Female scientists: not martyrs, but heroes.

Last week I attended the APS March meeting in New Orleans, and there was a session in honor of the 150th anniversary of Marie Curie, in which we had talks on Marie Curie’s life, as well as lively discussions on the challenges faced by women in physics today. Professor Emerita Ruth Howes gave an incredibly inspiring and entertaining talk about Marie Curie. With the title “Marie Curie: physicist and woman” Professor Howes showed us a side of Marie that, at least I, was not aware of. The way her story was told and the details I learned about her life made me feel closer to her, not only as the pioneer she was but as a woman: the mischievous pranks of that summer in the countryside, her horror at being underprepared for the Sorbonne, the persecution of the French media when her affair with Langevin was discovered. During that talk, somehow Marie gained a new dimension, outside the well-defined outline of her scientific life. I realized this is something I had felt missing before, in the biographies of trailblazing women in science. We usually put so much emphasis in highlighting the difficulties they overcame, their hard work, their scientific discoveries, that we end up making them so perfect that is hard for girls today to identify with them. Their brilliance is an inspiration, even more so when you consider the injustices they faced, but I believe we should remind ourselves, that they were women just like us, with their personal struggles and failures. They were not one-of-a-kind martyrs, but heroes that we can emulate today.

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Professor Howes

As a woman and a physicist, it bothers me that other girls and women might not feel welcome in the field. We still need to overcome challenges until we are in a position of equality with our male colleagues, and I (as am sure many others like me) often think about what is the best way in which I can contribute. There is an ever-growing community of scientists (both men and women) who champion equal opportunities and put in place programs that help this effort. Our greatest strength is our community, the mentors who help and champion students and young scientists, the role models that increase representation in the field and encourage new generations.

We want to shine the spotlight on the achievements of female scientists, in particular, those that have had to overcome particularly dire circumstances. But I think we should be careful that we don’t portray them as superhumans who have succeeded where no other person could, as by doing so we risk intimidating the same people we want to encourage. Science should not be the field of the brave but of the interested. We want to inspire young minds, and we want all the young people interested to feel they have a place in the scientific community.

I loved watching the film “Hidden figures” and one of the things I enjoyed the most was the companionship and support the women offered each other. And I loved it not only because it was inspirational and emotive, but because this is a part of my experience as a female scientist that I don’t see highlighted often. Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Emmy Noether, Lise Meitner, they all had to face challenges on their own, but nowadays we have an extraordinary community of women doing scientific research, championing each other and looking for ways of levelling the playing field in the sciences. During my research in quantum computing, I’ve met incredibly smart, kind and all-around amazing women, some of whom I’m now lucky to call my closest friends. As female scientists of 2017, we still have challenges, but we are no longer alone.


Some groups and resources for women in physics:

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