If you’re in, or around, or indeed willing to travel to Bradford on the 18th March, come to Waterstones Bradford in the beautiful Wool Exchange to hear Alison Cullingford and me tell the story of three women: British archaeologist, poet and CND founder Jacquetta Hawkes, Palestinian archaeologist Yusra, and the neanderthal woman known as Tabun 1.
The event is completely free**, but you do need to book tickets so that we can let Waterstones know the numbers.
10th September 2014: Four hundred 15 year old girls, arranged around fourty-odd tables, in the lecture hall at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre. And a Tardis. This was the Educating 21st Century Women conference, and I was attending as a panel speaker.
The conference was organised by Mulberry School, a truly wonderful non-selective, all-girls state school in Tower Hamlets, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. The diversity of uniforms in the room, however, was testament to the fact that girls from all over southeast England were in attendance. The atmosphere was electric, but focussed. That morning they’d heard from Mamma Mia and The Iron Lady director Phyllida Lloyd and choreographer Shobana Jeyasingh, amongst others, about gender issues in the Arts and Broadcasting. My panel, on STEM careers, was up next. So, no pressure…
Alongside me on the panel were Lady Geek’s Belinda Parmar, Teach First’s Ndidi Okezie and Pathologist Professor Paola Domizio. Kirsten Bodely from STEMNET chaired.
Questions from the floor focussed on our career paths – how we came to do what we do, the challenges faced along the way, and what advice we’d give to girls today. Apart from the horrified gasp from the room when I told the story of me dropping arts in favour of science subjects at A Level because the course-work got in the way of my teenage social life (I’m not proud and think this May have been a big mistake), I hope my advice was sound. This is what I tried to get across:
be honest with yourself about what you want out of life — don’t waste your time chasing other people’s dreams for you, however well intentioned they may be.
don’t allow other people’s ideas of ‘success’ to define you (see above).
if you don’t know what you want to do, then focus your efforts on what you are good at and what you enjoy. Work at them. That ought to bring you to a place where you have a good chance of being happy.
Be proud of who you are, and where you came from. Don’t apologise for your origins. But equally don’t be shackled by them.
It’s never too late. You can change direction in your life at any point. It might be a bit harder, but it can be done.
Don’t let fear of failure hold you back. One of the biggest advantage privilege & wealth gives is the freedom (and confidence) to take risks and make mistakes. But even without these, it’s not the end of the world if you mess up or make the wrong choice (see also previous point).
I also talked about the power of mentors and networks, and how TrowelBlazers has emphasised the importance of these for me. This led me to give one rather more specific piece of advice: don’t be afraid to contact people in high places for help and advice. As a school student it would never have crossed my mind that you could contact (read ‘bother’ in my mind) academics and the like for work experience. I didn’t know anyone who worked at a university, and no one in my family had even been to university. It was an intimidating world. Now I am inundated with requests for work experience, but always from public- or private school students. Never state school. I want state school kids to feel as confident about their rights to such advice and experience as fee-paying ones.
By the end of lunch, I had plenty of requests 🙂
But by far the most inspirational part of the day for me came after our panel, when the poet Hollie McNish read her ‘three most hated poems’. Hated by people like the English Defence League, that is. Her feminist take on being asked by a TV director to pose naked for a short film on her poetry had the room on their feet and cheering, as did her funny, polemical tirade against her parent’s next-door neighbours’ anti-immigrant opinions. By the end the whole room was ready to take to the barricades and bring on a multicultural feminist revolution!
To get some idea of just how brilliant Hollie is, watch this video of her performing ‘Mathematics’:
And the Tardis? Well that was there because the conference saw the reincarnation of Dr Who as a woman, as designed by the girls themselves. If only it becomes TV reality one day…
A giant hippo is currently floating in the Thames. It goggly eyes and cartoon curves are a pop-art facsimile of the real thing. Florentijn Hofman’s HippopoThames is totally unreal and rather improbable. But then the idea that a hippo would make its home outside the Houses of Parliament *is* improbable.
