Focus on the women at home in the lab

14th March 2008 at 00:00
You will have heard of Marie Curie and possibly Rosalind Franklin, but what about Dorothy Hodgkin or Cristina Roccati? Science is not just for men. Jean McLeish learns more

After more than 30 years of teaching science, Moira Currie has had it with men getting almost all the credit for scientific advances. This year at the Moray Science Festival, her students are telling more than 5,000 visitors about women who have been largely unacknowledged pioneers for centuries.

This is the 15th year the festival has been run to enthuse primary children about science, and Moray College in Elgin is swarming with excited 10- and 11-year-olds.

The further education students are demonstrating experiments that the children can then try for themselves and university postgraduate students are showing even more exotic displays. Everywhere things are banging and exploding and going up in flames, rockets are shooting into the sky and luminous green worms are being produced in a lab.

Mikey O'Shane, 10, scrutinises a trail of what looks like snot. "This is well ace," he says admiringly, which leaves Mrs Currie, curriculum leader for science at the college, well chuffed.

"It's a very simple piece of polymerisation and we call it instant worms," she explains. "The children are actually making a very small polymer using a seaweed jelly and calcium chloride solution."

It may look like child's play but the idea is to illuminate the work of Nobel Prize-winner Dorothy Hodgkin, a polymer chemist whose most influential work determined the structure of penicillin and insulin.

Along the corridor, students on the Access to Science course are presenting experiments linked to topics covered in primary school and connected to the fields of leading women. "Jacqueline Cochran was the first woman to break the sound barrier, the first woman to land and take off from an aircraft carrier and the first woman to fly a fixed-wind jet across the Atlantic," Mrs Currie says. "So the experiment for her is with a piece of paper. When you whack it, it snaps; you've broken the sound barrier.

On families' day, about 3,500 people were expected. "They all want to have a go at the experiments - maw, paw, grannie, grandpa, aunties, uncles, nieces and nephews - everybody wants to get their hands dirty," Mrs Currie laughs.

She wasn't much older than the visiting primary children when her curiosity about how things work was first awakened.

"When I was about 12 my younger brother bought a radio and I wanted to see how it worked. So I took a butter knife and took the radio apart. I'm just a very nosy person," explains Mrs Currie, who was less skilled at rebuilding the radio and had to buy a new one.

Her idea for promoting women scientists was prompted by her interest in Greek and Roman history. "I came across a reference to a lassie called Hypatia of Alexandria. She was a philosopher, astronomer and mathematician. She fell foul of an Archbishop Cyril of Constantinople. He induced a group of monks to grab her, rip her limb from limb and then scrape her flesh off with broken oyster shells.

"And I thought to myself, 'Nothing much has changed in science has it?' It just got me so angry that women over the years very rarely get the recognition they deserve and it was time to put the record straight," says Mrs Currie.

"The other thing that annoyed me was a report in New Scientist on peer review of papers. If the peer review was a double blind, then women who were putting papers forward had a much higher chance of having their work published than if they had a female name on it. You would think that sort of attitude had long gone, but obviously there are still inbuilt prejudices.

"Part of my mission with this Women in Science festival is to show women have always been involved in science; they just haven't always had the recognition they deserved," she says.

Danielle Nicoll a former Elgin Academy pupil, launches a plastic rocket 40 feet into the air to demonstrate air pressure and the work of physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, to the delight of screaming observers.

Danielle, 17, is on an Access to Science course - which gets students to university entrance level in a year - and hopes to study dentistry. "I came here after fifth year because I didn't do all my sciences in school," she says. "I don't think I did as best as I could. But I'm going to now."

The college students have done all the research and preparation for their presentations, choosing experiments, ordering chemicals and carrying out risk assessments.

Teaching at Moray College, one of 15 colleges in the UHI Millennium Institute, is rewarding for Mrs Currie and colleagues. "A few years ago, we had a guy who was a painter and decorator who had watched a programme on DNA one night and got really quite fascinated. He came and did Access to Science, went on to university, did his doctorate and now does research into DNA," she smiles.

"With the Access programme we've got guaranteed entry into any of the science faculties of any of the Scottish universities, apart from St Andrews. It means that the students maybe won't have exactly the same qualifications as someone coming straight from school, but what they will have is an awful lot more self-confidence. And they've got very good study skills, because something we are really hot on is teaching them how to study and be independent learners."

Francesca Cresswell, 11, of St Sylvester's Primary in Elgin, has managed to balance 57 nails on top of one nail during a demonstration highlighting the work of the 18th-century scientist Cristina Roccati and Newtonian physics.

Francesca would like to be a scientist. "I like science. You get to do things. I'd like to play with potions in bottles," she says, adding a final raft of nails to the precarious pile.

Mrs Currie looks pleased. "I love teaching. I do it for purely selfish reasons, because I love seeing the light coming on. I love that distinction between "Eh?" and "Aah!"

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