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BLOG – Carving our Journeys: BME Women in STEMM

By Dr Indu Santhanagopalan

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With Thanks

Research Funding


Cambridge Association for Women in Science and Engineering (CamAWISE) and Equality and Diversity Section at the University of Cambridge organised a panel discussion entitled “Carving our journeys: BME women in STEMM” in April 2019. The panel comprised of four University of Cambridge female researchers with different heritages and at varying stages of their academic careers: Dr Sohini Kar-Narayan, Heba Hamad, Carol Nkechi Ibe and Professor Kay-Tee Khaw.

Following introduction of the Panel Chair, Caroline Shaheera Asante, a British born broadcast journalist of Guyanese and Ghanian descent, and founder of Cambridge Eco Living Festival and Raheela Rehman (Chair, CamAWiSE), each of the panellists gave a short presentation about their foray into science and journey to Cambridge.

Dr Sohini Kar-Narayan, Reader in Device & Energy Materials (Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge), heads the Nanogenerators & Sensors group. Her research focus is on the development of energy harvesting and self-powered sensing technologies. She is of Indian origin who spent her childhood in Nigeria. Her higher education was in India, training as an experimental Physicist carrying out her doctoral studies at the Indian Institute of Science. As a post doctoral Research Associate (PDRA), she transitioned to Material Science at the University of Cambridge. It was during her PDRA that her career gained impetus, being awarded the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship [LINK]. She progressed into her lecturership in 2015, and Reader in 2018 in the department. Her fellowship applications were interspersed with two maternity leave. Away from her academic life, Sohini’s family and children provide an external focus, which help in balancing the richness in her research, and balancing family life.

Heba Hamad, Ph.D student researching concrete for CO­2 (Department of Engineering University of Cambridge) described herself as “a Palestinian Civil Engineer, a caring wife and a mother of two boys”. As an engineering student in Gaza, she heard about the University of Cambridge for the first time in 2003.  It was a journey of 10 years which included a Master’s degree at the University of Southampton, that led to her Ph.D program in Cambridge. Spurred on by the environmental issues facing Gaza, Heba transitioned into the field of Sustainability Engineering from Civil Engineering. Although the political situation in Gaza had meant that her career journey has not always had a straight forward trajectory, it had not been hindered by gender or heritage. The town of Cambridge and the University has provided opportunities that have been strongly inclusive, providing good research prospects which she feels passionate about.

Carol Ibe, Ph.D student researching “Intercellular rice root colonisation by funi” (Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge), was born in the USA, with Nigerian parentage. Following her early years in the States, she moved to Nigeria, completing her secondary education schooling in the country. She pursued her higher education back in the USA, at the University of Georgetown, and her second move which was one of a culture shock. She discovered the gap which existed in the educational systems and resources between the two countries, whilst at the same time being acutely aware of her racial background. Successfully securing a Gates Foundation Fellowship, her research journey took her across the Atlantic one more time, this time to Cambridge, UK, from Clinical Embryology to Rice. And with the move, came the drive to improve the status of science education within African countries, particularly research in Plant Sciences and Agriculture. Exhilarated by her passion, she set up her not-for-profit JR Biotek []. Carol Ibe’s company develops effective modes of teaching and learning modern scientific principles and laboratory techniques and trains teachers, researchers and students across Africa.

Professor Kay-Tee Khaw began her life in medicine at the University of Cambridge in 1969. It was at a time, working in the in the original Addenbrookes Hospital building, now replaced by the Cambridge Judge Business School, where the ratio of male to female doctors was 10:1 during her student years. Professor Khaw then joined St. Mary’s hospital in London as a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow, which was incidentally her third choice following her time at Cambridge.  It was here that Kay-Tee found her influential mentor in Professor Geoffrey Rose. Her next move took her to San Diego, USA, with her husband. She took up a two-year post as an Assistant Professor, carrying out academic research with Professor Elizabeth Barrett-Connor at the University California San Diego. She then returned to Cambridge in 1986, taking up the post of Public Health Trainee until 1989, before becoming Professor of Clinical Gerontology at the University. Kay-Tee emphasised that ‘the reality of academic life is constant rejection’. It was the love, passion and motivation in the subject and research which cultivated her resilience that is essential in academia. The flexibility and accommodation were critical to taking up her roles at St. Mary’s hospital and University California San Diego. She highlighted the importance of making use of grabbing opportunity, learning from the people around you, and cited the pivotal role played by her mentors (Prof. Rose, Prof. Barrett-Connor and Prof. Stamler) in her life.

