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Rebecca Farnell: women in science

Rebecca Farnell

24 Nov 2008

SCI member, Rebecca Farnell, 26, a former Young Ambassador 2006 has combined a 10 year career in the industry with a part-time degree in chemical engineering leading to a first class honours degree. She talks to SCI about hard work, dedication and opportunities.

There are very few women in science - do you have an opinion on why this is? 
I think science and science based careers are still seen as a man's world, you only have to watch the ‘expert guest speaker’ when science hits the news to see that it is usually a middle aged, grey haired man! However, women are progressing within science careers, as an example in the last five years all previous Young Ambassadors have been female engineers or chemists. As a science community I feel we need to do more in promoting high level successful women as inspiration to the younger generation. 

What would you say to women who want to enter science as a profession? 
Go for it! Anyone (male or female) who is interested and inspired by science should progress their career within the field. Women in science are well respected and treated as equals and there are certainly plenty of options in terms of career progression.   

You are only 26, and yet you have achieved so much - what are your ambitions for the future? 
I chose to work in the chemical industry sector because I enjoy science and wanted to see it come to life and make a difference to everyday life. In the short to medium term, I see myself staying in a predominantly technical role and potentially gaining experience in working in a foreign country. In the long term, I am still undecided as to where my career will go, however, Ciba are very supportive of my personal development both in and outside the organisation, allowing me to gain knowledge and experience of a variety of roles before deciding! 

In your opinion, what is the secret to achievement - do you believe anyone can do well as long as they work hard? Or do you believe it depends on external conditions such as family, school, background etc? 
I honestly believe that anyone who works hard and is motivated and enthusiastic about their job and field of work can be successful.  I never want to look back at my life and think... ‘if only I'd worked that bit harder, or put in a bit more effort I'd be more successful’ so I generally work hard at everything I do. It obviously helps to have a supportive family, and in my case a science teacher who inspired me into chemistry in the first place. But it’s also important to make sure you still have fun, both in and outside of work. I would always advise people to aim for the top but set smaller, more achievable targets in the interim to help keep motivated and focused.  

You've been to China - what did you learn from your trip there?  
I visited China as part of my prize for winning the Young Ambassador 2006. It was certainly an eye opener with the Chinese culture and work ethic being very different to ours!  Before visiting I had heard the great pep talk that the UK and Europe can compete with China on Innovation, but to be honest I didn't believe it. I thought the Chinese would be building manufacturing sites with the best technology and preparing for the future. However, I quickly realised that, at the moment, the Chinese focus is very much on the here and now, getting things built and in production to make money and grow the economy in the short-term. As a result, I believe we in the UK and Europe really do have an opportunity to make the next advances in science and remain ahead of the game.  However, this window of opportunity will not be here forever, having met and spoke with some young scientists and engineers I feel confident that once they have established their infrastructure, they will be just as, if not more so, innovative.

Chemistry and the chemicals industry get a bad press - what should the industry be doing to change perceptions? 
Historically scientists and especially the chemical industry have been very un-reactive to bad press and had a tendency to hide away rather than publicising all the benefits the industry brings to everyday life. In more recent years we have become reactive to specific headlines and news stories, however, this always puts us on the back foot. The Chemical Industries Association, with its member companies are now being much more pro-active in explaining what the Chemical Industry is and what it does, as shown with supplements in the Times and the Guardian this year. Programs such as Children Challenging Industry also have a great impact on perceptions of the Industry, not only do the local children get to see a manufacturing site and appreciate what it does they also go home and tell their parents! With initiatives such as these, over the coming years we will hopefully see an improvement in public perception of the Industry.

What is it like to combine work with education - do you believe it has given you a head start? 
Combining full time work with part-time education can be hard work and you certainly need to be dedicated.  However, for me it was the right choice, I wanted to see science working in the real world, but I understood that to progress in life I needed to study further education. Coming from a background where it was the norm to leave school at 16 and get a job, applying for a laboratory assistant role at Ciba gave me the best of both worlds. It allowed me to attend College/University one day per week to continue my studies and work in the lab four days to apply the theories in practice and also learn about chemistry from a business perspective. The one day at University is very long (often up to 11hrs) and assignments and revision have to fit in to evenings and weekends, so there is certainly no ‘student life experience’, however, I graduated with a first class honours, no student debt, seven years industrial work experience and a guaranteed job.  

What is the best way of attracting young people like yourself to the industry? 
Good teachers! I know it is a cliché but I was inspired into Chemistry by my teachers.  At primary school I enjoyed mathematics and science and always knew I wanted to work in this field, but was a little unsure of where and how to get into it. My chemistry teacher at secondary school literally made science come to life, with fun classes and plenty of application of the theory. He was also very dedicated and would give up dinner times and evenings to help groups of students revise or do extra practical classes.

The Industry also has a responsibility to attract graduates into their companies.  Many graduates don't just look at salary for that first post-grad job. It’s the whole package of potential career development, location, social life of other employees etc that attracts them to a job.  If Industry wants to attract the best young talent it needs to show that it is a diverse, challenging yet rewarding career.

You can connect with SCI members who are in a similar field to Rebecca, through the SCI Members' Directory.

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