As part of the series we intend to interview 4 women making waves in STEM. First up we’re chatting to Niamh Kavanagh about what it’s like to work in Physics.
What is your current role and what does it involve?
I am a PhD student, which is a strange mix of college and a job. I get paid to do my research but I also have to do a few courses here & there. One of the goals of my PhD is to build a new type of optical communications system, so I spend a lot of time in the lab doing that. An optical communications system is made up of lots of different components. Basically any time you send information over the internet, you’re using an optical communication system. Computers talk to each other in a binary language of 1’s and 0’s. We turn this digital information into pulses of light using lasers, e.g. turn the laser on for 1 and off for 0. These pulses of light travel around the world (across continents and under oceans) through optical fibres, this is why the information can go so far so quickly. What I’m trying to do is make a new system that’s based on new types of optical fibres that could allow us to send more information, faster than ever before. So my job involves a lot of time in the lab, designing the system, running test & tweaking equipment to get the best performance. But there’s a lot of other aspects to my job outside the lab too, I have to read a lot of papers to learn about my field, write papers of my own to communicate my findings to other researchers and attend lots of different trainings so I can learn new skills. The communication side of things is a big part of my job, I present at conferences all around the world to share my work with other researchers but also I communicate with people outside my field; I visit schools, take part in public events & do interviews like this! I think it’s important that the public can stay informed about science if they’re interested & I want to make that as accessible to as many people as I can.
What subjects did you study for the Leaving Cert?
I did English, Irish, Maths, France, Geography, Music & Physics.
I actually didn’t pick Physics to begin with, I chose Chemistry initially. I knew I wanted to do a science but I was never a fan of biology & I didn’t know anything about Physics. I chose Chemistry, but it turned out to be on at the same time as Music, so I couldn’t do both & I knew I wanted to do music because I had learned the piano outside of school & thought that would make the subject much easier. So for that reason alone, I ended up doing Physics!
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I went on to study Physics at University College Cork.
For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college. I used to think I wanted to be a primary school teacher, but in Transition Year I did work experience in a school & quickly discovered that that wasn’t for me. This threw me into a spin because I hadn’t a clue what else to do.
I spent a lot of time worrying about it. I remember being very good at knowing what I didn’t want to do (lawyer, doctor, chef etc.) but I couldn’t think of a job I would like to do. In one of my sessions with my careers teacher, she asked me what my favourite subject was & I told her it was Physics. She said, well, what about that then? I was pretty doubtful but I looked into it & was pleasantly surprised with what I found. I learned that a degree in Physics gives you a wide variety of transferable skills that can be applied in lots of different areas. This sounded perfect to me, so I went for it.
What made you want to pursue a career in STEM?
I wasn’t especially passionate about science as a child I don’t think. I liked to read a lot, I enjoyed learning & I didn’t mind maths. I had a great Physics teacher in secondary school who didn’t mind me asking lots of questions, so that helped me enjoy the subject a lot. But really I think I chose STEM for quite practical reasons; I thought a degree in STEM would give me lots of options to have a good job & an interesting career.
Were you aware that women are underrepresented in STEM?
Yes. Even in secondary school when I told people I was going to study Physics in college there was raised eyebrows. I knew it wasn’t “normal”.
It’s not right that that’s the case. Anyone that’s interested in STEM should be able to pursue that interest, without being seen as abnormal.
In college I was very lucky to be a part of a very supportive year, we all worked together on everything & helped each other every step of the way. But when we graduated in 2014, I was one of two girls in a class of 20.
I remember at the start of college, feeling a lot of pressure associated with that, feeling like that if I did bad in a test that it reflected badly on my gender as a whole. That I had to do well or it would further confirm the incorrect assumption that Physics wasn’t for women. It made the first few months of college even harder I think. But I had to let that expectation go, it was too much pressure to take on. All you can do is do your best. It shouldn’t matter what gender you are. But as I said, the year I was in was very supportive and I think that helped a lot.
Did this underrepresentation give you any doubts about pursuing your chosen career?