The Q&A session with the audience after the speaker presentations provided further excellent insight into overcoming hurdles and seizing opportunities which present themselves. The panel was asked if they had encountered barriers owing to their identity and their suggestions for breaking them down. Carol Ibe stated that getting accustomed to cultural differences in England had been a challenge. She highlighted the rather small proportion of African citizens who take up the sciences, stating “If you are coming from Africa, you can easily disappear. You need to dig more to find what you need.” Networking  through her University College, Department and the Gates Foundation has been of tremendous help to her.  Heba Hamad stated that her identity as a Palestinian woman has not hindered  in her research , as there is substantial representation of women of colour in her department. Professor Kay-Tee Khaw added that the representation of women and individuals of colour is high in medicine. However, she noted that colonial baggage that BME individuals carry within themselves means that they are trained to be passive. She highlighted that although all the heads of Royal medical colleges are women, there are not enough women in senior positions of leadership. She remarked that women need to take initiatives and put themselves out for leadership positions.

Dr Sohini Kar-Narayan said that there are very few women in her field of research, often resulting in her often being the only woman in her academic groups in India as well as Cambridge. She stated that while acknowledgment of under-representation of women in certain areas is a good start, breaking down barriers for women is a complex issue.  When asked about the role of mentors, and if the identity of mentors could have a bearing on mentee’s life,

Heba acknowledged that her Ph.D supervisor is a British national from a ethnic minority. She felt that the identity of the mentor could influence his/her perception of issues faced by BME individuals. Carol stated that her Ph.D supervisor had three children during her doctoral studies, which provided a greater understanding of Carol who began her Ph.D after having had her son. While discussing role models and people who inspired them, Sohini mentioned that she feels empowered when she is treated as an equal in a scientific environment. She felt that the individuals who inspired her and helped achieve her potential were ‘people who let her be herself’. Carol stated that she found several individuals within her department, including her adviser Dr Uta Paszkowski, inspiring. She stated that having individuals of your ethnicity excelling in your field makes one’s goals look attainable. She highlighted the paucity of such role models for black students by informing that there is one black Professor in all of Cambridge, and that there is one black plant biologist in all of the UK.

The panel finally discussed the potential solutions to better support BME women in STEMM fields. Kay-Tee stated that there should be better quality and provisions for child care and elderly care, since the burden of care disproportionately falls on women, and more so on BME women. She also spoke about the need for flexible fellowships. Carol and Heba concurred on the need for better and more affordable child care.  Living expenses, waiting times to get admission in nurseries and accommodations in Cambridge can be discouraging of women pursuing ambitions in academia. Sohini added that breaks can put one’s career on a back foot. While her fellowships were flexible, she mentioned having to turn down conferences when she returned to academia following maternity leave. This led the panel to further discuss about the importance and necessity of paternity leave and selection criteria for fellowships.

Following the panel discussion, the panellists and the attendees continued their discussions over tea and refreshments. I hope that the session helped individuals gain new perspectives about issues of diversity in STEMM fields, and many more interesting and inspiring journeys would be carved in the future.

With Thanks

With a special thank you to the Speakers and the Panel Chair for an insightful discussion. This event was created in collaboration with the Office of Equality and Diversity, University of Cambridge, and supported by the Office of Communications and Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge .

Research Funding

  • DeepMind Cambridge Scholarship – objective of the scholarship programme is to help under-represented students wishing to study machine learning and computer science at the University of Cambridge.
  • Fellowship For The Future – fellowship for women of color in STEM who also have a strong background and commitment to equity, social justice, and public engagement.
  • Schlumberger Foundation – funding for women from emerging economies to advance PhD and postdoctoral studies in STEM fields
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