A riveting discussion with Yvonne Baker

By Adam Dorey, Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences Student and SATNAV Secretary

As part of Yvonne’s visit to the University to deliver her Distinguished Lecture, SATNAV were invited to be a part of a roundtable discussion, allowing students to get answers and advice directly from her. The discussion was hosted by Professor Mark Simmons, Head of the School of Chemical Engineering, and students were from a variety of STEM-focused societies including Engineers Without Borders (EWB), the Women in Science and Engineering Society (WISE), Chemical Engineering Society (BUCES) and us here at SATNAV – a really interesting mix of people that allowed for a lot of different perspectives on the issues raised, from diversity to science communication.

yvonne baker discussion


Considering Careers

As communicating science to increasingly diverse groups of students is the aim of STEM Learning, the first question, asked by WISE’s Paige Ramsden, was how Baker had ended up in scientific communication. Yvonne explained that her career in the chemical engineering industry had helped her to become a better science communicator, having to express her ideas to groups that might not be especially receptive. She posed that industry experience can add credibility to one’s science communication career, having to communicate across different parts of the corporate world. And as corporations become increasingly science savvy, there is much opportunity for science communication in industry.

The next question, from EWB’s Chloe Lee, focused on Yvonne’s transition from the industrial world of engineering to STEM Learning. She remarked that she was surprised she got the job, having applied to lead the STEM Ambassadors programme at STEMNET in 2002 just to see what would happen. She recalled the underground office she worked in, based near Moorgate tube station in London, where she would often watch pedestrians walk overhead. Since 2002, the STEM Ambassadors programme has grown exponentially, with the number of official members currently standing at 33,000 – 65% from an engineering background and 42% female. The expansion has been driven by people Baker terms as ‘boomerang children’: students who have experienced the STEM Learning programme who later return as Ambassadors themselves.

Student Emma Robinson then probed deeper into Yvonne’s motivations of working to engage young people in STEM careers and wondered whether Baker had experienced the shortage of women in the STEM sector first-hand. Baker reminisced over her time in industry, fondly mentioning ‘ammonia avenue’ a particularly smelly area where she worked explaining that she thought people deserved similar opportunities to make their own fond, if pungent memories. She said, “I was lucky and I worked hard… and had a really rewarding career as a result. And I want other people from other backgrounds to be lucky.”

On Outreach

Beth Soanes, President of WISE, asked for Yvonne’s suggestions on making young people from underprivileged backgrounds feel more involved with STEM outreach. She expressed that we should do more to support teachers, who can often be real agents of change in young people’s lives. Teachers understand the contexts in which individual students are growing up, she explained, so can tell stories that have more impact upon students. She talked about campaigns to promote engineering in the public sphere, such as science in shopping centres. This would provide a chance for the parents and grandparents without as much connection with science to experience it in a familiar way, allowing promotion to gently influence attitudes. Baker noted that social bias often held students back from entering the STEM sector, and that perhaps internalised attitudes from parents meant that students could be less willing to give it a chance. Her advice to students feeling held back from trying STEM out? “Sometimes rebelliousness is a really good streak.”

I inquired about what we could do for those who we couldn’t convince about STEM; even though the number of STEM Ambassadors is increasing, how do we deal with those who just aren’t turned on to the idea of STEM? Yvonne accepted that, while there are some people that just don’t get it, that doesn’t change her belief that being able to choose a STEM education is vital for everyone, even if not everyone wants to be a career scientist. She clarified that an understanding of STEM is essential for active citizenship, especially in our postmodern times where technology is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. Not to mention the ‘science problems’ that plague our generation, phenomena such as climate change and food security impact everybody and will need more scientific minds than ever to fix these problems.

Abigail Joyce, SATNAV’s Publicity Officer, asked about how role models can encourage young people to pursue STEM careers. Yvonne claimed that role models offer “a window into worlds people might never have seen or had the opportunity to choose” – hammering home the idea that the choice to have a STEM education is imperative. STEM Ambassadors, as well as educating young people to consider the prospects STEM careers hold, can help to break down internalised barriers that might have previously hampered their interest in science. By interacting with someone working in a field they are passionate about who has come from the same background as they have, it allows them to consider “if they can do it, what’s stopping me?”

Women in STEM

The next two questions focused on being a woman in STEM with Nicole Rosik, WISE’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Representative, asking what could be done to encourage those women moving toward graduate degrees who may be considering dropping out of science because they feel they aren’t good enough. In response, Baker referenced the invention of the Post-It Note. The re-adherable strip of Post-It note glue was originally intended to be one of the strongest ever invented; instead inventor Dr Spenser Silver created the unreliable adhesive that reams of users need to easily re-attach notes to their work. Baker’s point: what one considers to be a failure may turn into a success. She offered another practical piece of advice. “Apply for the job. Just do it.” And with this philosophy inspiring Yvonne to apply for her first job in the STEM Ambassadors scheme, she can attest that it’s served her pretty well so far.

The last question came from Rosie Pope, an incoming Charity Rep for the Birmingham University Chemical Engineering Society, asking Baker to share the challenges she experienced during her industry experience. Baker said at the time there was sexism because women in engineering “were an oddity”. She explained that “people don’t realise what they’re doing is discriminating” while explaining that wasn’t an excuse. When she first joined her engineering company as a manager, there was one (male) worker in particular who was more than taken aback by Baker’s gender. She came up with a compromise, saying to give her a year to prove that she was capable of doing the job. One year later, he grudgingly agreed she was.

She recalled a time that she had stayed in a hotel and, upon requesting maintenance, had been momentarily surprised to be met with a young female engineer. She stated that she “wanted to get to the stage where we don’t have to do a second take or go ‘oh!’”, because the idea of women in STEM should not be remarkable, but normalised. “Always work to change people’s misconceptions. Do not watch from the side-lines. Get on the pitch and change the rules.”

The roundtable discussion provided a wonderful opportunity to get to know Baker before the lecture. Throughout the day, I thought she revealed herself to be a hard-working, get-things-done kind of character, using her position to give others the opportunities she sincerely believed they deserved. With the discussion over, we headed to the lecture hall to find out more about Baker’s work.

 

Spending the afternoon talking to Yvonne was an incredible opportunity to discover more from the perspective of a passionate engineer and STEM advocate about the path she had taken and challenges she had faced along the way. It was inspiring and empowering to hear her messages of perseverance, dedication and innovation that can be applied to anyone in any walk of life, but especially resonated with STEM students at the beginning of their career journeys. The evening dinner was a fantastic opportunity to meet with inspirational professionals and students from the University of Birmingham in a casual setting and discuss their passions and motivations behind the work they do. Overall, the event was interactive, friendly and meticulously organised, making it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

 

To watch Yvonne’s 2020 EPS Distinguished Lecture “Birmingham, STEM Ambassador’s and Me”, head to www.birmingham.ac.uk/eps/distinguished/yvonnebaker.

Or to learn more about SATNAV and their society, visit www.birmingham.ac.uk/eps/satnav.