Career Path: Women in STEM – working together

Women make up nearly half of the UK workforce but only around 13% of those working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) occupations, and less than 20% of senior managers in the City

In 2011, sitting in a university dorm room in Cambridge, I was part of a lengthy conversation amongst science students which stumbled into the topic of women in STEM.  Why do there still seem to be fewer women in most STEM roles compared to men? And what could we do to help change this?

4 years later, after graduating and having all followed differing career paths, we came back to the question of how we could share our experiences and provide some support to young women looking to pursue their interest in traditionally male-dominated fields. We decided to launch a small charity and designed a programme focusing on mentoring female students in year 12 (lower sixth).

Mentoring has been an rewarding and eye-opening experience for us (as well as we hope for our mentees) and we have learnt that there are a lot of opportunities available for budding young scientists and mathematicians even before reaching university or starting an apprenticeship. Through sharing networks and searching online, the students we have worked with have met with young engineers, work-shadowed at leading biochemistry companies and even completed work experience at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh. This has on occasion required a little persistence and bravery to step outside of their comfort zones but they have invariably been rewarded by scientists and academics who are more than happy to support others in exploring possible future career options.

We also want to help change community attitudes towards women in STEM and finance. Participants on the programme are encouraged to organise an event so that they can in turn become a positive role model in their local communities. One of our students went back to her junior school to run a science experience day whilst another organised a ‘women in science’ assembly.

These are our own career choices, just a few of the many open to those with degrees in science.

Freya Scoates, Research Scientist

I am a Senior Research Scientist who runs projects developing pesticides and specialising in entomology (the study of insects). Most days I am either planning, running or reporting on the most recent studies. This includes counting insects, designing statistical analyses and giving presentations on the results. I enjoy the challenge of running complex projects but sometimes struggle with many trips in and out of grain silos!

Paddie Ingleton – Science Teacher

I am a science teacher in an inner-city comprehensive school. I nominally spend my days assessing pupil work and planning lessons, but the real challenge of what I do is trying to cultivate a classroom where pupils are engaged with the learning and do well both academically and otherwise. I enjoy the challenge of trying to find the best ways to help pupils learn, and am always surprised by their humour and resilience.

Emily Hardy – Biochemistry Scientist

I work on custom cell-line engineering projects using genome editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9. I work on the design, production and validation of these cell lines which can then be used by our clients as models for disease or novel drug screening. I spend the majority of my time doing cell culture, designing experiments and analysing results.

Helen Gaffney, Investment Associate

I am an Investment Associate in a Private Equity firm. We assess and buy companies and then work with their management teams to try to improve their profitability. A typical day can include running analysis on sales data or building a financial model to understand better how a particular company could improve. I enjoying applying the mathematical and general analytical skill I learnt whilst studying science to real-life situations. I am also glad to have gained a deeper understanding about how the world around me works even where this is not directly related to my day-to-day work.

Helen & the Equilateral Team

Science issue: A machine that can learn to speak to you

Have you ever talked to Siri and asked yourself how one builds such a system? Some time ago, when I was pursuing my MPhil degree in Cambridge, Prof. Steve Young demonstrated a spoken dialogue system during a talk. I was fascinated by the idea that one could make a computer speak and understand human speech. I thought I must get into this research and so I applied for a PhD at the Department of Engineering’s Dialogue Systems Group.

A spoken dialogue system normally has three parts: speech understanding, which decodes the meaning from the user’s speech; dialogue management, which tries to come up with a good response; and speech generation, which turns the answer into natural speech. All of these modules can be data-driven: machine learning methods allow us to build systems that become better at their tasks the more data they have.

This is very exciting because in today’s world we are generating data at the biggest pace ever.

There are two distinct kinds of machine learning methods that we use for this research. One is called supervised learning.  This is how we learn ourselves when we have a teacher to provide examples. The system simply tries to imitate the teacher.  Another is called reinforcement learning, and one can think of it as learning from interaction. In this approach, the system can explore different possibilities.  Whenever it makes a good decision, it gets a reward from the user.  Over time, it tries to maximise that reward.  Just like a child learns from trial and error.

