Tuesday 15 October 2013

Potential energy

Today is Ada Lovelace Day.  This annual reminder about the fact that there are women working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has been running since 2009 but I only heard about it on Sunday. Check out Aoife McLysaght in today's IT.  We really must change  
into something more like  
There's a huge reservoir of creativity and talent that is just not being tapped. I checked out the ADA website and the founder, and discovered a link asking for inspiring essays about inspiring women in science.  So I thrust The Blob's views on Barbara McClintock, Lynn Margulis, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell at them.  I've called that all-too-short list an occasional series. As it's exactly 3 months since the last entry, and for the day that's in it, I'll write a few words here about Cliona O'Farrelly.  She is a scientist and a woman and a mother. I mention the last qualification because this attribute had a significant impact on female professionals of her generation and none whatsoever on their male contemporaries.

She is now Professor of Comparative Immunology in TCD.  When she was appointed six years ago, she was not the first choice of the chaps on the committee, because her publication record was solid but not stellar.  First they offered the Chair to a high-flyer from Foreign, who had forgotten to ask his wife, a professional in her own field, and family if they wanted to up-stakes and move to the edge of Europe (rotes Gesicht zu Hause).  Then they offered it to a local man who used the offer to blag himself a better position at the place he was then working (and good for him).  Finally, and possibly with a sense of desperation, they offered it to a woman.  Maybe it wasn't exactly like that, my memory is woofly, but many professional women who read this will hear a small ring <ding> of truth.

I'm sure that one of the reasons she made it to the short-list is that she is a great teacher.  She's not a narrow specialist, but has many interests including things beyond science.  She is thus able to draw her explanatory metaphors from a much wider experience than the specialist scientific literature.  I remember going to one of her seminars a decade ago; the pictures for her talk came with her on a CD. This disc was put into a Mac computer which dutifully ate it up and choked.  Nothing anyone could do would either release the CD or bring the Mac back to life.  Only marginally daunted, she carried on with her talk, which was mainly about the work her molecular evolutionists had been doing on computers, showing the multiple sequence alignments with vigorous horizontal sweeps of both hands, the conserved sites with precise vertical chops, and the Hidden Markov Model with similarly appropriate theatre. Eee, it were great! So clear, such fun.  Every year she visits her local girls-only secondary school to talk to them about science - careers in science ostensibly - but really, passionately, about science.

When COF came to TCD, she found a catch-as-catch-can Transition Year work experience programme.  If you or your neighbour or your cousin knew one of the faculty members then you could ask them to take your teenager under their wing for a week.  Each youngster, as they came in, would have a session with the Safety Officer, a tour of the building, and other infrastructural essentials. Taking in such would-be scientists is paying your taxes to the aspiration that Ireland has a future as a technological nation.  Like taxes it is an imposition on your time and resources, so it is easy to shirk the responsibility.  COF codified the program so it happened on two specific weeks in the year.  Positions had to be competitively applied for, all the Faculty had to contribute and a program for the whole week was formalised. Half of the available hours were actually in laboratories experiencing work and half were group activities, tours, demonstrations and lectures - and the Safety Officer could efficiently give her talk to 18 people at once. It was great, not least because I was asked to devise a scientific scavenger hunt round the campus. I love treasure hunts.

Before TCD and after Harvard, she was for a decade the Research Director at the Education and Research Centre in one of the Dublin teaching hospitals.  The ERC had several  purposes but one of them was a place for consultants to park their graduate students while they were in theatre or doing rounds of the wards or rounds of golf.  Accordingly COF had an important role mentoring not only her own research group but also these orphans.  In the lifetime of any doctoral training, there will be at least one moment of despair, when the work is stagnant, the ideas have dried up and blown away, the avenues of advance are all obscured by thickets.  One of her mentoring SOPs was to fish the student out towards the edge of the Slough of Despond and get them to go through their first lab books with her.  Even for one at the lowest ebb of self-esteem, it is a revelation to see just how plug-ignorant and clueless you were when you started.  You cannot but feel better when it is clear that you have learned so much, and that your toolbox is so much better filled with sharper tools now.  Sometimes that helps and sometimes so does an ultimatum and a quite brutal shove and when that seemed necessary she didn't shy away from it.

The purpose of a PhD programme is not really about generating results, although that is a key deliverable for the funders. It's much more of a training in how to reason, how to marshal evidence, how to present data and how to solve problems . . . regardless of what those problems, or that data, are.  Even at this top level of formal education there is a wide range of abilities, some students are stellar and some are nearer our good green earth.  It's easy to supervise the ad astra chaps; they are as smart as you or smarter, they get up in the morning raring to go, they work all the hours that the day sends and they have ideas in their sleep. If you are brilliant and successful yourself you may never have to draw your students from the per ardua cohort.  COF sees her role as getting each of her people to fulfill their potential: to go as far as they can . . . and a little bit more. So it's not a doss or a doddle, no PhD can be that and be worth having, but it is clear to her that a good PhD contributes to progress as well as a brilliant PhD.  The narrow path blazed through totally new territory has to be braced and supported by work that comes after and builds in the same direction.  Exactly the same rules apply, over a shorter time-scale and a broader range of ability, to final year undergraduate projects.  Mobilising all this, especially per ardua, potential takes time and effort but the cost-benefit analysis is definitely positive. There can seem sometimes to be a relentless enthusiasm about Professor O'Farrelly, but that doesn't mean that the process is cost-free.  Such commitment to the necessary infrastructure upon which the high-fliers climb for launch is essentially  invisible - it should at least be acknowledged.  Rewarding it would probably be too much for society as we currently arrange things.  Nurses, primary school teachers, refuse collectors (do I mean mothers here?) are also often invisible and all get paid buttons.

So, as an alumnus of that institution, which makes me a sort of psychological share-holder, I think TCD got a good deal in their third choice. 
The Blob's women in science: Florence Nightingale - Barbara McClintock - Maude Delap - Cliona O'Farrelly - Lynn Margulis - Rosalind Franklin - Jocelyn Bell Burnell

1 comment:

  1. I only realised last night that one great outcome from the ERC/SVUH days was the number of female post docs (n=13) who ended up in really great careers : 11 professors/senior academics (3 in TCD, 1 in RCSI, 2 in TUD, 1 in Carlow IT, 1 in GMIT, 3 in the US), one leading some major transnational group in a big pharma company in the US and one high in research policy in the Dept Health; 11 of the 13 have children.