Speaking to a scientist

July 5, 2017

 

 

Recently, I had the privilege to talk to Dr Heather Hendrickson, a senior lecturer at Massey University. She is an experienced scientist- so, as part of the July newsletter the focus is on women in science, I decided it would be really interesting to get some insight from someone in the field. 

 

Below is the interview, where she talks about her experience with sexism in the field, why science, and her view on the gender gap. She starts by introducing herself.

 

I am an evolutionary microbiologist. For my work, I am interested in studying the process of evolution both using bacteria as a model organism to investigate how evolution works and studying the ways that bacteria evolve specifically. In practice, this means that I get to think about a wide range of interesting things all at once. At the moment my laboratory is pursuing projects such as how bacterial cell shapes evolve, how DNA moves around in bacteria as the grow and divide and how the natural predators and parasites of bacteria (viruses and protozoa) effect bacterial evolution. We also have a fun project that we engage undergraduate students that we call “Phage Hunting” where we discover viruses that infect bacteria that have never been seen before.

 

Can you share an interesting story about your work?

 

When I was an undergraduate I was really interested in how evolution works and I was reading a lot about some of the controversies in molecular evolution. One of the popular science articles I read described a hypothesis that suggested that bacteria under stress could choose their own mutations. This did not sound like the type of evolution I had learned about at all and I was intrigued. At the same time, I was looking for a job on campus to help support myself and I happened to be hired to do some computer and purchasing work by a well known scientist whose lab happened to be studying this topic I had been reading about. I started to talk to this incredibly well known scientist about this thing that I was interested in and I have been working on related topics in microbial evolution ever since!

 

Please highlight for us one experience in which you felt proud to be a woman in science.

 

This is a hard question. I have had lots of experiences where I felt proud to be a scientist but in those instances I have not generally thought of myself as a “woman in science”.

 

Have you ever experienced any form of discrimination? If so, what situation was it in and how did that make you feel?

 

I actually had a colleague at Oxford University who came up behind me, out of the blue, when I was working in the lab and muttered really mean stuff under his breath like “you are a stupid woman who should just quit science and have babies”. The first time I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say or even how to acknowledge the behaviour. The second time I turned around and told him he was being a jerk and he was going to stop. He did. We were never friends but I think this was some sort of ridiculous test. The whole experience made me feel angry and strangely humiliated but I was glad that I took charge of the conversation in the end. I still think that guy is a jerk.

 

Dr Hendrickson, as a woman in science field, what was one major challenge you had to overcome to get to the position you have know?

 

Before I went to graduate school, to do my PhD, I was married. My husband did not really want me to go to graduate school. At the time he said he had a Master’s degree and didn’t want his wife to have a higher degree than his. Ultimately, we decided that our marriage had run its course and I was officially divorced 7 days before I started my PhD.

 

There are many articles which highlight that sexism is still an issue in the science field;  what’s your take on it?

 

I have had a lot of incredibly supportive male scientists in my life who have taught me not only about science but about how to be a feminist when I needed those lessons. I am totally grateful to those men and I would not be where I am today without them. With that said, there are other men who don’t recognise the subtle (and not so subtle) ways that behave that are sexist.   

 

Why is it so important that more women become leaders in science?

 

Leaders are the ones who can make change. I think it is Cheryl Sandberg who tells a story about becoming a leader in a business and getting pregnant and suddenly realizing that pregnant women need special parking. If there are things that need to change in science that will affect how women engage with science then it is probably going to be women in leadership positions who will have the vision to see what could be better and the will to make the changes that are required.

 

Can you explain why you think there is few girls that go into scientific fields?

 

I think this is primarily historical. Most of the people who did science were male for a very long time and that sort of historical bias can have a big impact on two key factors. One of these is how comfortable women feel joining in to scientific pursuits when they don’t see anyone like themselves doing science. The other factor, is that not having had women around while they were being trained can affect how comfortable men feel having women doing science. This latter factor can be really subtle so it can be hard for someone to recognise that they have this feeling. The good news is that these are things that can be fixed.      

 

Finally, what is your message to young girls about science?

 

If you really enjoy science then pursue it. I have an awesome job where I get to discover new things about my favorite open questions. That is an incredible pleasure and a privilege. I am excited about the science that we do in my laboratory and I love the opportunities that I have every day to learn about other people’s cool ideas from papers and discussions. The living world is an amazing place and I love learning about it.

 

I would like to thank Dr. Hendrickson for taking her time to answer these questions, to provide this community with insight into science and the issues women may face in the field, as well as the rewards of such an exciting career!

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