As part of our series on women in science, I contacted several prominent female scientists and asked them some challenging questions about their experiences as women in science.
This month, Professor Julie Lovegrove from the University of Reading shares her thoughts on gender discrimination and female representation in scientific disciplines.
What first sparked your interest in studying science?
My interest in science began at an early age, with a microscope and fascination for an illustrated book on the human body. This fuelled my young imagination and a desire to understand how the body works and responds to its environment.
When and how did you realise that you wanted to pursue a career in scientific research?
Even from a young age I had the ambition of pursuing a research career. I chose science subjects at school, somewhat unusual for a girl, and studied physics and chemistry in a classroom full of boys! In addition to sciences, food has also played an important role in my life, so pursuing a research career in nutritional sciences provided me with a perfect combination of my interests in the influence of diet on health and disease.
Have you experienced or observed gender discrimination during your studies or career?
I have observed instances of gender discrimination, but thankfully, in my experience, these have been few and far between. I’m appalled, but not unsurprised, that such discrimination still occurs.
Do you think that women are more represented in certain fields of science than others, and why?
The proportion of women who study in my field of nutritional sciences is high. However, this is not reflected in the gender balance of senior or executive positions, in which women are still in the minority. In contrast, fields such as mathematics and engineering are very male dominated. I believe there is still a commonly held view that some sciences are inappropriate for women, which of course is completely unfounded.
How do you feel about positive discrimination (in the form of scholarships/grants etc.) that aims to create gender equality in science?
I am uncomfortable with any form of discrimination, positive or negative. True equality should be achieved on the basis of individual performance and merit. This would be my preferred approach in relation to awarding grants or job offers.
Just for fun:
If you hadn’t been a scientist, what would you have been instead?
I have a real passion for food and cooking. Who knows I could have been a chef!
Who is your favourite female scientist of all time, and why?
With so many impressive female role models it is difficult to choose, but I would nominate Dr Elsie Widdowson, one of the founders of nutritional sciences. Her success in bringing the importance of diet in health promotion to the attention of the scientific community was a remarkable achievement, in a very male dominated arena. Elsie Widdowson had such modesty, coupled with an unyielding self belief, which was truly inspirational.
Julie Lovegrove is Professor of Metabolic Nutrition in the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences and the Deputy Director of the Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research (ICMR) at the University of Reading. She also sits on a number of external committees including the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Nutrition (SACN). Professor Lovegrove’s main areas of research interest are the investigation of nutritional influences on the metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease risk, including nutrient/gene interactions. Of particular note are the effects of dietary fats, carbohydrates and phytochemicals on vascular reactivity, insulin resistance and lipid metabolism in different population groups. Visit Professor Lovegrove’s research homepage to find out more about her work.