Hippos *did* swim in the Thames. In the last warm-stage of the current Ice Age (we’re in a warm stage now), 125,000 years ago, the same species of hippopotamus that is now only found in Africa lived all over Europe. And that included the UK. Bones of hippos have been found across London, including Trafalgar Square. It lived alongside lions, straight-tusked elephants, hyaenas and rhinos. Yes, once upon a time there Trafalgar Square had actual, real-life lions.
A Hippo tusk from Trafalgar Square, London. (c) Natural History Museum.
I talked about this, and other aspects of prehistoric London, yesterday at a special HippopoThames-linked event at the Doodle Bar in Battersea as part of the Totally Thames Festival. The poet Tom Chivers and Guerrilla Geographer Dan Raven-Ellison spoke as well, and our aim was to explore the changing nature of the River Thames, its natural — and unnatural — history in the past, present and future.
I covered the past. Tom brought us into historical time through poetry inspired by the lost tributaries of the Thames that flow beneath our feet, and the way that the ebb and flow of the Thames has shaped our modern city. His poems were introspective, thoughtful and quite beautiful. Then Dan launched us into the future with his call-to-action to help make his vision of London as the world’s first National Park City, with is rich urban biodiversity and culturally important landscapes.
Together I hope we showed the ever-shifting nature of the River Thames, and challenged simplistic ideas of what ‘natural’ means. But also the Thames’ fundamental importance in making London what is today. And, if course, making HippopoThames that ever-so-slightly less improbable.
While baby mammoth Lyuba was being unwrapped at the Natural History Museum by my boss Adrian Lister, I was at Broadcasting House for Start the Week, to discuss the thorny subject of Alien Invaders. Not the out of space kind but the movement of animals across the globe, and the emotional subject of the value of native vs non-native species.
On the programme with me were: Ken Thompson, whose new book Where do Camels Belong? addresses these issues head-on; Monique Simmons from Kew, an organisation tasked with minimising the UK’s risk from invasive plant species; and John Lewis-Stempel, whose new book The Private Life of an English Field mourns the loss of traditional farming methods — and a number of well-loved, if non-native species alongside. I gave a palaeontological perspective to the discussion. Plus a preview of Mammoths: Ice Age Giants! and some bonus dwarf mammoths.
I never really felt the discussion really took off – but it was fun nonetheless. In particular I felt that Ken (on the program and in his book) was a little bit naughty in shifting effortlessly between the idea of ‘non-native’ species and ‘invasive’ species. I agree that the idea of a ‘native’ British fauna is highly problematic, but it isn’t really fair to paint conservationists as idealogical zealots here: the species they most worry about are the invasive ones. The ones that swamp out all others, reducing local biodiversity and often causing other species to go extinct.
And yes, while species distributions change through time making the idea of a natural baseline highly era-specific, once you accept that maybe ‘natural’ isn’t the be-all and end all it is time for a more challenging discussion: what is it that we value about our environment and the species around us? What kind of world do we want to leave behind?
There aren’t any easy answers to that, but I suspect the answer isn’t throwing up our hands and doing nothing at all.
Ken’s book is really a long-form version of this paper by Mark Davis et al [££] from 2011, which he was a co-author on. It generated quite a number of responses from ecologists at the time: see this letter by Dan Simberloff [co-signed by 141 other scientists; ££]. If you have access to Nature, they are both well worth a read, as are the references they cite!
Last night Brenna Hassett and I represented TrowelBlazers at the Cosmic Genome LIVE event to celebrate the 15th Anniversary of the London Skeptics in the Pub group. It was a lot of fun to talk Six Degrees of Dorothy Garrod, Dorothea Bate, Hitler-defying Halet Çambel et al. alongside Robin Ince, Helen Arney, Adam Rutherford and Steve Jones amongst others.
