the University of Southampton in England, first became fascinated with space exploration and science as a child growing up in Limerick.

After studying at the University of Limerick, she became a research assistant on NASA's Cassini Mission to Saturn. And today she combines lecturing and research with a relatively high media profile on the BBC and other broadcasters, advocating for science and space exploration.

However, while Dr Jackman is "very excited" about the huge leaps forward recently made in her field, she is concerned young women, and Irish schoolgirls in particular, are not being encouraged to get into science.

The recent storm over the remarks made by self-confessed chauvinist and Nobel winning scientist Tim Hunt highlighted what many believe are the widespread attitudes to women in the upper echelons of the academic and scientific world.

Hunt was at an international conference on science in Seoul, South Korea when he was asked to speak about women in science.

He opened his remarks with what he later termed a "little joke", saying: "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry."

The subsequent storm, largely driven by female scientists on social media, saw the scientist issue a string of apologies and highlighted what many believe are deep-seated attitudes.

It's an issue which Dr Jackman, who hails from Castletroy in Limerick and did her Leaving Cert at Crescent College, feels very strongly about.

"I have been very lucky in my own career. I have had a lot of family support, great opportunities, very strong role models and mentors," says Dr Jackman.

"But it does make me very sad. And a little angry, when you see the balance of male and female students in science and how unequal it is.

"We are not doing enough to encourage young women to get into science, in Ireland, in the UK, in many parts of the world.

"And from a purely pragmatic viewpoint, it makes no sense because we are losing out on so much potential, for no good reason. Attitudes have to change.

"We really need to start encouraging more young women to get into science, right from primary and secondary education, to let them know that it's an exciting, rewarding field and they will have the same opportunities as men."

Recent studies have shown that despite changing attitudes in wider society, a 'glass ceiling' - which prevents significant numbers of women reaching top level positions in science and academia - still exists in most developed countries.

In an international study of higher education carried out in 2009, Ireland was shown to have the second highest 'glass ceiling index' for women in the developed world.

Dr Jackman says the statistics "are frightening" and attitudes are not changing fast enough.

"You have girls as young as eight saying, 'oh science - that's too hard for me', whereas that is not language boys use."

For her, as a young girl growing up in Limerick, there was never any question as to what she wanted to do.

"I always knew I wanted to do space stuff," says Dr Jackman, who is 33.

"In school, I would say I wanted to work on a NASA mission, on a European Space Agency mission and the reaction - from some people, not all - would be: 'Great, but science is not for girls, and where are you going to get an actual job?'"

After getting very strong results in the Leaving Cert, Caitriona decided to study physics in the University of Limerick.

"With the points system in the Leaving Cert, I had a good bit more than I needed to do physics. And I do remember somebody saying to me: 'Well, would you not do medicine? You're only wasting your points.' And I thought: "But I would be a horrible doctor! I don't want to be a doctor, I want to be a physicist, I want to explore space!"

Dr Jackman says she was very fortunate to have parents who wanted her to pursue her dream.

"Luckily, I had very supportive parents who just told me to do something I would love and worry about the job later.

"I think they just recognised the most important thing is to be happy - you spend most of your waking hours at work, and you don't want to be doing something that makes you miserable."

She met and subsequently married her husband Neil (a Wexford man) while they were both studying physics in UL and they are now expecting their first child - Caitriona is six months pregnant. She says she has not put her career and research above everything else in her life.

"I had a job offer from NASA in the States, a fantastic job, but I am an only child and it came at a time when my father was very ill - he was terminally ill for most of my PhD, and died in 2007.

"I had also been away from my boyfriend for a few years - he was doing his PhD in Ireland and I didn't want to put any more distance between us. I just thought there is a limit to how far away from family I'm willing to live.

"My career decisions have of course been based on what is good for my progression, but they also have to be based on having a good personal life and a job that is compatible with that.

"It's a big issue for women scientists. And we talk about it all the time.

"How can you have a family life and still have a career? I believe it's very do-able. But you just have to be pragmatic and smart about it."

Dr Jackman has been very excited about the recent discoveries made by the Kepler probe of the first Earth-like planet found in deep space.

And she intends to continue advocating for women in science, encouraging young Irish women in particular to push past the barriers and explore all frontiers.

Irish Independent

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