These are officially the most inspirational women in STEM on campus

One of them is helping dismantle nuclear weapons

If there’s one thing that unites STEM (science, tech, engineering, and maths) students, it’s the drive to make the world an easier place to live for us mere mortals. With engineers building sustainable vehicles, and biologists finding cures for diseases, they’re easily the least self-indulgent and most underrated students on campus.

The Tab thought it was high time these students got the recognition they deserve. After hundreds of entries to The Nova Prize 2018, a competition celebrating female STEM talent brought to you in partnership with EY, we found the country’s female pioneers across engineering, maths, physics, biology, chemistry and technology. The six winners won £1000 to be put towards their research. Meet this year’s winners of The Nova Prize:

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Alice Torjussen, Sussex, Winner of the Nova Prize for Technology

Alice’s research in animal-computer interaction (ACI) aims to create technology for assistance dogs. She spent the summer designing intuitive tech for animals, whether it’s a button to open a door, use a lift or cross the street. She has had a paper on her work published and has recently received a scholarship for a PhD in Human-Computer Interaction.

When did your interest in technology begin?

When I was a kid I loved playing video games but I never saw technology as a career path. I didn’t even take IT for GCSE, and from what I’ve heard it wasn’t really that useful. Schools only really focus on Excel-based stuff, rather than physical computer science. Despite the fact kids are using smartphones, apps and social media every day, they still don’t understand anything behind it. 

My first offer for uni was for Biomedical Science, but I switched to Computer Science when I realised that was my passion. It was the best decision I ever made, despite the fact I hadn’t done any programming before then.

What would you say is the biggest barrier for women coming into this field?

I mean there are quite a lot of male role models, like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, who are successful in technology, but I’ve never had a female computer science lecturer at uni. I think the problem lies in the fact that female experts are not publicised enough for people to view them as successful – which I hope to change. If you do some research, there are countless female pioneers in technology. Hopefully, my work can act as an inspiration to someone.

What is it that drives you when it comes to your work?

The main thing is knowing that I’m actually going to be able to use my degree in a way that can change someone’s life. My work is focused in animal computer interaction, and my supervisor has organised a partnership with a university in Denver, Colorado using our work. They have people attending who actually use the assistance dogs technology that we create and design. 

I’m planning to use the prize money from The Nova Prize on flights to Colorado so I can go and visit the animal computer interaction lab who we’re collaborating with. I’ll meet the people who we’re going to be designing for, meet the other designers and work on other projects together. I can now afford to visit two or three times, which I would never be able to afford to without this. 

What advice would you have for young women going into STEM?

Be confident in yourself and don’t worry about what anyone else thinks of you. People always told me I could never be a software developer and I could never program.  If you enjoy something, even if it’s difficult, keep pushing for it until they can’t fault you. 

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Lucy Rushbrook, Surrey, Winner of the Nova Prize for Engineering

Lucy has spent the last two years designing and building a solar-powered car with Ardingly Solar on her industrial placement. The car raced in the iLumen European Solar Challenge, a 24-hour race, proving that solar-powered vehicles are a viable form of transport. She also teaches and mentors around 50 students at the college on building sustainable vehicles and engineering as a whole. 

Why did you get into engineering?

At school, I was always into maths and science, and I set up a STEM club with a few of my friends to expose everyone to it more. I only properly stepped into it at uni as there wasn’t a direct route into engineering in school.

What’s your main motivation when it comes to your work?

To help build a sustainable future. Everything we do to try and help reduce the footprint that we’ve created is something, even if it’s small. My last placement was a school-based project where I mentored students aged 14-18 on how to build a solar-powered car to race in Australia. It’s a great way for them to get into the world of engineering and it also gave me the chance to teach them about sustainability. We went out to Belgium for the European Solar Challenge with 40 of the students.

Now, I’m working on the Formula student car with my uni team – an electric car that’ll be racing from the top to the bottom of Australia.

Have you ever felt challenged or held back in your academic pursuits because you’re a woman?

Yeah, a lot of the time you feel you can’t be heard. If I was in a situation where it was me and ten male engineers I’d be less likely to speak just due to how much more confident they seem. It’s definitely shifting, however, as more and more female experts are getting publicity. I hope that I can one day act as a role model for young girls in this field.

What are your plans for the future?

I want to go into sustainable development of some sort – whether that’s renewable energy, or looking at sustainable water, especially in third world countries where that’s very needed. We’re so developed, we can now go on to use renewable energy – but in these deprived countries, they need to just go straight into finding sustainable ways of life.

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Kirsty Smitten, Sheffield, Winner of the Nova Prize for Chemistry

Kirsty’s work is focused on finding alternatives to organic antibiotics. She has synthesised a set of new antimicrobial complexes that have a higher activity than clinically available antibiotics, and discovered that the compounds are more active on dangerous Gram-negative bacteria. The compounds Kirsty has synthesised are against the two bacteria identified by the World Health Organisation as Priority 1:CRITICAL.

Why did you choose your specific field of work?

Antimicrobial resistance is quite a topic of discussion at the moment. There will come a point where there are no antibiotics we can use anymore, or as some call it a post-antibiotic era. At that point, we’ll need to look at different types of drugs so there are no resistance mechanisms to what we’re using.

Most of the drugs that you see at the minute are organic, but we work in inorganic, so it’s quite a step away from the norm. When I go and present at a conference I’ll have organic lecturers or pharmaceutical companies that will tell me my projects won’t work, but we’ve seen the success of these experiments first-hand. To think that we could change the landscape of pharmaceutical drugs for the future is really exciting.

