At our 5th annual Equate Student Network Conference & Awards on March 4th Zoe Davidson, PhD Student at the University of Strathclyde was awarded the Woman Student of the Year Award. In our interview with her she talk’s about her experiences as a woman in STEM, the rewards of supporting other women and top tips for fellow students.
What inspired you to pursue a STEM career?
I had a strong interest in physics and maths at school. I recall visiting a radiography department at a local hospital when I was 15 years old, and being equally confused and fascinated about where X-rays came from and how they could be so different to “normal light”.
Tell us a bit about how you support women in STEM?
I support people in our physics department through my involvement with the Women in Strathclyde Physics Association (WiSPA) (https://twitter.com/StrathPhysWiSPA). The main aim of WiSPA is to bring the few women in our department together, encourage them to stay in physics by providing support and solidarity, and highlight exciting opportunities in Physics for them. My own experiences of inequality, and the impostor syndrome this engenders, have encouraged me to speak up and help improve experiences for others in STEM. It is empowering to turn your feelings and hindsight gained from negative experiences, that were outwith your control, into something that can fight back – but for everyone: those currently in similar situations as well as for future students and researchers who are part of a marginalised group too. By addressing matters on a much larger scale, with top-down support and grass-root solidarity and voice, we have a better chance of changing our culture. I’ve enjoyed organising socials, mental health talks, informative events and panel discussions around equality, diversity, and inclusion topics. Outwith WiSPA, I’ve loved doing outreach – including the Institute of Physics (IOP) “Girls into Physics” initiative, IOP Festival of Physics, and school visits – and contributing to Strathclyde University’s Women in Science & Engineering Committee (WISE) and our department’s Equality and Diversity Committee as a student rep.
What is the biggest reward of doing this work?
The biggest reward for me is hope. Hope that things will change, and that through WiSPA or outreach we might encourage or support at least one person. I hope that we can help someone bypass the leaky the pipeline, that appears for so many people during their STEM journey. STEM is, without a doubt, massively missing out on fantastic contributions from (mainly under-represented) people who have been pushed out, and have sadly added to that leak. Whether that’s at school, due to a lack of diverse science role models, or at university when you go through times of adversity. Support goes a long way, and although it won’t patch up the leak alone, it can sometimes be enough in that moment in time to help someone stay on course and follow their interest.
What are your top three tips to others looking to inspire women?
For me, I’ve been most inspired when people have been honest about their struggles and set-backs (including impostor syndrome or mental health) as well as their achievements; when they’ve gifted me the benefit of their hindsight; and when they’ve shown me that, like them, success is achievable and the path they followed is accessible.
If you could meet any woman STEMinist, alive or dead, who would you pick and why?
Professor Donna Strickland, who shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for her PhD research into Chirped Pulse Amplification (CPA) in Lasers. Without Professor Strickland’s contributions, my PhD topic – high intensity laser-plasma physics – wouldn’t be what it is now. I still reference her 1985 research paper today in my work and thesis. As well as being a laser queen, she was also the third woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, which comes a long-awaited 55 years after the second woman physicist, Professor Maria Goeppert-Mayer, was awarded.