Scientific Achievement winner: Dr Hortense Le Ferrand
“I am extremely proud to be one of the winners of the Nature awards, inspiring women in science. Because the award is based on self-nomination and not on a recommendation from another senior world-renown person, I feel very empowered. With the award, I want to further explore ideas that are tangential to my current research and that often appear as 'exotic' for someone working in engineering (and for which it is very difficult to get funding). I would like to question the environmental, social, and maybe philosophical implications of the technologies I am developing with my team which are essentially bioinspired processes and bioinspired solutions. Thanks to the award, I will approach these technological developments in a more holistic way and imagine a potential and desirable future integrating technology and addressing big challenges such as the current environment crisis”
Hortense is the assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She leads a research team in the fields of materials science, mechanics, and engineering. Together, they aim to create materials and structures for a more sustainable world. They develop manufacturing strategies to create structural materials with multifunctional properties through the design of their microstructures. These designs are largely inspired by those found in natural composites but adapted to engineered materials, processes, and applications. Their research is multidisciplinary across physico-chemistry, material science and mechanics, and at multiple length scales, in particular the micro, meso and macroscale. Their collaborators are architects, product designs, biologists, and educators.
Being a woman in Mechanical Engineering can be isolating at times, says Hortense. She managed this issue by surrounding herself with inspiring women colleagues and collaborators, students and researchers. She also brings the topic to discussion with her other colleagues and suggests some simple practical changes that can be put in place to increase diversity and sense of belonging.Moving from country to country during studies and employment is also challenging. Taking the time to build a strong network is a well-invested effort to adapt to a new culture and thrive anywhere.
Hortense advises that now is a very good time to pursue a science career as a woman: there is awareness of the need for more women and the current climate crisis calls for out-of-the box solutions. Taking on positions in areas where very few women were in the past will have a very high chance to lead to innovation. The best advice she received is to have a plan B. Tomorrow is uncertain, to increase chances of success in career and life, it is good to keep one’s options open and have at least one back-up plan.
Science Outreach winner: Main Bhi Curie
The programme founder Ananya Tiwari said: “Science is for everybody. Just like music, science does not differentiate between genders. We are the only winners of this award from India, a place where it must be acknowledged that gender norms exist in pursuit of science. For two and a half years we were silently doing this work. No one seemed to understand what we were up to and what it meant. Now I can go around and share with people why this work is so important.”
SwaTaleem Foundation works with historically underrepresented girls in India: first generation learners, caste and religious minorities, low socio-economic backgrounds, with outcomes like high school dropouts and early forced marriages. Rural Indian females from historically disadvantaged castes are known to be 38% less likely to study science in school and face strong gender stereotypes and resistance to study STEM.
Through the ‘Main Bhi Curie’ program’s curriculum, we aim to build STEM awareness, confidence, and engagement in girls. The curriculum covers 26 themes including themes of science and gender. Furthermore, they train local village women to implement it in schools. Every cycle culminates with a Science Gender Fair where girls present their scientific models to their villages and government officials.
One challenge they experienced in particular was parental resistance which made it challenging for the facilitators to promote discussions around these topics until students confidently explained it to their parents. Similar resistance also came from some teachers. To overcome this, they kept them in the loop through regular updates and a platform for the congregation to celebrate the project’s learnings. The Science-Gender Fair focused on making the parents, teachers, and other community members to be part of this initiative.
Ananya Tiwari’s advice to others is to start small. If you do not have avenues to do something big at the beginning, you can begin by working with a small group of stakeholders and hone your skills and programs. Secondly, take as much feedback as possible in the work. STEM can seem far away especially from minoritized communities because it is taught in a boring or difficult manner. Third, connect with people online and offline who either do similar work or are interested in it to build a community of support around you. These people will offer solutions to outreach challenges, serve as reviewers or experts and brainstorm new ideas with you.