How do you feel about the representation of women in STEM?

In my department, there are maybe three or four female lecturers and around 20 male ones. There’s obviously a disparity in regards to gender, which is for a number of reasons. However, that’s not to say there aren’t men in the field who are supporting female talent. When I was working through my undergrad, my personal tutor really inspired me to go into this sort of work and he’s now my supervisor. It’s great to see that there are, in fact, experts in the field who believe in equality within this industry. 

What would be your best piece of advice for young women going into STEM?

Networking is key in this field. When I was applying for PhDs, I sent my CV out and spoke to loads of different supervisors at different unis just to see what opportunities were out there. You’ll be surprised how many academics are willing to extend a hand and give you the guidance you need.

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Caisey Pulford, Liverpool, Winner of the Nova Prize for Biology

Caisey has discovered that venomous snakes can carry salmonella. In her PhD, Caisey is researching a largely-unreported epidemic of multidrug-resistant salmonella which causes bloodstream infections, responsible for 388,000 deaths each year in Africa. Caisey has worked in research centres in the UK, Malawi, Paris and London, as well as speaking at conferences worldwide.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I’m currently analysing 2,000 salmonella samples from developing countries in Africa, the French Caribbean and Asia. This year I’ll be focusing on the results of these analyses and then using them to make a positive contribution to the areas of the world that need it. 

What do you plan to use the prize money for?

Next year there is a conference in Boston – the annual salmonella conference. This will be the first one I’ve been able to go to since starting my PhD. It’s a really great opportunity to network with other people in my field, and we’ll be able to get feedback so we can improve our techniques and stuff that we use. I also intend to use some of it for campaigning to raise awareness of the disease, as it’s such a neglected cause.

What are your goals for the future?

I want to be a female leader in global health. I would love to stay in the field of salmonella research, but my goal is to work for Public Health England, both on their epidemiology team and their computational biology team. You need both of those things to be able to combat an epidemic. Internationally, I’d like to work for the World Health Organisation, to use everything I’ve learned to help some of the poorest health infrastructures in the world.

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Elisha Meikleham, Manchester Metropolitan, Winner of the Nova Prize for Maths

Elisha tutors mathematics to underprivileged children and adults looking to pass their GCSEs. Additionally, Elisha also conducts her own research within group theory and its many applications in cryptography, physics and chemistry. Elisha also studies factoring algorithms and their applications in cryptography, which is fundamental in keeping data secure online.

What would you say is the main motivator for you when it comes to your work?

In regards to my tutoring work, I believe everyone should feel like they’re doing something important. I have tutored some adults to get their GCSE maths, and they’ve used that to then go on to do a college course, get degrees and find the career they truly want. Sometimes all these people need is someone to give them that help they need, and that can change their life. 

Has there ever been a moment that you felt held back in this field?

I come from a regular state school in Blackburn, and the way most schools teach mathematics doesn’t really drive most people as it’s quite simple maths. Once you get to A-Levels, you have this massive jump, and most students aren’t ready for it.

I’ve met quite a few people at uni who studied things like calculus, differentiation, integration and proof techniques all before A-Level. It would have been so much more beneficial for me if these topics were offered, so that’s why I chose to start tutoring – if the schools don’t provide it, someone needs to, so the kids who have an interest in this field can progress.

What’s been the proudest moment of your academic career so far?

One of the kids I used to tutor was so passionate about maths but had learning difficulties so she couldn’t quite grasp it. As someone who suffered from dyspraxia, I thought I’d try some alternative teaching methods like giving her different maths books to read that tell a story. She’s now starting her first year at university doing a maths degree. It’s amazing to see her now following her passion and to have been part of that.

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Kerrie Smith, Cranfield, Winner of the Nova Prize for Physics

Kerrie’s research focuses on tools that could be used during the verification of the dismantlement of nuclear weapons. This project has developed a promising technology to verify that a key step of the dismantlement process has taken place – the separation of explosive materials from fissile ones. Kerrie presented her work in the Houses of Parliament after being shortlisted for the STEM4BRITAIN Awards in 2018.

What’s been the biggest motivator for your work?

The real-world applications of my work are a constant reminder of why I do what I do. Although the main aim of my project is to verify the dismantlement of nuclear weapons, it also has many applications in forensics, counter-terrorism and pharmaceuticals. Working on something that can have an impact in so many places is really fulfilling.

What do you think of female representation in STEM?

I went to an all-girls school, so I was lucky to be encouraged to pursue what I wanted to do from an early age. However, there is a lack of women in the higher levels of academia and most companies. I think women get held back at a certain level in their career, whether it be starting a family or juggling home life.

Also, I feel like schools don’t offer the kind of STEM opportunities that would be useful to kids wanting to get involved. I currently volunteer with STEM outreach activities and help to run Saturday clubs to do more interesting experiments which children don’t necessarily get a chance to do in the classroom. I’ve also helped at a forensic summer school, where we set up a crime scene and A-level students practised being CSI’s for a week. I think it’s important to get young people involved in STEM with methods they’ll understand and actually enjoy.

What are your plans for the future?

I’d like to get involved in more outreach activities, like school visits and mentoring, and encouraging students in STEM subjects. Being involved in STEM activities outside the classroom is imperative to succeed in this industry. In regards to my own work, I hope to be working within the explosive detection industry long term.

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