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Interviews - Dee Lawlor

#WomenInSTEM Interview- Curiosity Magpie

Welcome to all of our Cellfie family! Thank you for all your support over the past couple of days, we have been overwhelmed with positivity! It was truly amazing to have reached 100 followers within the first 8 hours of starting Cellfie and it has massively motivated the team and we have many exciting things in the works. We love to hear from all Steminists, so if you want to do an interview with us, write a guest blog or have any suggestions on how we could improve Cellfie, contact us on Twitter @CellfieMagazine or by email on cellfiemagazine@gmail.com.

So, without further ado, our first interview is with Dee, who can be found on Twitter @curiositymagpie. Dee is a science writer and has completed a masters degree in Microscopy.

Thank you so much for agreeing to take part, Dee, and I’m sure our readers will love your interview!

Cellfie: What is your favourite science joke?

Dee: The Higgs Boson walks into a church. The priest says, “You don’t belong here, get out!”. And the Higgs replies, “but without me, you can’t have mass”. It’s a terrible joke but I love it.

Cellfie: That is hilarious! Our personal favourite is “You’re so copper tellurium!” Next question. Who were your role models growing up?

Dee: My mum. She loves science too, but she is more into forensics. I have a random memory of us driving somewhere in the car – I think I must have been about ten – and she taught me how to say, ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’ (DNA). She’s always really supportive of my crazy plots and plans.

My other hero is, of course, David Attenborough. He is such a legend; I think I would just burst into tears if I ever met him in person.

Cellfie: We agree, mums are just the best! David Attenborough is like the Grandad to all of Britain and we loved growing up watching his shows too!

When did you first realize you wanted to do STEM?

Dee: I was always going to be a scientist – there was never anything else I ever wanted to be. Growing up, I was obsessed with animals and the natural world. We are great readers in my family and I always had my nose in a book about animals. This was before we had the internet, remember! My mum would take us exploring in the park or down the beach. I’d be searching for plants and animals and giving anyone who would listen impromptu lectures. So yeah, there was never any question about it, I was going to be a scientist from day one.

Cellfie: Wow! That is seriously giving us adorable overload! We can just imagine a little you frolicking around in nature!

Did you ever want to do anything else?

Dee: No, never. I learned the word ‘zoologist’ when I was watching a David Attenborough documentary and from that moment on, that was what I wanted to be. Sometimes I would sway a little more towards maybe genetics, sometimes a little bit more towards conservation or palaeontology. But I was always going to be a biologist of some kind. The work I do now, science writing, has allowed me to explore all different areas of STEM, but my heart belongs to zoology.

Cellfie: Zoology is such a fascinating area! We wish that there was more emphasis on it in the school system 😦

What is your favourite food?

Dee: Pizza! If I could eat pizza for every meal for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy girl.

Cellfie: OMG, you are making my stomach contract just thinking about it! Our salivary glands are getting ready with the amylase!

What was the most embarrassing moment in your life?

Dee: How to choose!? There have been so many! I was doing a presentation during my MSc on imaging cells. I had left writing my slides until the last minute and was throwing in images as I was getting up to give the presentation. So off I went, talking about imaging and cells and blah blah blah. I always do my talks straight out of my head; I don’t tend to use notes and my slides are mostly just pictures with a few key words. My advisor (who ran the course and was also the head of school) stopped me and said, “Show me the cell in that picture”. I kind of gave him a ‘seriously, you don’t recognise a cell when you see one?’ kind of look and pointed to the giant picture and said, “Eh…right there”. It wasn’t a picture of a cell; it was a picture of a bubble. That’s what I get for leaving things to the last second.

Cellfie: Oh no! That sounds like it would have caused some trauma! Oh well, at least you will always ensure you check whether it is a cell or a bubble! 🙂

What is your favourite shop?

