Dr Emily Grossman: 'Anyone can be a scientist!'
Dr Emily Grossman is an expert in molecular biology and the face of many a scientific TV and radio slot (including The Alan Titchmarsh Show and Duck Quacks Don't Echo). Here, Emily speaks to QA Education editor Victoria Galligan about why she’s involved with Rocking Ur Teens, a social enterprise that runs inspiring conferences that help encourage girls and boys to become confident in their school life and beyond…
To say Dr Emily Grossman is an inspiring person is, quite frankly, an understatement. In 2017 Emily was made the second Honorary STEM Ambassador by STEM Learning – the first was astronaut Tim Peake. When I ask her about her childhood influences, she immediately tells me about her dad – a doctor and research scientist. Emily – who discovered a new molecule while working in cancer research – says: “We used to go on some long car journeys and dad would tell me really fun stories about the world, which were inspiring and relevant to my life. They were really scientific facts and theories, like telling me our ancestors were monkeys. So obviously I thought I may have monkey cousins and aunts and uncles somewhere!
“Stories about science fascinated me and I loved finding out about the world around us.
“Because these stories were framed for me by my dad, and made relevant to my life, I found them so interesting and that’s how we need to engage youngsters today.”
Emily attended an all-girls school and her teachers also had a positive influence on her. The female environment eliminated sexism in the classroom and girls were encouraged to communicate, ask questions and find answers – although Emily admits not all of her peers were enamoured by the STEM subjects.
“There was no stereotyping in the classroom and maths was taught from the root upwards, which really helped my understanding. But it wasn’t always easy for me and on occasion I was bullied, being labelled the “teacher’s pet”. Girls still face this stigma in school when they speak up – luckily I had some great friends and teachers who were really supportive and the female environment allowed our ideas to thrive.”
Talkative, passionate and friendly during our interview, it’s hard to believe that she has ever suffered a crisis in confidence. However when Emily started university, where she studied physics, natural sciences and later cancer research, that’s exactly what happened. She noted a huge shift in attitudes working alongside her male peers. Emily says: “Many women feel out of place in a scientific learning environment – traditionally it’s seen as a cold, calculating and competitive world.
“It can be challenging in this environment, and I found it very hard. I was used to a more supportive learning experience and I became scared of asking questions. I lost my confidence and see this today in many girls – and boys – who I meet when I visit schools now. They are nervous to try things and speak up, and we as educators need to let them know that they shouldn’t be put off by how confident other people seem to be.
“I dropped physics after a year and remember before I ended that part of my course, many of the boys were bragging after an exam about how easy it had been. I had found it difficult but gave it my all – and I came out with better results than those boys!”
It is these traditionally competitive, often sexist attitudes in the STEM subjects that Emily is working to change, through her work giving talks in schools and as a speaker at events like Rocking Ur Teens. Emily was asked by a friend who she met through a women’s group, Hannilee Fish, to attend the all-female event as Hannilee was speaking there too. Emily says: “Hannilee is an incredible role model and very inspiring. I was grateful for the opportunity to speak at Rocking Ur Teens and was happy to help dispel some myths about what it is to be a scientist, and help and inspire young women.
“It was great to communicate with pupils from so many different areas and from such different backgrounds. For schools that don’t get a lot of funding, Rocking Ur Teens is a great opportunity for youngsters to hear from so many speakers and it really works. Seeing women like them, who perhaps were not very confident as teens and are just normal, everyday people, but who have become successful after working hard and being tenacious, really helps.”
Having had quite a few career changes – Emily spent around 10 years acting and worked on the stage and screen in productions from Macbeth to Snow White – she is keen to impress upon youngsters the fluidity of STEM subjects and the range of options available.
Emily adds, “Not all girls feel confident in STEM subjects and some feel they’re not clever enough, or that they’re too sensitive or creative. Girls who like science are often called ‘geeks’ or ‘weird’ or ‘boring’, but they shouldn’t be put off. Sensitivity and creativity are very beneficial to STEM. We need every sort of person to study STEM – gender, colour, sex, race etc doesn’t matter. If you have a passion for STEM then get involved!”
Regarding women working in STEM, Emily would like to see policymakers continue to make roles accessible for women who have to consider their family needs, and to encourage women to bring their “whole self” to work. She believes that if STEM employers are compassionate, supportive and inclusive, then more women will want to start working and stay working in the field – even after starting a family.
So what advice does Emily have for teachers who want to better engage girls in STEM? “Keep encouraging them to see the diverse range of careers and impress upon them the different types of people that STEM needs. They may be outgoing, shy, sensitive, analytical, team players or better working in private. Whatever sort of person they are, there is a place in STEM for them.
“I think it’s also important for teachers to promote a relaxed learning environment in school – science isn’t just about sink-or-swim scenarios, it’s about investigation and working together and trial and error.”
In addition, Emily says it’s important to encourage the quiet students to speak up, to promote co-operation in teamwork and to share feelings in class. She adds: “The pupils who are less willing to shout out might be the pupils with the most interesting things to say. They need to be encouraged to bring themselves forward.
“Many pupils suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ where they feel they don’t belong, so it’s important to talk about vulnerability too. I was surprised to find how many boys feel vulnerable in school too.
“There are lots of school alumni and mentors available to support pupils through organisations such as STEM Learning, and I think teachers can really reach out and ask for support from these ambassadors. Bringing in role models who are happy in their career sends out a really positive message and there are some wonderful people available.”
And some final words of wisdom to pupils? “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not good enough – anyone can be a scientist!”
• Dr Emily Grossman can be found at emilygrossman.co.uk, where she offers more information about her work as a speaker, communications trainer and writer. Her workshop “People Like Me” is delivered in conjunction with The Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE) Campaign, which also offers school resources online at wisecampaign.org.uk.
• STEM Ambassadors are volunteers from a wide range of jobs and disciplines across the UK. They offer their time and enthusiasm to help bring STEM subjects to life. See stem.org.uk
• Rocking Ur Teens is a social enterprise that equips young people with the skills that leaders of the future need. See rockingurteens.com. The Conference that Emily spoke at was sponsored by International Airlines Group.