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Professor Clare Elwell's top tips for Women in STEM

9 August 2018

Women have been at the forefront of some of the most extraordinary discoveries in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). They’ve built the foundations of modern programming, broken the sound barrier, and enabled our knowledge of the structure of DNA, massively contributing to our now detailed and ever awe-inspiring understanding of the universe. In short: they’re pretty spectacular. 

In light of this year’s International Women’s Day on Thursday, 8 March 2018, I interviewed Professor Clare Elwell, a Medical Physicist and expert in optical brain imaging at UCL, to share her top tips for women in STEM from her own personal experience.

1. Outreach is important

Aged 17, a curious and career-exploring Professor Elwell attended the annual London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF) where she heard a talk on ‘Medical Physics’. Previously unaware of the field, she decided to pursue this topic as an undergraduate and has worked in the field ever since. Now, over 30 years later, she is the Academic President of the LIYSF, and remains passionate about the importance of outreach events in introducing young people, and especially women, to a wide range of STEM careers. 

2. Ask for (more) support 

We all know how daunting it can sometimes feel to ask for help – especially within a professional environment – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Professor Elwell acknowledges and values the support she got from male and female colleagues during her career and highlights the importance of asking for help when you need it. “I had my first child (of two) whilst I was undertaking a Medical Research Council (MRC) Fellowship. I had a clear discussion with my manager about my situation and together we worked out a plan for my working hours. As a result, I worked part-time, and continued to do so for 18 years as I progressed from my fellowship to lecturer, senior lecturer and professor,” she explained. The support she received from her department, family and colleagues during this time was critical.

Professor Elwell believes we need to be more open about the support that is needed to succeed in a career, and how that can be tailored to each person’s individual situation and circumstances. If we can get this right, then it will benefit women and the workforce as a whole. She demonstrates this in her own teams as much as possible by supporting female and male staff in achieving a good work-life balance.

3. Have the conversation early

Professor Elwell advises all women (and men) to be invested in what their university/working environment/department does to acknowledge female talent and support it from as early as possible. “Having constructive and encouraging conversations about women in STEM with our undergraduates and PhD students is incredibly important – and the earlier we do it, the better. We need to understand what these women see as real or perceived barriers for pursuing a career in STEM and then work to break these down.”

4. Don’t be afraid to be assertive

As the only female professor in her department, Professor Elwell values the importance of making sure your voice is heard. “Too often, I find women will take on the secretarial role in a meeting simply because they’re the ones who are holding a pen and notepad. Make sure you’re not assuming these stereotypical roles, and ensure your opinions are heard.”

5. Be proactive

Professor Elwell advocates the importance of building up a good research profile by taking and making opportunities for yourself. “Print some business cards and have them ready to distribute at meetings and conferences. Introduce yourself to experts in your field, invite them over to your poster, volunteer to give presentations about your work. Get involved in professional societies and committees and have your opinion change the way things are run.”

6. Publish your work early

Publishing your work as early as PhD stage is crucially important and ensures that you get the recognition for the work you are doing. “A lot of PhD students surprisingly don’t always take the opportunity to publish their work, but doing so is essential to establish your credentials in a research field.”

7. Be persistent 

Professor Elwell likes to openly talk about her challenges throughout her career. “There are always going to be set backs and challenges. We need to acknowledge what we learn from these and develop a healthy approach to resilience, perseverance and persistence.” 

8. Be brave 

When asked what message she would like to give to females both looking towards a career in and already involved in STEM fields, Professor Elwell said she would encourage them to be brave. 

“We often hear that women need to be more confident, and that’s not always easy. Some of the most rewarding and impactful projects I have worked on are those I was initially very uncertain about and not necessarily confident about succeeding in. I believe we need to encourage women to be brave rather than confident. Brave enough to be assertive and make your voice heard. Brave enough to manage your career in a way that works for you. Brave enough to take on the difficult problems and trust in your talent and abilities. Brave enough to know that you can make a difference.”  

By myUCL Student Journalist, Maryam Clark. Maryam is a Biosciences PhD student at the UCL School of Life and Medical Sciences

Clare was awarded a British Science Association Media Fellowship in 2018, and spent two weeks working alongside Clive Cookson, Science Editor at the Financial Times. You can find out about Clare's placement, and stay up to date on her other public engagement activities, on Twitter @clare_elwell