The 19th October 2013 was a perfect confluence of international celebrations as far as TrowelBlazers were concerned: International Day of Archaeology, the final day of Earth Science Week, and the end of a week events surrounding Ada Lovelace Day.
Our contribution to mark all three of these things was to organise a Wikipedia editathon with the dual aims of improving wikipedia content about women in the geosciences and archaeology, and to increase the number of women editing wikipedia pages.
Display of fossils and archival material relating to NHM-linked pioneering women scientists. Those covered included: Mary Anning (1799-1847), Dorothea Bate (1878-1951), Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968), Barbara Yelverton Marchioness of Hastings (1810-1858), Elizabeth Cabot Agassiz (1822-1907), Helen Muir Wood (1831-1924), Elizabeth Gray (1831-1924), Mary Home Smith (1784-1866) and (Lucy) Evelyn Cheesman (1881-1969).
With the help of the Natural History Museum’s wikimedian-in-residence John Cummings, I pulled together a whole day of activities that were open to anyone who was interested. Wikipedia training and time for editing, of course, but also a chance to meet historian Pamela Jane Smith (Dorothy Garrod expert) and writer Karolyn Shindler (Dorothea Bate’s biographer). On top of this Hellen Pethers, from the NHM library, and NHM curators Pip Brewer, Sandra Chapman and Zoe Hughes helped me put together a display of archival material and fossils collected by NHM-linked pioneer women scientists. This material is kept behind the scenes, so it was a rare and special opportunity not normally available to the general public.
Places were limited (and it was completely sold out!), but we also live-tweeted it from both @trowelblazers and @thewomensroomuk so that people could join in online. Team TrowelBlazers Suzie Pilaar Birch even joined in from a sister-wikithon in the USA:
If someone asked you to fill in the blank in this question, what would you say? What one word or phrase could possibly capture the essence of a career in science and – simultaneously – capture the imagination of a nine year old child?
It’s the kind of question that makes my mind empty immediately. But Fiona Gill, a chemical palaeontologist from the University of Leeds, paused only momentarily before answering. Firmly, clearly, and with her face breaking into a huge grin she said,
“If you love POO, then you’ll love my job”
Thirty seconds later, we were all doubled over with laughter. The giant concrete Iguanadon behind us looked rather unimpressed, but then he’s looked that way -come rain or shine – for nearly 160 years.
Fiona – who analyses fossil poo to work out what extinct animals were eating – was one of eight palaeontologiststs that TrowelBlazers had brought to Crystal Palace’s Dinosaur Island on the 12th September 2013 to be interviewed by Catherine Bennett, the palaeo-popstar creation of performance artist and comedian Bryony Kimmings. All of the questions in the interviews came from 9 year-olds. Our answers would be filmed and shown in schools up and down the UK. This was our contribution to the Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model Project.
“When you were 9 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?”
I wanted to write stories; Xiaoya Ma wanted to be a dancer or an actress; Lucy McCobb wanted to be a vet. Anjali Goswami wanted to work with tigers (and she actually did for a while!). Only one of us, Susie Maidment, wanted to be a palaeontologist, and that was because someone – her Granddad – had told her that she could be, that this was possible.
The Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model Project is about opening up possibilities like this for children everywhere. It is a direct challenge to the sexualisation and commodification of childhood for profit. Its aim? To fight back against a world where little girls – and little boys – are sold a sorry story of female achievement. A world where success means fame and fame, for women, more often than not means sexual objectification. A world where Disney princesses grow up into pop sex sirens.
Susie Maidment being filmed saying that dinosaurs probably tasted like chicken or duck. And that the pterosaurs behind her aren’t dinosaurs. Photo credit: Victoria Herridge.
Bryony asked her 9-year old niece Taylor to help her invent an alternative, and Taylor’s brief was pretty awesome: a tuna-pasta eating, bike-riding popstar with very curly hair, whose songs – about changing the world, rather than love and lust – sounded like a cross between the Gorillaz and the B-52s.
