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Five inspiring Scottish women who have changed the world of STEM

co-written by: Georgia Burns and EvaMackenzie

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, Breakthrough Press has compiled a list of five remarkable Scottish women who have impacted the fields of science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM).

Image Courtesy: Breakthrough Press

Every year on March 8, the world celebrates International Women’s Day (IWD). It’s a day to remember the women’s rights movement, a day to bring attention to issues such as gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence and abuse against women. A day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women, a day for us, a day for women.

This year, the United Nations is celebrating IWD ‘23 with the theme of DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality. A theme that highlights the role of innovative technology in promoting gender equality and meeting the health and developmental needs of women and girls all over the world. A theme that fits in greatly with the ethos and vision that Breakthrough Press stands for.

Women have historically been ousted from STEM fields. Misogyny, sexism, and systematic stereotyping have stood in the way of women being respected and given credit as innovators and great minds. Whilst the gender gap in STEM remains, women are beginning to catch up to those who have had a head start; women are picking up speed after centuries of being held back by societal expectations and sexist structures.

To celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023, Breakthrough Press has compiled a list of five Scottish women who have impacted the STEM fields, either through their support or through their contributions. Their actions are ones that we admire. Their innovations bring young girls’ dreams to life.

Image: Nicola Sturgeon Image Courtesy: Ewan Mcintosh

A list of strong Scottish women would not be complete without a mention of our First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. She is a woman who pioneered Scottish politics, becoming the first female to ever hold the position of First Minister and the first woman to lead any of the devolved UK administrations.

Born in North Ayrshire in 1970, Nicola grew up with a love for politics and change. This fueled her to study law at the University of Glasgow, where she graduated with an LLB (Hons) and a Diploma in Legal Practice but politics was always her main ambition.

In the 1992 general election, she became Scotland's youngest parliamentary candidate, aged just 21, and later won a seat as regional MSP for Glasgow in 1999.

Following many years of serving as shadow minister for education, health, and justice, Nicola made history on the 14th of November 2014 when she became the leader of the SNP and was sworn in as First Minister a week later—the first woman to hold either position.

Although Nicola announced her resignation as First Minister in February 2023 after eight years in the role, throughout her time in office she has demonstrated resilience and passion for Scotland. Nicola also supported STEM fields throughout her time as First Minister, most recently announcing a £900k boost to STEM engagement programmes. She has supported women, tackling women’s health inequalities and striving to make workplaces more inclusive; pushing for psychological domestic abuse and controlling behaviour to become a crime, and championing gender reforms.

Image: Mary Somerville 1780-1872 Image Courtesy: Open Verse

Mary Somerville was a Scottish science writer and polymath—and the reason for the word ‘scientist’ being coined. Mary’s erudite books entwined the previously independent subjects of astronomy, physics, geology, chemistry, and mathematics. These texts articulated the connection between these areas with a clarity that had never before been seen in the UK, and the texts became the structure upon which the first science curriculum at Cambridge University was built.

Mary was born in Jedburgh and attended a boarding school in Musselburgh. However, Mary was mostly self-taught, devouring knowledge from the books in her family library, taking in everything from Latin to fine art—and most notably, mathematics. Although Mary's family dissuaded her from pursuing an academic career, she nevertheless did so with great success. Mary was inducted into many international scientific societies, and in 1835, she was nominated, alongside Caroline Herschel, to be the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society. She was also the tutor of the pioneer computer programmer, Ada Lovelace.

Mary was the recipient of many awards and much recognition in her specialised fields, but she was not solely involved in the sciences. Mary was a strong supporter of both women’s education and women’s suffrage. She broke down the first door that locked women out of the field of science and left it open for the women who followed.

Image: Elsie Inglis 1864-1917 Image Courtesy: Medical Heritage Library Inc.

Elsie Inglis was a pioneering surgeon, suffragette, and advocate of women’s education. After studying medicine in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, she qualified as a doctor in 1892. This same year, Elsie was appointed to a post at a London hospital. She found the conditions of the hospital to be poor, with the standards of care for women and children being particularly grave. This led her to the conclusion that hospitals should be run by women, and in 1904 she set up a small maternity hospital in Edinburgh for the poor, which was staffed entirely by women. Elsie was also an avid campaigner for women’s votes, launching the Scottish Women’s Suffragette Federation in 1906.

Her humanitarian spirit, paired with her ravenous appetite for justice, led her to the achievement of receiving the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Serbian honour for heroism. She became the first woman to be awarded the honour for her role in organising hospital units staffed by women for overseas service—the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service. After being captured by Austrian forces as a prisoner of war in 1916, she became increasingly ill. She passed away from cancer in 1917, days after returning from working in Russia.

Throughout her lifetime, Elsie saved the lives of thousands and fought for equality with a joie de vivre that can be felt through her achievements.

Image: Pooja Jain Image Courtesy: Twitter @pooja_psj

Pooja Jain is a recent graduate of the University of Edinburgh, with her studies centred around neuroscience. During her studies, she found herself having an interest in dementia after researching the proteins involved in memory loss. When her grandfather was diagnosed with the disease, she began to take note that the carers of dementia patients are often family members and unpaid carers who do not have adequate support or understanding of the condition.

After graduating, Pooja worked as a carer for six months to better understand the impact dementia can have on the daily lives of those who suffer from the disease. This is when she, along with fellow graduates Giulia Melchiorre and Pranav Shakti, developed the app CogniCare. The application acts as a digital companion for the carers of dementia sufferers, making knowledge about the disease easily accessible and offering advice on self-care. The app also provides much-needed support by connecting users with their communities and local support groups.

Pooja is actively working on making CogniCare an interactive experience with Amazon Alexa—creating a conversation between the carer and the application. Pooja is an exciting new face in innovation, energetically setting out to transform the healthcare sector.

Image: Gillian Docherty OBE Image Courtesy: UK Data Service

Gillian Docherty OBE is a computer scientist and currently, one of the most influential women in technology. A commendable multitasker, she is the CEO of The Data Lab; Chief Commercial Officer of the University of Strathclyde; Deputy President of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce; and she was appointed as the first Chair of Scotland’s AI Alliance. Gillian studied computer science at the University of Glasgow and received an honorary doctorate in technology from Robert Gordon University.

After working for IBM for 22 years, beginning in 1993, she became CEO of The Data Lab in 2015. Since then, she has completed over 100 data science projects in Scotland, which have earned the country more than £100 million. A firm believer in STEM education, she launched The Data Lab’s MSc programme and has sponsored Master course spaces to match the mounting demand for big data.

Gillian believes that Scotland will become an internationally renowned destination for data science, and she is doing everything she can to lead these efforts.


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