On International Women in Engineering Day, Professor Rebecca Lunn from Civil and Environmental Engineering talks about a unique Strathclyde-hosted initiative to encourage more women into STEM research leadership roles.
Professior Lunn is Programme Director of STEM Equals , which is developing projects aiming to improve equality and diversity for female and LGBT staff across the Science and Engineering Faculties.
The four-year research and impact project is focusing on creating more inclusive STEM communities for women and features ten STEM ‘pump priming’ projects led by female principal investigators. These include one investigating the blood flow dynamics in women with pulmonary arterial hypertension led by Dr Asmina Melina Kazakidi, Senior Lecturer, Biomedical Engineering.
Another pump-priming project led by Dr Monica Oliveira, Senior Lecturer, Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, is looking into aligned 3D collagen hydrogels – often used as tissue scaffolds for the development of artificial tissues - for Parkinson’s disease therapeutics. The disease is associated with a loss of neurons in a part of the brain which causes a reduction of dopamine in the striatum – key for controlling body movement. When this happens it leads to the appearance of motor symptoms usually associated with Parkinson’s, such as tremors, slow movement and stiff muscles. Current cell therapy approaches focus on using cells acting as dopamine factories without reconstructing the nigro-striatal pathway. The Strathclyde team are aiming to produce enhanced collagen hydrogels to help reconstruct the pathway itself.
The idea behind the pump priming projects was to apply for a large block of money to fund research projects where women were in charge. According to research, in 2018, 90 per cent of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) projects were awarded to projects led by men.
Professor Lunn said: “STEM Equals is designed to try and improve the diversity in EPSRC research in the UK. Women are massively underrepresented in STEM subjects and the numbers dwindle as you go up the levels of seniority.
“The number of female Principal Investigators across the whole sector is very low and there are differences in success rates and values of awards as compared to men.
STEM Equals looks at how we might increase the number of women taking leadership roles in multi-partner grants and supporting women to take the lead in forging new female-led research networks across the University.
"The idea was to fund some small grants where the women were PIs so they can get pilot data to prove a concept in science or engineering and turn that into a bigger grant female-led proposal.”
The pilot projects were also designed as collaborative projects with the idea of networking people across the faculties to develop bigger research and social support networks.
The project is also collecting data on the experiences of women and LGBT staff, with the aim of designing, implementing and evaluating strategic interventions focused on improving equality and diversity at Strathclyde.