“It has been hard for me, therefore it will have to be hard for you and I won’t help you with any of it.”
I can still hear my Honours supervisor telling me this, when I asked her about her journey as a scientist. She was one of the very few female group leaders in the Institute, a strong, well-respected, ambitious scientist. Someone I admired a lot. But someone I couldn’t agree with.
This sentence has probably shaped the way I look at science and the impact I try to make, even at my relatively junior level. I couldn’t imagine back then (and still cannot) not supporting my peers and the next generation of scientists. I soon started organising morning teas for students, to build a space where we could talk about the good and not so good things we were going through. It quickly became a tradition and created a small community based on shared experiences, support, kindness (and too many cakes). But that wasn’t enough. I could hear and see many of my female students and colleagues face the same questions, the same doubts and the same struggles.
A light bulb moment that inspired an adventure
And suddenly, at the end of June last year, I had an idea. What I thought was a very silly idea at first. It was so simple, it had to be silly… But it was probably its simplicity that made it work. To help my female students deal with questions and struggles, I decided I would try and share stories from successful women in science. This was a way to give them role models, to make them feel more confident. This was probably a way to help them grow a sense of a bigger community, again based on shared experiences and kindness (if not cakes). This was also something I knew I would absolutely love doing: I have always had a soft spot for listening to stories and sharing them… and so The League of Remarkable Women in Science was born.
Soon after The League started, I thought about organising an exhibition for National Science Week 2015, focusing on women in science working in Australia. I applied for a grant, received it and started what turned out to be an incredible adventure. I ran interviews, started working with the CSIRO Discovery Centre and the National Museum of Australia, met people from Questacon, Inspiring Australia, the Australian Academy of Science. Running the interviews, I met incredibly inspiring, truly remarkable women from all areas of research. I talked to scientists working on dark matter, studying spiders, discovering volcanoes, investigating better ways to feed the world or fight diseases, women with a passion for science and a will to change the world.
“Shared stories have an incredible power”
The exhibition started in early August. The day before, we were hanging frames. What I was expecting to be a very stressful moment (“Is there anything missing? Does it even make sense?”) turned out to be the most peaceful, blissful time. It was an incredibly strong and wonderful feeling to see all these stories come alive together.
This entire project has been an adventure, a challenge at so many levels. Half of me was absolutely petrified: “What if no one is interested in this project? Am I even able to do any of this?” The other half was totally delighted: “This is so much fun and I am learning so much!” I was trying things way outside my comfort zone, I even dared to invite Nobel laureate Professor Brian Schmidt and the Honourable Karen Andrews, MP to chair a public discussion forum that was part of the project… And they both said yes!
Working on The League, I have learned a lot about myself and my abilities. I never thought I could bring people together, let alone imagine a project that would be of interest to many.
But I also discovered a lot about science. All of these interviews could almost be seen as a snapshot of what it means to be a woman in Australian science in 2015. Being a physicist, a chemist, a biologist, an engineer or a mathematician – it doesn’t make a difference. The questions, the doubts and the struggles are the same. As is the willingness to make a difference, to make science a better, more balanced place.
I also learned something that I already (confusedly) knew: shared stories have an incredible power. They can help build a sense of community and a feeling of belonging. They can make people realise that the struggles they face are not “their fault”. They can be the difference between “I don’t belong here” and “I too can do this”. They can raise awareness, they can start conversations.
Every single story shared says: “It has been hard for me, therefore I will do everything I can to make it easier for you.” And this is something I can definitely agree with!
About the author:
Anne-Sophie Dielen grew up listening to her grandparents’ stories about their life as small holder farmers in the North East of France. She strongly believes that this is why she developed a passion for plants, agriculture and stories. Anne-Sophie has always dreamed about Australia, so she moved to Canberra after her PhD in plant virology. She first worked at the CSIRO, studying what makes starch what it is. She then moved to the Australian National University where she works on improving plant yield, by making photosynthesis a more efficient mechanism. Anne-Sophie is also passionate about sharing the wonders of science with the outside world and making science a better, fairer, more balanced place.