#WomenInGraphene on International Day of Women & Girls in Science: restructuring stereotypes in materials science

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

12 February 2019

Maddison Coke at WiG
Maddison Coke at WiG

This International Day of Women & Girls in Science, I attended Women In Graphene. Organised by the Graphene Flagship, this event took place at the National Graphene Institute, home of graphene research in the UK & part of the University of Manchester, where the revolutionary one-atom thick 2D material was first isolated.

The Graphene Flagship is a Future & Emerging Technology (FET) Flagship by the European Commission, with a budget of €1 billion over 10 years, representing a new form of joint, coordinated research on an unprecedented scale, forming Europe's biggest ever research initiative.

The Women In Graphene initiative within the Graphene Flagship was set up to help support women and create a more gender diverse scientific community. It aims to connect women working in graphene through biannual meetings and peer-to-peer support. 

Timed to coincide with the 2019 International Day of Women & Girls in Science the 2-day #WomenInGraphene event was held at the NGI in Manchester, UK on the 11 and 12 of February 2019, featuring a series of talks and workshops aimed at supporting the career development of women working in graphene and materials science.

Dr Maddison Coke, Experimental Officer and part of the team looking after the research labs and cleanrooms at the NGI, first gave us an overview of its impressive facilities and capabilities, positioning its role in helping move projects from research to innovation and towards commercialisation. Outlining five main areas for graphene applications – biomedical; membranes & barriers; structures; energy, batteries & supercapacitors; and optoelectronics & sensors – Dr Coke talked us through some real-world applications for this revolutionary material, including: graphene membranes for water filtration/desalination; enhancing the thermal conductivity of silicone paste by adding graphene; using graphene in composite materials to create non-scratch casings or shoe soles that are both durable and work well in wet conditions; and printable flexible wireless battery-free RFID sensors.

Next up, Dr Siân Fogden, Communications Officer for Graphene Flagship and organiser of the event, outlined the case for the #WomenInGraphene initiative and event with some eye-opening hard data. Overall, within the Flagship, 32% of staff are female – but drilling down to scientists, the number falls to 22% – and at the more senior principal investigator (PI) level (meaning the grant holder and lead researcher on a project), the number drops to just 14%. And the numbers get even worse when looking at department heads and other senior executives. Dr Fogden outlined some of the work, including events like these, that the initiative does to promote gender diversity and inclusivity – aiming to help women working within the Flagship build the network and connections they need to succeed. She also talked about collaboration with the other FET Flagships – Quantum Computing, the Human Brain project and Future Battery Technologies – around a Women in Flagships initiative.

Sarah Haigh at WiG
Sarah Haigh at WiG

Dr Laura Norton, Senior Programme Manager, Inclusion & Diversity, at the Royal Society of Chemistry, then led a presentation of the RSC’s Breaking the Barriers report, an examination of women’s retention and progression in the chemical sciences. This extensive and impressive report is built upon solid methodology, data and evidence, and outlines the problem(s), identifies some of its root causes, builds the case for change and defines the way forward – with conclusions, recommendations and a commitment to an action plan. Some of the data is arresting – 99% of female chemists in UK academia can evidence the lack of retention and progression of women, and only 9% of chemistry Professors in the UK are female – and while the report is obviously focused on the chemistry domain, many of the findings and much of the data was very familiar from an electronics (or broader engineering/STEM) perspective. In particular, the 'leaky pipeline' analogy rang very true – if anything, the numbers are even worse in electronics and engineering!

The next few sessions were more practical in nature for the delegate audience. First up, Professor Sarah Haigh, a lecturer, researcher and now professor in materials characterisation at the University of Manchester, talked about her adventures imaging atoms, as a researcher, in industry and academia, offering insightful tips to help audience members develop their careers. Dr Kanudha Sharda, Associate Editor at Nature Communications, discussed the process of getting scientific research papers published, offering helpful hints and tips for researchers looking to submit their work to scientific journals. She also described how Nature tries to overcome gender biases in its editorial processes.

Finally, self professed formidable Swede, Dr Katarina Boustedt, currently Research Project Manager at AstaZero (the world’s first full-scale independent test environment for future road safety) and the founder of Women In Graphene (while she was Administrative Head at Graphene Flagship), talked about her varied career experiences in her entertaining first day closing presentation, "Wow! A girl scientist".

Regretfully, I was not able to stay for the event's second day and therefore did not get to see its keynote from Imperial College physicist and researcher, Dr Jess Wade: why (+ how) we need to keep talking about diversity. An established academic in materials science, and a strong advocate for women in STEM, Dr Wade has famously written and added over 500 Wikipedia entries for female scientists and engineers during the last year and a half, as part of her efforts to get address the under-representation of women in STEM. Dr Wade has been involved in several projects to improve gender inclusion in science, having been recognised as one of Nature’s ten people who mattered in 2018. She credits Angela Saini’s 2017 book, Inferior, which applies myth-busting scientific scrutiny to claims of sex differences and gender stereotypes, as both an epiphany and inspiration – often giving copies to other scientists and engineers she meets. The Twitter love for Jess and her talk today reminds me that I missed something special!

About Graphene Flagship

Annick Loiseau at Women in Graphene 2018
Annick Loiseau at Women in Graphene 2018

Launched in 2013 and coordinated by Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden, the Graphene Flagship is tasked with bringing together academic and industrial researchers to take graphene from the realm of academic laboratories into European society in the space of 10 years, thus generating economic growth, new jobs and new opportunities.

The core consortium consists of over 150 academic and industrial research groups in 23 countries. In addition, the project has a growing number of associated members that will be incorporated in the scientific and technological work packages from the Horizon 2020 phase.

The Graphene Flagship is, along with the Human Brain Project, the first of the European Commission's Future & Emerging Technology (FET) Flagships, whose mission is to address the big scientific and technological challenges of the age through long-term, multidisciplinary research and development efforts.

About International Day of Women and Girls in Science

11 February 2019 was the fourth annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a UN-sponsored event to recognise the critical role women and girls play in science and technology communities, in an effort to encourage more women to enter STEM fields.

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