Scientists, it’s OK to cry, says campaigner for STEM subjects

"I felt that in order to be successful you have to be cold, stern, analytical and unflappable"


Creative, emotional and sensitive might not be words that you would use to describe the skill set of a scientist or a mathematician.

But for Dr Emily Grossman they are key qualities that need to be encouraged across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) world.

Dr Grossman was named as an honorary ambassador at last week’s 2017 STEM Inspiration awards. Her role, alongside her fellow ambassador, the astronaut Tim Peake, is to help encourage young people, especially girls, to study STEM subjects.

According to WISE, which campaigns for gender balance in science, technolgy and engineering, just over 22,000 women graduated in 2016 in the five core subjects most relevant to construction, engineering and technology — compared with over 65,000 men.

Dr Grossman says: “It’s not because girls don’t enjoy STEM subjects or aren’t good at them that they don’t pick STEM subjects beyond A Level. In fact girls outperform boys. It is that girls don’t see STEM careers or subjects as something for people like them.

“They look at the job descriptions and think to themselves, ‘that does not sound like me’. Some girls I teach tell me ‘I’m too creative, sensitive or emotional to be a scientist’.”

It is a feeling Dr Grossman says was all too familiar when she was embarking on her career in medical research.

“I’ve experienced it at many points. I felt that in order to be successful you have to be cold, stern, analytical and unflappable. But while that might work for some people, the strength of others is their emotional sensitivity.

“As a scientist you have to be creative. You have to think outside the box using your imagination to solve problems. Being compassionate shows how passionate you are.”

Dr Grossman, who will be spearheading the efforts of the 30,000 STEM Inspiration ambassadors in the UK, says it is not only girls who are deterred by the supposed cold and clinical approach required to succeed in these fields.

“Some boys feel they can’t do these subjects and show emotion. When I talk in schools and encourage young people to believe science and maths subjects are for them, they come and thank me. They say: ‘I didn’t think it was OK to get upset but now I do’.”

Dr Grossman, who specialises in cancer research, says it has not always been easy to promote the importance of emotion in the STEM world. “My message is not always received well. I did a TED Talk called ‘Why science needs people to cry’ about the value of emotion in science and I got a lot of abuse online.

“Showing emotion at work is still stigmatised in society and it is a challenging and controversial statement for some people.

“Men and women have been made to feel we have to dampen down that side of us to be successful. But that is damaging. Depression and anxiety among young men is rife and that is because there is a fear of expressing yourself.”

She says her Jewish identity is a driving force behind her work. “My determination to keep going when I’ve been rejected has always felt in part culturally Jewish, as has my desire to express myself. I’ve always had a longing to find my place in the world and I think that is probably quite a Jewish quality.”

As well as commentating on science in the media, Dr Grossman talks in schools and universities. She says: “My aim is to show people how exciting science is and to make it more accessible by explaining complex concepts in a fun and engaging way. There are a variety of careers for young people out there. It isn’t all just being in a white coat in a lab.”

Unlike many of the students she speaks to, Dr Grossman had the advantage of parents — her father, Ashley Grossman, a professor of neuroendocrinology, and her mother, Susan, a media coach — who were keen for her to follow a STEM career.

She went to South Hampstead High School and “never considered STEM subjects were not for me. My maths teacher, Mrs Frank, was fantastic. I also had two great physics teachers who were women. I never thought ‘these are subjects for boys’.”

It was not until she went to Cambridge University to study physics that she had her confidence shattered by the overt masculinity and macho behaviour encouraged on her course.

“I was suddenly around boys who all had this macho sink-or-swim attitude. It was very competitive. I’d feel embarrassed to answer a question because the culture was to laugh at people if they got it wrong.”

She decided to drop physics and study biology instead. “I don’t regret it,” she says, “because I ended up loving my degree and my career since, but I often wonder what would have happened if I had a female role model in that subject at that time.”

More also needs to be done to make it easier for women to return to STEM careers after they have had children, she believes. Dr Grossman, who is in her late 30s, says: “I haven’t had children yet myself, but some women find it hard to go back to their jobs because things move so quickly and not enough is done to support them.

“Some of the best work done by women scientists happens when they are in their 40s and 50s and that is after they have had children,” she says.

Dr Grossman, who lives in north-west London, learned the hard way that it was important to create a good work life balance. “I burnt out in my late twenties and early thirties. I learnt that it was important to make time for family and friends.”

She grew apart from Judaism as a child, feeling that she didn’t belong to the religion in the same way she felt about science. But she reconnected to her faith five years ago through the pop-up shul movement Grassroots Jews, which has attracted up to 400 members.

“It is an important group for my generation.

“I have been able to connect to my Judaism on a spiritual level again. In the same way I felt about STEM subjects, I found that there were people in the Jewish world just like me.”

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