Starting conversations: Questions of gender

questionAs part of my role as a student ambassador for Edinburgh Napier University’s Connect Network, I’ve spent a bit of time in the foyer at the Merchiston campus trying to get people talking about women in STEM. (Along with co-ambassador, Melanie Robinson, of course.)

Last week, we decided to use our time to ask passers-by three quick-and-easy questions, with the aim of (1) gauging the thoughts of others and (2) engaging in a bit of conversation about women in STEM.

In total, we had 45 willing participants—each rewarded with a small pack of Haribo for their efforts—and whilst the results might not be scientific, they were pretty interesting. Below are our questions, the results, and our feedback on them.

1) Did you know that a woman invented frequency-hopping, the technology behind things such as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi?
Of the 45 participants, only one person had a vague memory of that information, and even then she couldn’t be certain that she knew for sure. Most people were very interested to hear that, not only was it true, but that the woman was a 1940’s Hollywood starlet and that it was created as a signal jammer to deter torpedoes during WWII.

We’d like to think that they’ll remember that fun fact every time they connect to a WiFi hotspot!

Results:
Yes, I knew that! (2%)
No, that’s news to me! (98%)

2) True or False: It is important to breakdown gender stereotypes before children start school.
The responses to this statement was an interesting one. Our first person answered “false” without hesitation, but explained that she was only here for six months (a Chinese student on an exchange) and that her cultural views were different. Others stopped to ask what we meant by gender stereotypes before they went on to answer “true”.

Interestingly, two men noted that they knew the “socially acceptable” answer was “true”, but they didn’t think that was the right answer. They seemed slightly uncomfortable to admit such a thing, but felt that someone needed to. A third said it would depend on which stenotypes were being questioned.

So that’s 41 solid “true” repliers, 3 for “false”, and 1 fence-sitter.

Results:
True (91%)
False (7%)
Undecided (2%)

3) What percent of engineering and technology undergraduates are women
Unsurprisingly, 18 out of the 45 thought this number was 40% or higher (3 of those were 50% or higher). A further 17 believed the number to be in the 20-30% range, with only 10 people guessing less than 20%—and seven of those thought it was in the single digits.

The truth is that only about 12% are women—a fact that seemed to garner surprise by most people, especially those who thought the numbers would be in the 40s.

This question seemed to spark a lot of curiosity, with people wondering why the numbers were so low and what we could do to improve things. (A perfect opportunity to explain that Connect and Interconnect exists was one of many ways to help.)

Results:
More than 50% = 7%
40-50 = 33%
20-30 = 38%
Less than 20% = 22%

All-in-all, it was a learning experience for us as well as our participants. Hopefully, our next attempt at starting conversations will lead to even more interesting results. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions and the results.

Connecting the crossings

20150211_135232Last week I visited the construction project site at the new Forth Replacement Crossing with a group of female engineering and built environment students from Edinburgh Napier University. The visit was arranged by the Connect Network for female students studying computing, engineering and the built environment, for which I am a student ambassador.

Whilst the trip was primarily designed for engineering students, my ambassador status got me a seat on the tour—something I was keen to go on because I enjoy learning new things, and I really enjoy having special access to pretty much anything. (It’s one of my many, many quirks.)

But when I got there, I could actually see how computing students would be interested in such a massive civil engineering project, too.

Oh, yes, computers! In addition to the amazing engineering feat of designing and building a bridge that will be 2,633 meters long and 210 meters high (the tallest on-shore structure in Scotland!), it will boast 1,200 sensors to monitor the bridge.

And then there’s the Intelligent Transport System that is being built to help manage traffic as it approaches the bridge. It will be the first time such a system has been used in Scotland and will include things such as variable speed controls and signage as well as metered ramps.

I suppose that I knew there was a lot of computers used in modern engineering projects, but I never really thought about it before.

But then, I’m doing a PhD in the School of Computing and I still struggle to think of myself as anything other than a student of the humanities!

I’m pleased that I went along on the day’s adventure because I think it gave me yet another way of looking at the connections between different disciplines. It would seem that the whole world is one, big, interdisciplinary adventure after another!

And when it comes to the role of women, we’re there making our mark on all of them! (You know, to bring it back to the Connect Network.)

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(The extra photos are probably unnecessary, but my Mum will be reading this and she’ll want photos!)

Official status: PhD student

2013.phd-dreamsI am pleased to (finally!) be able to say that I am officially a PhD student. That might sound a little strange to those who know I began my studies more than a year ago, but the way things work at my university, you are only registered as a generic research student until after your first-year review. (This annual review is known as the dreaded RD5 here at Edinburgh Napier University*.)

Unfortunately, my own RD5 timeline got a little skewed because there were glitches in scheduling the meeting, followed by (minor) changes to my academic support team, which meant that the official form-signing bits were delayed by nearly three months.

More unfortunately, because of my own low self-esteem, I was convinced that it was all a sign that I wasn’t good enough; that I wasn’t PhD material.

It’s that second one that has really played havoc on my emotional and mental states over the past several months, meaning that I have been unable (or rather, unwilling) to blog about my studies. (It would have come across as poor-me, which no one wants to read!)