Oh, and Taylor had another requirement – this popstar worked in a museum with dinosaurs.
Catherine Bennett, popstar palaeontologist, was born.
“What would you say if someone told you girls can’t do your job?”
Sometimes showing is better than telling. No, scratch that. Showing beats telling hands-down, all the time. Bryony Kimmings wanted children to understand that people like Catherine Bennett really do exist, and that working in a museum with dinosaurs was something that they really could grow up to do whether they were a boy or a girl, and regardless of their background.
Lucy McCobb shows off her golden trilobite! Photo credit: Victoria Herridge
This is an issue close to our heart at TrowelBlazers, and so we brought together a crack-team of palaeontologists who were also great communicators, to be filmed with Catherine Bennett and show the joy and fun and diversity a career in science can bring. Because the simple answer to anyone who says a girl can’t do this job is, “You. Are. Wrong. And we have the evidence to prove it.”
Like TrowelBlazers, Catherine Bennett was born of a desire to reset imaginations. It’s about challenging the mainstream narratives of women’s lives that innevitably shape our own aspirations, and the aspirations and expectations of our children. Projects like the Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, or TrowelBlazers, or ScienceGrrl won’t change the world all on their own, but no single project has to; everyone has their part to play.
“Just talk. Just be yourselves”
Towards the end of the day of filming on Dinosaur Island, Rebecca-the-director asked all of us to gather together and just talk to each other about our work, and our lives, so that she could film us behaving naturally.
Cue awkward silence.
Xioya Ma and Anjali Goswami, plus three dinosaurs. Only two of which are scientifically accurate. Photo Credit: Victoria Herridge.
Then, quite suddenly, the camera was forgotten. At the foot of a concrete iguanadon, as school-kids watched from across the lake, eight scientists laughed and shouted and debated, and the conversation flew from 1m-tall dwarf elephants to 2m-long giant millipedes, de-extinction to dinosaurs.
And looking around the group of women and men assembled, who had come from across the UK to do this simply because they cared about the next generation of palaeontologists, I felt quite extraordinarily hopeful. Gender stats in science are bad; those for ethnic diversity and socio-economic background are far worse. And yet there is such a will to change things – we just need to harness it.
Catherine Bennett (@RealCB)’s music videos are here (they’re catchy!)
Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model (Winner, Fringe First Award 2013) will be on at the Soho Theatre 8th-26th October. Book tickets here.
Top photo: Palaeontologists assemble on Dinosaur Island. Left to right: Susannah Maidment (Imperial College London), with Amber; Fiona Gill (U. Leeds); Liam Herringshaw (U. Durham); Anjali Goswami (UCL); Lucy McCobb (National Museum of Wales); David Legg (Oxford University); Xiaoya Ma (Natural History Museum, London); Victoria Herridge (TrowelBlazers) and Catherine Bennett. Photo credit: Daniella Cesarei
What do dwarf elephants have to do with climate change? Charles Lyell Award Lecture by Dr Tori Herridge, 2012 British Science Festival.
This year I was nominated by the Palaeontological Association to give the Charles Lyell Award Lecture at the British Science Festival. To be nominated by my colleagues was honour enough, so actually being selected by the British Science Association meant my sci-comm cup overfloweth…
It was also rather cool that this year marked the 150th anniversary of the first scientific description of a dwarf elephant — at an earlier British Science Festival, no less [read more about that here].
Receiving my award certificate on a gorgeous day, at the very beautiful Univeristy of Aberdeen! Photo (c) British Science Association.
The talk had to be at least 25% interactive, and suitable for families. So I had a fun time inventing demos to explain sea level change in the ice age and concepts like Island Biogeography in a child-friendly way. It was a little perplexing when the audience filed in and there were absolutely no children at all, but I think everyone had a good time. After all, who doesn’t love a demo which involves a tyvek CSI suit and a bottle of spray cream…?