Yes. To be honest, more-so as I’ve gone on in my career, I have found working in a male-dominated atmosphere more difficult. The culture can be very traditional & unwilling to change to be more welcoming to women & LGBT people. Also, the academic career path (from PhD to Post-Doc & then maybe lecturer) is very difficult to manage as you are expected to move around a lot internationally to gain experience & because there are not a lot of available positions. It can be very competitive & I’m not sure I’m willing to sacrifice my personal life in the way that might be necessary to gain a good position in academia.
I know from looking at the research that these are challenges that impact women more than men & although improvements are being made, it is off-putting. An alternative career path to academia is to go into industry & work for a company (rather than a university or research institute). I am strongly considering that route at the moment. Since I’m in the final year of my PhD I’m thinking a lot about this at the moment, one thing I’ve certainly learned though is that very few people have it all figured out. Very few have a plan. No one really knows for sure what they what to be when they grow up. You’re constantly questioning yourself & trying to make the best decision for you & your family at that particular time.
Do you feel you are at a disadvantage by being a woman in STEM? i.e. Do you feel your male colleagues are given better opportunities, promoted more often, taken more seriously etc.
This is a difficult question because from my own personal experience it is difficult to point to serious examples of when I have been obviously disadvantaged because of my gender and, on the flip-side of that, I have some examples of times that I have received specific support because of my gender (i.e. programmes to encourage more women participating in STEM) but I think this is because you can never really know the opportunities that you weren’t given because of your gender, unless someone tells you, which often is not the case.
So, for example, in 2012, over 100 US STEM professors were asked to rate the CV of a student applying for a pretend laboratory manager position. Based on the CV, they were asked: Do you think this person is competent? Would you hire them & would you personally mentor them? The catch was that all the CVs were absolutely identical, except half had a male name, John & half had a female name, Jennifer. The results showed that, even though both CVs were identical, John was rated higher than Jennifer in all aspects of competence, hire-ability & mentorship. The kicker was that they were they asked to assign a starting salary for the student. John was offered a mean salary of nearly 4000 dollars more Jennifer, again for the exact same CV. So, the research shows that women in STEM can be disadvantaged in comparison to their male colleagues by being given better opportunities, promoted more often & taken more seriously.
I don’t think this is a reason not to do STEM, I think it is still a field full of fantastic opportunities and exciting careers. I just think it’s very important to be aware of these disparities that do exist so we can work towards fixing them.
How do you suggest girls in school now get involved in STEM and work towards equalling the field?
So, I’m going to address the first half of this question first, if you’re interested in STEM please get involved! There are lots of different initiatives to support young people, and young girls especially, who have a passion for STEM. Try to talk to anyone you know who works in a STEM-related job. Ask at your local university or Tech Company to see if they have outreach activities or support structures that you can get involved with. There’s a lot of national initiatives as well around Science Week and Engineers Week where there are lots of events on around the country, so keep an eye out for those! The internet is an endless resource, where you can find anything about anything, so take advantage of that!
Secondly, I don’t think the responsibility should be on women to work towards equalling the field. The field is currently suffering because of a lack of diversity. Research has shown that diverse teams produce better results, make fewer errors and make more money. It is in our best interest to foster a diverse workforce. Women can of course support equality initiatives by getting involved, supporting other women & mentoring younger women, for example. We need to create a better, more welcoming, more inclusive culture in STEM so that when women do enter into STEM fields, we don’t see them leaving at higher rates than men (which unfortunately is the case currently). At the end of the day, in my opinion, we can’t put the responsibility on the few to change the culture of the many.
Even with a gender gap in STEM fields would you encourage young girls to still pursue this field, and why?
Even with everything I’ve said here, I still would encourage young women to pursue a career in STEM fields. STEM is such a wide field, full of exciting opportunities that can really take you anywhere. I know so many brilliant women in STEM doing amazing things to make the world a better place, they inspire me every day & I’m so glad that they chose STEM. But also, the unfortunate reality is that sexism exists everywhere. Gender disparities at higher, decision-making levels exists in many fields outside of STEM. You can’t let these things stop you from pursing what you’re passionate about.
If you’re interested in STEM, go for it.