Rosalind Franklin Women in STEM Conference: a student’s view

Sixth-form student Shannon Clark joined us for us for the annual ‘Rosalind Franklin Women in STEM Conference’, an opportunity to experience life as a Cambridge undergraduate. This article is Shannon’s report on the conference.

The event was focused on exploring the wider implications of our society’s use of plastics, and the various actions we can take to combat these problems to ensure a sustainable future. Plastics are one of the most incredible inventions of humankind, with widespread uses from sanitary medical equipment to construction and packaging. So why have they obtained such a bad reputation? The major problem with these polymers is that the properties which make them so useful and ubiquitous – durability, strength, inertness etc. – are the very same properties that cause the range of problems associated with them, as they do not biodegrade and therefore remain in the environment for thousands of years.

The college had organised talks from renowned academics and environmental researchers, as well as government and retail representatives. Having sat in the lectures and heard a wide range of perspectives on the topic, we then had the opportunity to engage in academic discussions within our syndicate groups. Various questions were raised during these discussions, a few of which include: Should we turn our attention to the development of alternative materials with the ultimate aim of eradicating plastic altogether, or should we be focusing on using plastics more wisely, such as improving our recycling systems with the goal of achieving a closed-loop system? How can we go about reducing the damage that has already been done? With whom does the responsibility for this plastic pollution lie?

“solutions to questions such as these are rarely black and white”

However, solutions to questions such as these are rarely black and white, and in solving one problem we often find ourselves creating another. Something I found particularly surprising was the fact that alternatives are not necessarily the better, more ethical choice that we generally assume them to be.

Another focus of the event was the importance of encouraging women into STEM. I have always intended to go into scientific research, but before attending the conference I didn’t fully recognise the importance of female representation in these fields. However, across the three days I began to understand why it is vital that we be present in these male-dominated areas, where, even after all the progress that has been made in increasing equality, we are still by far the minority. The need for more women in STEM roles goes beyond just the want for diversity and gender parity; when women design new products or services, they bring a different perspective that too often hasn’t been considered before. Lack of female representation may also discourage talented young women from pursuing careers in these fields; girls need to see women in the industry to believe it’s a viable reality for them.

I personally found it very rewarding talking to some of the fellows of the college and learning about the history of Newnham. Even though lectures for women became available at Cambridge in 1870, it wasn’t until 1948 when women would finally be awarded the right to a degree (after several failed attempts due to protesters). So many incredible and highly deserving women went entirely without recognition for their hard work and contributions to academia.

“the overwhelmingly welcoming, supportive and inclusive atmosphere at the college”

We were immediately hit with the overwhelmingly welcoming, supportive and inclusive atmosphere at the college, with women from diverse backgrounds coming together to discuss the shared goal of a sustainable future. We are the generation growing up in a society where we are increasingly aware of the implications of the choices we make and how we can make a difference through our actions; the recent global warming protests led by teenagers are an example of this.

Overall, it was an invaluable experience that challenged me to reconsider my previous understanding and assumptions about plastics, and was a great chance to meet others with similar interests in science and mathematics.