Life is busy for Rhys Archer. Outside of her work as EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow in Biomedical Materials at the University of Manchester, she founded Women of Science to share stories about real women working in science. She has championed STEM in schools in her spare time and received the Robert Perrin Medal from the Institute of Materials, Minerals, and Mining – all before her 30th birthday.
Rhys is also refreshingly forthright in her views. She took the time to speak to us about everything from attitudes towards disability in academia, the problem with STEM statistics, and finding that sense of belonging in science.
Would you mind telling me about your work at the University of Manchester and the research areas that interest you most?
My research interests have always been interdisciplinary – I am a bit of a magpie when it comes to research and I get excited by projects in different areas. Luckily, being a researcher in materials science means that I can apply my knowledge and skills in a wide array of areas and industries. I have recently finished my doctoral studies looking at how carbon fibre composites are damaged during impacts, and how to toughen them while keeping composites light weight, which is particularly useful in the aerospace industry. However, I have since moved over to research in biomedical materials, specifically within tissue engineering, where I am researching biocompatible composite scaffolds for tissue regeneration.
You set up Women of Science in 2016 to share stories about real people in science. How has this been?
When I set up Women of Science, I first looked at it as a personal project that could be of use in schools to young people. However, it became apparent fairly quickly that access to relatable role-models in STEM was needed, not just in schools but also for women across the STEM industry.
Since then, we have been fortunate to be awarded funding to grow the work we do and expand our audiences. One of the most important actions I have taken with Women of Science is to set up an advisory board (which includes a diverse range of women) to share ideas and to influence the direction and activities of Women of Science.
As well as the impact on others, Women of Science has had a huge impact on me personally. When I set up Women of Science I was going through a difficult period of feeling isolated, and found it difficult to feel a sense of belonging in science and in research. By reaching out and hearing other women’s stories – not just their achievements, but also their doubts, worries, and difficulties – I found that I did belong in STEM. I just had to search for it.
Would you mind sharing some of the successes and challenges you’ve experienced in your own career?
At 29, towards the end of my PhD, I was diagnosed as autistic. Looking back, I can see that the challenges I faced, particularly because of depression, anxiety, and isolation, were due to my needs not being considered or met. Being disabled in academia is an ongoing challenge. It is still a fight to gain equitable working arrangements, opportunities, and acceptance.
However, I can also see how the successes I have had, such as setting up Women of Science, and being a part of other projects are a result of ‘being different’. My strongest quality is a diversity of perspective and experience and an eagerness to be a part of a range of different projects.
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You have championed inclusivity in STEM. Do you think academic institutions and other workplaces could be more inclusive?
Yes. I think there is a huge amount of awareness and conversation about inclusivity in academia and industry, but not nearly as much action and intervention. Often I see workplaces with inclusive policies, but with little consideration of monitoring, evaluating, or reconsidering those policies. We must move past equity, diversity, and inclusivity being a checkbox exercise. The issues faced by women in the workplace are intersectional and complex, and so require well considered, complex solutions.
According to WISE, women now make up 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK. It estimates that this number could rise to 29% by 2030. What do you think about these figures?
While the number of women in STEM is a common metric when considering equality, this does not accurately portray issues surrounding inclusion and belonging. How are women treated? Do they have the opportunity to advance? Are there equitable policies and measures in place? This is particularly true of women in STEM who identify with other protected characteristics around race, disability, sexual orientation, and class. Once you dig into the statistics (where available) further, it is clear that the numbers given are not sufficient to describe the current situation for all women in STEM.
Also, the ‘leaky pipeline’ model is often considered, that is, that the number of women in STEM fall as we follow the statistics from school, to university, and onto the workplace. However, what is not always considered is that, as with a leaky pipeline, when more women are added, rather than ‘fixing’ the pipeline, the cracks become more obvious. Eventually, we reach a point when the pipeline is fractured. We must focus on repairing these cracks, not just increasing a numerical metric.
Additionally, in this current climate, it is incredibly difficult to make predictions as to what the future holds for the number of women in the STEM workforce. A couple of years ago, we could not foresee the impact that a global pandemic would have on women. When we consider the possible effects of climate change over the next decade, can we predict the burden that will be placed on women, or how this will affect women’s choices?
What’s next for you? Are you involved in any exciting projects?
With Women of Science, we have three projects that will be launched towards the end of the year, including a new website, flashcard activities for young people, and a report on the impact of the pandemic on women in STEM. Further ahead, I would love to expand the reach of Women of Science further, working with podcasting and film, as well as reaching out to policy makers. Personally, I am excited to get my teeth stuck into a new research project and see where that leads, as well as doing more teaching, consulting, and any other opportunities that come my way!
>> Are you interested in getting involved in Women of Science? Visit: www.womenofsci.com