Dee: Bookshops because I just absolutely love everything about books – their feel, their smell, their knowledge. Lock me up in a library and throw away the key! I also love antique stores because you find the weirdest things in them. One of my greatest pride and joys is my cabinet of curiosities. One of the most interesting things I have is a stack of love letters sent between an English girl and a Polish soldier during WW2. I also have a beautiful antique book about microscopes. There is a paragraph on freshwater invertebrates and whoever originally owned the book has underlined some text and written “Incorrect, see Darwin” on the edge of the page. I love the humanity of objects. The fact that the person who owned my book was a scientist at the same time as Darwin is so thrilling!

Cellfie: We totally agree! I wonder whether the readers would like to see our list of favourite books (STEM and other random ones)? Let us know if you would!

Have you ever had any setbacks or been told you are a girl so cannot do STEM?

Dee: Setbacks – of course! I was meant to do my PhD straight after my BSc but we couldn’t get funding for my project. I was devastated! I decided to do my masters for a year with the intention of trying again for PhD funding afterwards. I started a masters in Evolutionary Biology (a dream topic) but this was at the time that Ireland was in deep recession. I made the very difficult (and upsetting at the time) decision to change my masters to microscopy, as I knew I would get a job with that. Fortunately, I loved the course and I had a very successful career out of it. I published my first book on microscopy in June 2019 and that was what really set me up in my current career as a science writer.

In regard to being told no because I’m a girl? Never! I have been very lucky in that I’ve only ever worked with great people. Although, I’ve been told that I’m intimidating, so maybe anyone who was thinking that about me was too scared to say it.

Cellfie: We’re so sorry you had setbacks but we believe it makes a much stronger scientist in the end! It’s so heartwarming to hear you have never experienced any sexism in your career, hopefully minds are changing. One of our founders is always being told she’s scary too! You go, girl! #winninginstem

What’s your message for young girls wanting to do STEM?

Dee: Own it! Whatever choice you make for your career – own it. Actively make your choices, don’t just float through what you think you should be doing. Own your mistakes and own your success. Work hard and fully be whatever you choose to be.

Cellfie: That is exactly our message!

Is there a problem with sexism in the STEM community?

Dee: There are a few parts to this answer, so I’m going to break it up into points.

  • I’ve never experienced sexism personally but I know some people who have. I don’t think it’s a problem that is unique to STEM. You will, unfortunately, always have people who are insecure in themselves and try to put others down. The only bullying I’ve ever experienced in the workplace was actually by another woman.

  • There are very few industries where there is an exact 50/50 split of men and women – you’re always going to find a gender skew, it’s just natural variation. Medicine and pharmacy are two of the only areas where you find a nearly 50/50 split.

  • The priority should not be trying to achieve a 50/50 split. The priority should be ensuring that opportunities are equally available to everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion, background, etc.

  • Men experience sexism in STEM too. For example, men who want to be nurses are often labelled as just being failed doctors. We like to think that society is so enlightened these days, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

  • I think the real issue is why are women not staying in STEM. Many sources will say that having children is the reason women leave their careers. I think this is such an archaic reason! A woman shouldn’t have to choose between being a mother and having a career, not in this day and age!

Cellfie: We could not agree with you more! All of these issues are things that Cellfie is determined to spread awareness about, so if any readers have any ideas for posts related to these or want to contribute their opinions on these issues, get in touch with us.

Finally, what’s one thing you’d like to change about the STEM community?

Dee: I think the grant system has ruined STEM. People who should be collaborating and working together end up in competition with each other because they have to fight for funding. Different labs all around the world are working on solving the same problems. Because of the competition for funding, they don’t communicate or share information with each other. We could achieve so much more, so much faster if we all worked together. 

Cellfie: Wow. Thank you for all of these incredible answers; we think it is so important that women in STEM fields get to share their experiences and get recognition for their brilliance! It means so much to us that you took the time to do this interview and I’m sure our readers will have been enlightened.


Find Dee on Twitter @curiositymagpie


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