This kind of learning through interaction in the context of dialogue systems really intrigues me. The problem is that such learning methods normally need a huge number of interactions before the system starts to behave reasonably well. So I’ve been working on ways to speed up this process, so that the system can learn directly from talking to a human. And indeed I was the first researcher to show that this is possible.

Applications for this technology include every area where we currently see human-computer interaction, and it will make such interaction possible in the future in areas where we can’t imagine it today.  Currently, I am particularly interested in applications in the health sector.  To support such systems, we need to develop algorithms capable of supporting much more complex interactions than what is possible today.  But if successfully built, such systems would have a huge benefit for society.

Dr Milica Gašić
Lecturer in Dialogue Systems, Department of Engineering
Fellow, Murray Edwards College

See my interview for The Naked Scientists:

Or check out my website:


Gašić and S. Young “Gaussian Processes for POMDP-based dialogue manager opimisation”, IEEE Transactions on Audio, Speech and Language Processing, 2014

Gašić, F. Jurcicek, B. Thomson, K. Yu and S. Young. “On-line policy optimisation of spoken dialogue systems via live interaction with human subjects”, ASRU, Hawaii, 2011

Career Path: Bringing the scientific method to the classroom

“Oh!”, they say and you see their face light up as the penny drops. This is one of the joys of working in teaching. Currently I’m working in teacher professional development, at the UCL Institute of Education, and I see that face on teachers too. One of the courses I run explains the neuroscience of learning and the teenage brain. There are changes in the brain during the teenage years, a sort of puberty of the brain, that helps to explain what can otherwise seem like inexplicable behaviours. In addition we have some fairly good (in terms of well evidenced) theories of learning based in current neuroscience. Armed with this knowledge teachers can plan their lessons better, and at key points in that course I see the ‘penny drops’ face.

Being a science teacher with a strong academic background, including time spent in research, I am able to bring what I know about the scientific method to the classroom. Neuroscience, in which I did my MSc and MPhil, is one of my favourite subjects: it is fascinating, but it is also an incredible tool for improving learning. When students understand how the brain works they understand why revision is important and how to go about it. When teachers understand they are able to make their lessons more productive.

I apply the rigour of evidence and scientific thought to my teaching as whole. When someone says “you should do this, it improves learning”, my first question is ‘what’s the evidence?’ and my second is ‘what’s the mechanism?’; and I owe that to my scientific training. In a profession inundated with initiatives and pressure from all directions, it is helpful to be able to look at each suggestion in this way. It is one of the reasons I am glad to have pursued the sciences, and one of the reasons I am passionate about sharing that understanding of the scientific method with students. I know that whether or not my students become the STEM professionals of the future, they will need to make decisions for themselves and their communities. Armed with scientific skills they will be better placed to make informed decisions.

I love to share my passion not just for the scientific method but also just for science itself. It can be a challenge to teach a subject everyone has to study up to 16, and though it can be heart warming to have a student who from the outset loves science, it is brilliant to be able to turn on a student who is switched off from the subject. “Miss, science isn’t important to my life!”, and variations of that are statements I have heard often. Relishing this, I turn to the student and say “Tell me something that is important to you”, and then proceed to link whatever they say to science. I always get there!

I’m returning to the classroom to teach this September and can’t wait. Although studying at Cambridge wasn’t easy, I loved it because I love learning. I think one of the reasons I love teaching so much is this love of learning. As the end of term approaches, I remember another phrase that students would throw at me, this one generally reserved for one of the last lessons of term: “Miss, can we do something fun today?”. I always take great pleasure in replying: “Yes, we are going to do something fun today [dramatic pause as students start beaming and almost jumping out their seats]. We are going to… [extra pause, as they look at me expectantly]…do some learning!”

Misbah Arif


3A Misbah Arif Using the context of chocolate to teach Year 4 students about particles
Using the context of chocolate to teach Year 4 students about particles