julie lee - neuroscience phd student

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Attending the OxFEST 2016 conference for women in STEM
Feb 6, 2016

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Yesterday I attended the 5th annual conference of OxFEST, the University of Oxford’s society for ‘Females in Engineering, Science and Technology). The conference consisted of female speakers in top positions in academia and industry, interspersed with networking opportunities, a workshop, and research presentations. The speakers focused on their experiences of climbing the career ladder as a woman and advice for the conference attendees, who were mostly academic women from undergraduate to postdoctoral levels.

From the people I spoke to, everyone found the conference very valuable, particularly for getting inspiration from top women in STEM and takeaway advice. One workshop’s insights was that ‘nobody is 100% confident at all times’, an important reminder for women in STEM. Sue Kershaw implored us to focus on doing what we would be most proud of, looking back, several decades in the future. Finally, Professor Alison Noble OBE FREng emphasised that no two academics share the same career path, and that different people get on the academic ladder in different ways.

Certainly a highlight of the day was Prof. Elena Rodriguez-Falcon. She riveted the audience with her story as a female engineer from Mexico to getting involved in enterprise at Sheffield, winning over reluctant students and eventually founding the first ‘Enterprise lab’. The resounding soundbite from her talk was something her parent instilled in her, namely “Make mistakes, but don’t make the same mistake twice”.

As well, it was very valuable to hear Prof. Ulrike Tillmann FRS say that while she has had many successes in her life, she has - like anyone else - had failures. Ultimately, these perturbations in her career path turned out for the best, helping her pursue alternative options. Her talk also included a fascinating introduction to her research on ‘path integration in string theory’. She ended with four points of advice:

  • Keep your head up!
  • Go for it!
  • Be the woman you are!
  • Have an exit policy (i.e. a Plan B)

Of course, as anyone who knows me will attest, one of the most fun parts of the conference was in networking. It was great to meet other cool women in STEM, from first-year undergraduates trying to figure out their career path to postdoctoral researchers who presented on their DPhil work. The range of STEM subjects was pretty varied too, including computer science, neuroscience and structural biology. The other attendees were just as inspiring as the speakers, and I’m happy to have met them. Overall, I think these conferences are very valuable for bringing together women in STEM, sharing the frustrations, meeting new role models and leaving people with the confidence to do anything. While there was some debate about the means to do so, I think everyone ended the day wanting to do more to help themselves and other women in STEM.

Image: Conference programme for OxFEST. I wrote my notes in a notebook from another event for women in science!


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