In honour of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8, we asked women in environmental sciences to answer questions about what it is like being a woman in STEM. The following is a compilation of questions and answers from the questionnaire with Gill Malin, an Associate Professor in Biological Oceanography at the University of East Anglia.
What was your favourite subject in school and why?
Biology and especially Microbiology. I had always had a fascination for the subject. Also, one of our teachers had a background in microbiology research and brought that into our lessons.
How have your beliefs, motivations and aspirations changed over time? When did a career in STEM become a priority or choice?
Yes, they have changed hugely over my career! I 'drifted' into my PhD. My Head of Department encouraged me to apply for a NERC Fellowship for my 1st postdoc. My motivation to continue build came with further postdocs and building a publication record. A career in STEM soon became a priority for me and especially after my son was born.
What is/was your PhD topic?
I did my PhD a long time ago! The title was something like 'Aerobic nitrogen fixation in the non-heterocystous cyanobacterium Microcoleus chthonoplastes'. It was a lab-based PhD comprising lots of physiological experiments.
How did you get into your current field? What is your academic background?
I did my undergraduate degree at Liverpool University starting in Biology and specialising in Botany in my 3rd year. I developed a fascination for seaweeds and microalgae and stayed on to do my PhD in the lab where I did my BSc project. My 1st Postdoc was a NERC Fellowship held at Bristol University working on cyanobacterial chemotaxis. After that I switched fields for an 8-month postdoc at the University of East Anglia and got hooked into highly interdisciplinary research on the production of trace gases involving algae. After that I worked in the USA for just over 1-year and after that I returned to UEA and have been here since then.
What are the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome? Do you feel that your academic career would be easier/harder if you were male?
The biggest career obstacle by far has been academic short-term contracts. I was on them for a long time and my husband was too - it was very stressful at times. Neither of us was ever unemployed but we came close to it. The so-called two-body issue was difficult for us, and Norwich was a good place for both of us to work so the 'compromise' was living with the short-term contracts. The way onto faculty for me was winning 2 consecutive 5-year Advanced Fellowships. They gave me a sufficient time-horizon to establish a research group. Academia was very male-dominated when I started out and it wasn't hard to see the bias and patronage. Things have improved a lot, but unconscious bias has not gone away.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?
Increasing diversity in the workforce should help, but progress has still been slower than we had hoped likely due to embedded cultures and unconscious bias. More needs to be done. The insecurity of short-term contracts and workload issues put women (and other genders) off science, both need addressing urgently.
Do you have a female role model?
Not a single person as such but a composite made up lots of positive aspects of women (and some men) I have known in science and outside of it. A strong sense of fun, wise, passionate about what they do, committed, positive attitude, brave, determined, organised, good work-life balance, empathetic, approachable, nurtures the next generation etc etc. This woman would definitely wear a halo!
What advice would you give to other women beginning their PhD journey?
Follow your research passion and enjoy your PhD but be sure to also keep your options open for careers outside academia - there are some great jobs out there! Build a great peer-support network around yourself and make time to nurture it. If you are having problems share them rather than stay silent.
Do you have a network of women in STEM around you to share knowledge and remind you that you are not alone? If so, how did you go about creating that network?
Yes! I have been heavily involved in equity, diversity and inclusion matters for many years. i am currently a member of the UEA Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, the UEA EDI Frameworks Group and ENV's Equality and Diversity Athena Swan Committee (EDASC). My interests started with attending events organised by ResNet when it started back in 2000 and some years later, I became involved in its committee and I have been Chair for a while now. Check it out at https://www.uea.ac.uk/about/equality-diversity-inclusion-wellbeing/networks/resnet. Since 2020 we have been rather quiet on the events front but hope we can get up to speed in the next few months.
If you could go back and change one thing in your STEM path, what would that be?
Hard question! I would have got an indefinite position sooner than I did! But I'd hate to swap out the great ~11 years I had as a NERC Advanced Research Fellow.
Do you have any plans for the future, both in your academic and personal life, and do you feel that there are any barriers to these plans?
I am thinking about retirement which would affect both aspects of my life a lot, but the key barrier is that I am finding it an incredibly hard decision to make. Either way there is still research I want to publish and work on…