HAPPY WOMEN’S DAY
The world of engineering is known to be dominated by men rather than women. In 2017, the woman’s engineering society discovered that in the UK only 11% of the total engineering workforce was female. Two years later, Europe counted 21% female scientists and engineers; with similar figures in the US.
In this interview, we have asked Dr. Rosalyn Moran, a scientist and engineer, who has reached a leading position in the world of neuroscience as a Reader at the Center for Neuroscience, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London (KCL), to describe her experience as a woman in a “manly” environment.
Suejen Perani (SP): Why do you think there are more men than women in the world of engineering and MR? Have you seen a change throughout the years?
Rosalyn Moran (RM): I think the difference in numbers are historic and cultural. Probably when I was in high school there was more weight in expectations – things being socially more ‘the norm’ for male and female (I took applied maths classes at the local boy’s high school rather than my own). Possibly, this distinction of expectations still exists but it does not feel that way. Plus, I think this falls away once you are into your career.
The IoPPN is a great example of how the world is changing as we have lots of female physicists and engineers on the faculty, so in our microcosm we are balanced. Things are getting better as the younger generation have not been influenced so much by socialization. For example, my class composition in electrical engineering was 10% female. In the faculties I have taught through my career I have seen a great improvement – although we have not yet reached 50%. This process needs time.
SP: Do you ever get the feeling that you are working in an environment where males dominate – why so? Are there characteristics you might consider as more “manly”?
RM: No, I think the characterisation of engineering and maths as “manly” is total nonsense and a social construction.
Of course, I have met people outside the field with “old-fashioned attitudes”, who think female neuroscientists are needed for the study of emotions in brain research for example. Within the field, we know that some great researchers that work on emotions are male and some great technical researchers are female. It all lies in a persons’ interests and not gender.
SP: What made you want to become a neuroscientist?
RM: I cannot remember ever making a conscious choice about becoming a neuroscientist – my interests took me here. During my PhD at UCD, I met a scientist who was working on the chemical and electrical profiles of schizophrenia and he wanted a way to put the data together – so I tried to help. There was some nice modelling work coming out of London, so I went there to try to adapt it for his problem, which I am still working on today!
SP: Who was your mentor?
RM: Karl Friston was/is my mentor. More than him being a man, him being a nice person is important. I think I tried to do what he had done – build a network around scientific interests and passions (for example in the Free Energy Principle), where you can debate and have a good time and grow with it.
Though having a female role model has been important too. When I was at Virginia Tech that role model for me was Sharon Landesman Ramey; she has a very distinguished career – it was that and her force-of-nature personality that I admired. She is a great cook and threw legendary parties while also leading on large and serious initiatives for childhood development in the US.
SP: What advice has brought you to the point you are now?
RM: I cannot remember any specific piece of advice. What I do remember is people telling me what not to do: “Why move to the US since you have a profile in Europe?” etc., but I wanted to go there because I wanted to experience a different academic environment and I knew that the VTCRI at VT was a leading centre and future-focused.
I usually have some relationship with the group of future colleagues before I move somewhere, and so I know, sort of, what I am getting into. In this way opportunities have come along.
In general, I do not think you need to read a manual to get a great scientific career or listen to other people’s advice as you will figure it our yourself. For example, I stayed 6 years into a post-doc and that was the opposite of what people were advising me to do but I enjoyed working there so, I simply stayed. I have also been advised in the past to better distinguish my scientific identity, so that I am not mistaken for ‘Karl Friston- lite’ and you know, I ignored that too.
(SP): You have been working for one of the leading centres for neuroscience worldwide. How did this opportunity come about?
(RM): Working at the IoPPN at Kings College London is a real privilege. With the history of the Maudsley Hospital and King’s College Hospital, it is a place where synthesis of theories from neurology informs psychiatry and vice versa, with a very focused mission to help patients.
I have had faculty positions at different departments in both biology and engineering when King’s was growing its neuroscience division to bolster their computational neuroscience focus. I had gotten to know people via networking events, such as conferences and workshops and through the years I had the pleasure of interacting with Mark Richardsonand followed his work on Epilepsy and Dynamical Systems. So the IoPPN at KCL was an amalgamation of all different facets of my interests. Without networking and sharing one’s interests I would probably not be here. I am very glad they have had me!
SP: How much has being a woman helped you in your career life?
RM: Perhaps it would be naive to think not at all. What helped was that women have been promoted in computational neuroscience as their under-representation in the community was quite stark. Yael Niv is a computational neuroscientist who noticed the lack of females in conference circuits, so she set up the ‘Neuro watch’ which lists the diversity of conference speakers. These sorts of initiatives have helped for sure.
SP: Being a woman in a world of men, what can you advise other women in how to succeed in the world of MR or research?
RM: From the outside, it may appear like a world of men, but I do not think this intimidating picture of an old patriarchy is true today. Everyone is eager to hear a new or fresh idea and voice. When you come to the field, faculty or team, just tell them what you think.