Jane Essex

Jane Essex - STEM Equals Profiles

Tell us a little bit about you:

I was a teacher if chemistry for 16 years before moving into science teacher education. I am passionate about all things inclusive! Beyond work, I love history which is why I love doing STEM outreach at visitor centres and sites; it lets me combine my two great passions. As does my history of industrial chemistry blog: https://chemicallegacy.wordpress.com/

Before I came to Strathclyde, I worked in London and lived on a canal boat on the Grand Union canal. Other hobbies include walking and cycling for pleasure, rather than speed. I am an avid gardener, so find living in Clydesdale a huge temptation to go and spend, spend, spend in the local garden centres. I am currently learning Gaelic, which fascinates and frustrates me in equal measure. I am very surprised to find out, as I learnt Gaelic vocabulary, to discover that my family still used some Gaelic terms some four hundred years after they left Scotland. They were sent from Scotland to Ireland, in the seventeenth century, for sheep stealing. I tell people that I was only safe to return because the authorities had lost the original paperwork!

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

I study science as social practice, rather than science itself. I consider what barriers are intrinsic to the science we teach and the way that we practice it. My major focus is on making science accessible for learners with a learning disability, but am generally interested in understanding, and overturning, barriers in STEM. My current projects include writing up a small scale research study on the aspects of science lessons that students with learning difficulties find most challenging. I am a partner in a three year EU funded project in Diversity in Science for Social Inclusion, that will be running out-of-school science activities aimed at young people who may be excluded for reasons associated with language or culture or poverty.

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

I always found science easy, so just stuck with it. I attribute this to becoming diabetic when I was 8, and having to learn to manage it independently. That forced me to think very logically about all sorts of aspects of my self-care and so the ways of thinking that I met in science lessons came naturally to me. I also enjoyed some of the wet chemistry’ aspects of the regime (boiling up syringes, for example) and realised that if you did ‘proper’ science, you could do bigger and better experiments! Like so many others, I also have to pay tribute to some very inspirational teachers along the way, who encouraged me to pursue my aspirations.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

Some really interesting teachers at secondary school, especially those who would develop ideas or questions beyond what the exam required. They gave me a real feel for the depth and scope that scientific knowledge could attain. I went to a girls’ school so had plenty of positive female role models around me, which provided an environment in which being a girl wasn’t seen as a problem or limitation. On bad days, which we all have, I was fortunate to have the support of a best friend who also liked science, who trained as a vet and is still a close friend.

My mum provided motivation in a very different way. She provided a very strong female role model and had very high aspirations for her family. Although she wasn’t scientific herself, she was very positive about me using my scientific abilities. She headed up a single parent family of four children and couldn’t really conceive of there being any profession that women weren’t capable of.

What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?

When I entered the STEM workforce, a lack of precedents hampered women’s progress. ‘We’ve never had a woman XY before’ became a reason never to have one. I think that has changed, but there is still far too much implicit assumption that caring roles will be undertaken predominantly by women, and so employers and colleagues see them as ‘risky’ to appoint. ‘They might need to go off and…’. I think we need to create a far more flexible working environment, without macho expectations of long hours, zero personal life, ‘married to the job’. If we want a sustainable and diverse workforce that represents the community it serves, we need to re-think what success looks like. We need to view it more holistically and as a long-term ‘investment’ of both financial but also human resources. I think we need to bottle some of the best aspects of human responsiveness, that we have seen modelled during the Covid pandemic, and release some in the labs every morning!

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

Winning the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Inclusion and Diversity prize in 2019 and getting a lovely, shiny medal at an event in London! Also, hearing from a student I taught 17 years ago. He had been a fairly challenging student, who came from a home where no-one had ever had a professional job such as teaching, and had a lot to learn about the assumptions and expectations attached to the role. I felt that I pushed him fairly hard to attain the standard that was expected. Then, out of the blue, he tracked me down and emailed to say that I had taught him what he had needed to be a success, that he has a successful career, plus a happy family life, and he always remembered that I had made it possible.

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

Juggling three young children and a husband who worked away from home were major ‘brakes’ on my career when I moved from school teaching to university-based teacher education. A general absence of strong induction into my new role made the transition especially hard. I was left, largely, to learn by my mistakes, and I feel that made my development much slower than it needed to be.

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

I have met a huge range of friendly and mutually supportive colleagues at Strathclyde. It has given my flagging career a real ‘shot in the arm’, to meet such interested and interesting people all across the campus! I have had a great deal of help, both formally and informally, from colleagues whom I have met through the Royal Society of Chemistry. I strongly recommend everyone to join and be as active as they can be, in the relevant STEM professional body.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

Go for it! There are so many opportunities. But you have to be interested, STEM can be demanding and so you will need to be motivated to stick at it when the going gets tough. Look around at all your options and consider each of them carefully, with respect to subject choice and different routes. You only need one route that suits you, but it does need to be just that, right for you!

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) My personal ambition is to climb every hill in the southern upland range. b) I once agreed to sell my house to someone because they offered me a ride on their motorbike in return. c) My dream job would be to be a professional tea taster.