Supporting Women in STEM – Megan Hughes

Hello, I am Megan Hughes, and I work as an immunology Research Associate after graduating from Cardiff University with a Biomedical Science BSc in 2020. As a member of Show Me the Science, I was invited to write this piece for International Women and Girls in Science Day, and was very eager to share my experiences as a young woman in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

My fascination with science began at a very young age, when I was given a set of Horrible Science books at 7 years old. Fortunately, my parents were always extremely supportive of my love for science; and my father, an engineer, took an active role in teaching me to apply my scientific knowledge in a practical manner from a very early age. Both my brother and I were surrounded by these behaviours throughout our childhood, and given an equal opportunity to explore STEM subjects, unrestricted by agenda or perceived gender roles. My shared love of biology and ballet, of dresses and disease, was never once called into question; and I was raised to appreciate that my femininity was entirely independent of the careers available to me.

Most young women stop believing that they are capable of pursuing a career in STEM fields during their GCSE years, when these women realise that they do not see individuals like themselves in the workforce. Personally, this fact resonates with me, as as a 16 year old girl at a state school in rural north Wales, I could only name a single female biologist who I knew personally: a childhood friend of my mother’s, Dr. Melanie Coathup. Throughout my life, I have been in awe of Dr. Coathup’s career, and sincerely believe that having a positive and realistic role model helped me persevere at times where I truly believed that I had no place in science. As I have progressed in my career, I have been fortunate to be able to surround myself with several accomplished women in science; and allow myself to be influenced by these friends, colleagues and academics.

My career journey has certainly been unorthodox, and what I once regarded as my greatest failure ultimately proved to be an extremely fortunate opportunity to refocus. Throughout secondary school, I was encouraged to pursue a medical career after showing an aptitude for science and having a lifelong love of microbiology; paired with the preconception that, as a young woman, I had an innate ability to care for others. I incorrectly believed that this was the only career option available to me, and set my focus entirely on gaining entry to medical school at 18; only to fall at the final hurdle when I attained a C grade in A-Level Chemistry. Resultantly, my career plans were forced to change during the course of a single morning, during which I applied to study a BSc in Biomedical Sciences at Cardiff University.

Upon arriving at university a month after such a radical change in perspective and a significant knock to my self-confidence, I very quickly realised that my true interests lay outside of human biology and medicine. Since my early childhood, I had an intense fascination with microbiology and infectious disease, and studying Biomedical Sciences gave me the opportunity to develop this interest further and ultimately consider a career in the field. In spite of this, the feeling that I had no right to my place studying a STEM subject at university loomed in over me until the latter part of my second year; when I was awarded the CUROP Research Studentship, allowing me to undertake an extended microbiology research project under the supervision of Dr. Daniel Morse. Having unequivocally earned my place within an environment where I had previously felt unwelcome – a professional research laboratory, I finally started to believe that there was space for a woman like me in the field I had loved for so long.

In future, I aspire to continue my academic studies and continue to pursue a career in microbiology. Despite taking time out of academia for the time being, I make an active effort to remain engaged with my subject of interest by completing online courses and reading academic literature. Being a young woman in STEM is ever so much more than the time you spend studying your subject at school or university, or the time spent in the lab; rather, it is a constant need to learn and engage with the questions you have about the world around you.

Modern science requires a complex, diverse and multifaceted workforce to progress; and the active inclusion of women and girls in STEM fields is a small but important step towards achieving this goal. Often, accepting your right to a place at the table is challenging, and is something I continue to work on to this day. There are far too many unanswered questions to restrict access to scientific education and careers on the basis of gender or any other category; and the diverse viewpoints and ideas offered by a more inclusive workforce can only serve as a catalyst for progress.