Tech Corridor women in STEAM: The Scientists

6th March 2019

As International Women's Day approaches, we're celebrating the scientists conducting game-changing research in the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor.

The Tech Corridor is home to many talented female scientists, technologists, artists, engineers, mathematicians (STEAM), and this week we are recognising some of the brightest and best to inspire more girls to study for STEAM careers.

Science is a key driver for the growth of the Tech Corridor, with out life science and agri-tech clusters poised to shape the future of food production and healthcare. The scientists profiled here are addressing the big challenges facing society.

This is by no means a definitive list – we know there are many more who deserve recognition. We hope you will help us add to it by letting us know who you would nominate; message us on Twitter or LinkedIn with your suggestions for names to add to our list.

Together we can identify and celebrate women in STEAM across our region and inspire the next generation.

The Scientists

Samantha Fox

The STEMM Champion – Samantha Fox

The Youth STEMM Awards is a bit like the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, in that it encourages young people to get involved in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine) related activities and build a portfolio of their achievements. Samantha Fox founded the awards in 2015 following a ‘Women of the Future’ conference in Norwich. “I realised we were doing one excellent day a year to engage young women in STEMM but not following up with longer term sources of inspiration,” she explains.

Sam is a plant scientist and PhD researcher at the John Innes Centre. She is also an advisor to the Norwich Science Festival. “It’s important to inspire young people to study for STEMM careers because it opens up such a world of possibilities for them.

“We started out with around 200 girls aged 15 from schools in Norfolk. We have since opened up the scheme to girls and boys aged 13 to 18, and to date over 1,350 students from across the region have taken part. We are even rolling the scheme out nationally and internationally.

“Too many girls still believe STEMM isn’t for them because of the way roles are portrayed in society. That’s why one strand of the Youth STEMM Awards involves inspiring younger children. The others help students develop valuable ‘soft skills’ and knowledge as well as exploring STEMM careers.

“I am delighted CNTC is focusing on STEMM role-models for IWD. We have so many bright, capable girls in the region. It’s vital that we give them the knowledge and support to succeed in STEMM.”

The space storyteller – Ghina Halabi

Proud owner of the first PhD in astrophysics from a Lebanese university, Dr Ghina Halabi is a space scientist, storyteller, and advocate for gender equality in STEM.

A post-doc research scientist at Cambridge University, Ghina looks at the structure and evolution of stars.

She explains: “Most of the elements in the universe are forged in stars, including the elements that form life and our own DNA. Our group focuses on studying different types of stars, the factors affecting their evolution and the elements formed within them.

“We’re particularly interested in stellar rotation. This rotation can be fast or slow and it varies over time during the star’s life. Rotation affects the properties of stars and the chemical make-up of their surfaces. However, rotation is so complex that we still do not fully understand how it affects the evolution of a star during its different life stages.”

If that doesn’t sound like enough work to keep one person occupied, Ghina is also the founder and managing editor of She Speaks Science, a platform which gives scientists the opportunity to use storytelling to make their research accessible to the general public.

She says women are under-represented in her field, and a cultural change is needed if we are to see more females in leadership positions.

“I think there’s good engagement at student level, but as you move into professorship it drops down to only 10-12 per cent female,” she says.

“We have to re-consider what constitutes a healthy research culture, challenge our norms of success and the existing power differentials, reward team work and promote diverse and inclusive environments. The system is not one that acknowledges career breaks and family responsibility and this is also one of the things that need to change.

“My advice to women and girls aspiring for a career in science would be to have confidence in themselves, never shy away from speaking up and to own their journey and their achievements.”

The clean water entrepreneur – Serena Belluschi

She’s in the midst of a PhD in stem cell research, but scientist Serena Belluschi has no intention of spending the rest of her life in the lab.

Serena is co-founder of Majico, a fledgling Cambridge company commercialising a novel catalyst that purifies water using sunlight, and is enjoying the hustle and bustle of start-up life.

“I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was a child, but I’ve always had an interest in international development too, and it’s great to find a job like this where I can make a real impact,” she says.

“When you’re doing research it can take 20 or 30 years to make a breakthrough, the pace is very, very slow. This is completely different, and I get to learn new skills and push myself out of my comfort zone.”

Serena Belluschi

Hailing from near Monza in Italy, Serena came to Cambridge in 2015 to start her PhD. She met the rest of the Majico team on i-Teams, a Cambridge University programme which aims to help students bring their ideas to life.

The team has already conducted research in Tanzania, working alongside other organisations and NGOs, and taken part in the Allia Serious Impact programme, which helps equip social ventures with business skills needed to grow and thrive.

Supplying clean water is key to combating a number of major health issues in developing countries, and Serena believes Majico’s technology could be part of the solution.

“Our system uses affordable materials and can be built ‘in country’,” she says. “We don’t want to just provide technology, we want to follow up with educational programmes around the water issue and look at other technologies which can be applied in this area.

“I love the contact with people from different backgrounds and the feeling that we’re making an impact already.”

Lynn Dicks (pic: Andy Sapey)

The bee specialist – Lynn Dicks

The UK has many hundreds of species of pollinators – from bees, butterflies and birds to ladybirds, moths and wasps. They are important for growing many flowers, fruits and other food crops. Defra estimates they boost the UK economy by £400-£680 million a year by increasing productivity on our farms.

However, these valuable creatures are under threat from loss of habitat, intensive farming and the overuse of pesticides. The consequences for humanity could be grave – but solving this problem poses a major challenge for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How do we feed a growing world population (SDG2), while protecting Life on Land (SDG15)?

Here in the UK’s agricultural heartland, we have thousands of talented scientists across the Cambridge Norwich Tech Corridor working on these and other global challenges. One of them is Dr Lynn Dicks, a Fellow of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) based at the UEA School of Biological Sciences. Lynn’s field of work looks at how agro-ecology, policy and the farming industry interact.

For her PhD, from the University of Cambridge, she studied the community ecology of flower-visiting insects. Since then she has gone on to look at how pollinators form part of the larger ecosystem of species that provide economically valuable services on farmland. In 2018, she won DEFRA’s national Bees’ Needs Champions award for her work on raising public awareness of pollinators.

She is particularly keen to help commercial growers and buyers recognise the business case for protecting bio-diversity on farms. “People won’t take the urgent action that’s needed if they only  see ecology and the natural environment as something that’s nice to have,” she explains. “Even intensively farmed land has many insects and other creatures providing essential services in a sophisticated natural supply chain.”

Lynn is currently working on a number of important projects both here and in Brazil that look at how wildlife doesn’t just provide pollinator services but can also play a valuable role in controlling pests. “There are many predator and parasitic insects that can do the work of expensive pesticides for free – but there’s been hardly any research into their role. Yet where we have studied them, we’ve found they can help generate around 10% of the overall crop yield.”

Her research group at the UEA is working with agri-food companies to understand how farmers can protect and increase pollinator populations. She’s particularly interested in “push pull” systems that grow flowers in the middle of fields that repel pests (push) and plants along the edges that attract pests and their predators (pull). “This sort of ecosystem engineering – influencing insect behaviour to reduce pests – could help cut the use of pesticides. That,” Lynn concludes, “would be good for the environment and for farmers and consumers.”

About International Women's Day

A global event celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, International Women’s Day 2019 takes place on Friday, March 8.

This year’s theme is #BalanceforBetter. Campaign organisers explain: “From grassroots activism to worldwide action, we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance. We notice its absence and celebrate its presence.

“Balance drives a better working world. Let’s all help create a #BalanceforBetter.”

To find out more about the initiative and how you can get involved, visit www.internationalwomensday.com.