Ada Lovelace Day 2017 – Celebrating women in STEM

Image credit: Science & Society Picture Library

The underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is a very hot topic. Researchers are trying to identify the underlying causes and find ways to tackle the gender imbalance in these fields. More and more often, networks are created and events are organised to support and promote the ladies of STEM. One of these events is the International Ada Lovelace Day. Founded in 2009, it is held every year on the second Tuesday of October with the aim of celebrating her contribution to the world and raising the profile of women in STEM.

Ada Lovelace was a mathematician, writer and computer pioneer. She was the only one who saw the potential of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, which is now recognised as an early model of a computer. Her notes are considered to be the first published algorithm, gaining her the accolade of first computer programmer. However, even though a programming language, a conference, a medal, a college, an academy and various buildings have been named after her throughout the years, she is still neither as popular nor as well known as other male pioneers.

On the 10th of October, we attended the Ada Lovelace Day 2017 event organised by the Information Systems of the University of Edinburgh. This year’s event was dedicated to women in chemistry and it took place at the James Clerk Maxwell Building at the King’s Buildings. It was a day full of thought-provoking talks and fun activities, hosted by Ewan Mc Andrew (Wikimedian in Residence, UoE). The day started with a warm welcome before Melissa Highton (Assistant Principal of Online Learning, UoE) introduced us to the world of Ida Freud and her passion for chemistry. Ida Freund was the first female chemistry lecturer at a university in the United Kingdom, and she was famous for using unusual teaching aids, such as her invention of a periodic table made from cupcakes.. To honour her on the day, a periodic table of cupcakes was offered for our consumption during the activities session; they were as visually impressive and colourful as they were delicious!

Dr. Heleen Plaisier and Dr. Daniel Barker talked about their project on bioinformatics and the use of computers for teaching and learning biology. They mentioned that the use of Raspberry Pi in schools helps students familiarise themselves with programming and using a command line interface, strengthening their confidence. They emphasized that since there are more female students in biology classes and more male students in programming classes, this project is a good way to open computational science for everybody. Later, during the activities session, they gave us the opportunity to listen to the ‘sound’ of DNA, by converting a genetic sequence into musical notes!

Dr. Michael Seery from the School of Chemistry told us a story about the petition to the Chemical Society in 1904, when 19 female chemists described reasons why women should be allowed Fellow status. He explained how married women weren’t legally allowed to be entities in the Royal Society in those days, how fascinating it was that those women managed to form networks of female chemists, and wondered why most of these ladies don’t have a Wikipedia page.

Stewart Cromar (Interactive Content Manager, UoE) is a member of the Tartan Lego Users Group, a group of adult fans of LEGO, which organises shows, exhibitions and charity events. He gave us an update on his Ada Lovelace LEGO project, launched in 2015. When his project reached 10,000 votes, it entered the review phase at the company. In February 2017, LEGO decided to release a project for NASA women instead. However, the Ada Lovelace project receives a great response at LEGO events and kids get to know Ada and her work.

The talks session closed with Claire Button (Project Archivist at the Centre for Research Collections, Main Library, UoE) who is currently cataloguing the papers of Sir Kenneth and Lady Noreen Murray. She narrated some interesting parts of their story, and the fascinating details of Lady Noreen’s studies and involvement with science, despite her father’s differing opinion. The activities session included a number of varied activities such as knitting a graphene pattern, making origami crystals, colouring a big printed picture of Mary Somerville, metadata games, creating history timelines on Histropedia, chatting with the University’s Women in STEM society, and of course eating our favourite element on a cupcake.

During the third session we learnt how to create and edit a Wikipedia page. The purpose of this training was to produce more pages for female scientists such as the chemists mentioned earlier. After a couple of hours, some of us managed to contribute to the world’s knowledge, using textbooks and other sources. Wikipedia runs a project called Women in Red and its aim is to create pages for women whose biographies do not yet exist in this massive online encyclopaedia, as only 17.03% of the biographies on Wikipedia relate to notable women.

The event closed with a screening of a short documentary called “A Chemical Imbalance” (which detailed the long history female chemists of the University of Edinburgh) followed by a panel discussion from Anne-Marie Scott, Professor Polly Arnold, Professor Jane Norman and Dr. Carole A Morrison about the sources of the gender disparity in STEM.


This article was written by Athina Frantzana and edited by Samuel Stanfield.

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