It has also meant that I haven’t been excited about my work. I allowed my fears to stop me from seeing a bright future, because I was too busy letting those same fears convince me I’d have to go back to being a waitress in my rural hometown. (Yeah, those Whatifs are kind of melodramatic in their depictions of reality.)

But now, I am feeling confident for the first time in months. I am once again looking forward to the hard work that a PhD will entail and I’m ready to re-motivate myself.

Yes, now that I am officially a PhD student, those PhD dreams have ceased feeling like nightmares.

So, what’s next?

Over the next few weeks, I will be thinking about my research methods in preparation for my empirical work. This will mean a lot of literature searching and reading (and writing, of course) but it also means that I’m starting to look into my own investigation, rather than the investigations of others.

I am also hoping that this new-found confidence and excitement will see me working in a more focused manner.

If all goes the way I hope it will, I will have a lot of great stuff to share here.

And for those who’ve been subjected to listening to my hysterical woes and fears of failure, thank you for putting up with me. Hopefully there will be less of that now.

* It’s dreaded, but it really isn’t anything to fear. In fact, I can see the benefits to the process, even though my own delay caused me much grief. But then, I do love a good administrative process. When they work.

2015 PhD resolutions

2015It’s a new year, so it must be time to make new resolutions! Generally speaking, my resolutions are tied to my long-term goals. They are designed to help me focus on the larger picture and, I’m pleased to say, I am pretty good at keeping them.

To that, my 2015 PhD resolutions are as follows:

Create a better, more productive work routine
The idea here is to divide my time better so that I have clearly defined blocks of time for reading, writing, and research. As it is, I feel a little guilty for spending time on certain tasks and that takes away from my overall focus and productivity. I hope to develop a routine that allows me a set amount of time each day or week to read the “fun” stuff (blogs and forum posts around my subject areas, for example) as well as the “real” stuff (academic articles and books, for example). The thought is that I will be able to fully focus on each task if I’m not feeling guilty about not doing something else.

Part of this will be looking at dedicated writing times and places. Over the next few weeks, I will work to determine the best way to divide my time and hopefully it will mean that I am enjoying more productive hours each week.

Set time aside each week for administrative tasks
Oh yes, the admin must get done! Yet inevitably emails go un-archived and papers go un-filed. That means my virtual and actual desktops have stacks of important things that are difficult to find. And that means I spend a lot of time shuffling through emails and papers I don’t need, just to access the ones I do. If I would just devote a bit of time to these things in the first instance, I would save myself a lot of time (and stress!) later.

Part of this will include a small administrative job I have with the school as part of my stipend. It will also include time set aside for maintaining this blog, which I hope to utilise a lot more as I start working towards my empirical research.

Build in guaranteed personal time
Much like the guilt I feel reading the “less serious” stuff for my PhD, I feel very guilty any time I’m doing non-PhD stuff at home. That guilt means that I’ve yet to finish reading an Ian Rankin novel that I started a few days before my PhD began more than a year ago! It also means I’ve yet to start on a new crocheting project or to make note cards for my Mum. And sometimes it’s even meant that I neglect my running—which means I’m neglecting my personal goals and resolutions.

Part of this will be working on my personal goals of being nicer to myself! It will also mean that I will allow myself to enjoy non-academic reading and to work on other projects without feeling guilty. Importantly, it will mean running more…which will help me to stay focused and energised. And that can only help my larger PhD and life goals, right?

So there you have it: My three 2015 PhD resolutions.

To add a wee disclaimer: I am not silly enough to think that these things are going to happen tomorrow. They are intended to be works-in-progress and I hope that over the next few weeks or months I will have formed new habits to help ensure I can make these things happen. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey!

A year in the life of a PhD student

2013.phd-dreamsToday marks one calendar year since I matriculated as a research student at Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Computing. At the time, I was filled with excitement and a bit of trepidation.

I went into the process with the notion that most of my first year would be spent reading, reading, and writing. I also went into it knowing that there would be training and learning opportunities. And, as I often do, I went into it knowing that there would be moments when I wondered if I was good enough.

There have been some definite highs in the last year. But unfortunately, there have been a few self-inflicted lows because of the aforementioned self-esteem issues.

The lows can be summed up as this: Literature review!

The highs, however, need a bit more space. So how about a list? (I do love a good list!)

In the last year:

» I started a fabulous new PhD blog;
» I gave a presentation to the entire faculty;
» I presented two posters (and made an awesome poster tube!);
» I attended some great conferences;
» I gave my first public presentation;
» I attended some fabulous events;
» And, of course, I submitted my one-year review materials.

Now that I’m heading into my second year, I can honestly say that I am filled with excitement and a bit of trepidation once again. I am hoping that I’ll have more opportunities to present my research, and I’m hoping to get at least one (hopefully two!) publications in the next year.

I don’t know exactly what Year Two will look like yet, but I will try to post a bit more about the process. My hope is that over the next year this blog will develop into three general categories: My academic journey; my views and opinions on my research area; and my take on student life, from living on a budget to balancing studies and socialisation.

So pleased stick around!