Reflections on WISRNet Shadowing Scheme

Julie Hipperson (Research Student in History, King’s College London) reflects on  her first meeting with Dr Lori Snyder (Reader in Biotechnology, Kingston University) as part of WISRNet’s workshadowing scheme.

I: Lab Coat

The white lab coat which Lori fishes out for me is ill-fitting.  I joke that it’s designed for some broad-shouldered, snake-hipped man and that I’ll have to lose a couple of inches before the next visit.  Lori kindly suggests that maybe we could just find a different coat.  I’m squeezed into this coat on a Monday morning because Lori has agreed to meet me whilst she’s supervising a drop-in lab session at Kingston University, where she is a Reader in Biotechnology, so we could informally introduce ourselves.  Whilst we’re chatting she occasionally breaks off to help a student with questions about their final year projects: one is trying to sterilise a chicken breast to use for his experiment, the other wanting to discuss the timings of her experiment, having missed her opportunity to put them in the autoclave that day (it’s turned on at 10.30am).  Watching these interactions I make a mental note to look up what an autoclave actually does.

We agree a date for the shadowing, and before I leave I ask Lori why she had been interested in taking part in the scheme.   Her candid answer is that she identifies not only as ‘women in science’, itself unusual, but also as the ‘bread-winner’ in her family.  People are often surprised by what she does, and doubly so when they learn that it is her husband who is the one staying at home with their young child; many of them had assumed not only that he would also be a scientist, but that he would be more senior than Lori.  I think we’re both interested in exploring these assumptions further.

So why am I interested in taking part in the scheme?  My own work looks at the history of women in veterinary medicine, a profession which has experienced intense ‘feminisation’ in the last twenty years, and where there is a lively debate about the implications of having ‘too many women’.  Rather than trying to explain away feminisation, I’m demonstrating how women’s opportunities and experiences have changed during the course of the twentieth century, and to attempt to bring this history to bear on a dynamic and shifting policy environment.  So, I have an interest in how history can influence policy, and was curious how that might work in the similar field of women in science.  Although with too few women, the ‘problem’ here is different.

I think it would be foolish to assume that talking with a woman of science today gives us a direct insight into women’s experiences in the past, as it disregards the huge changes in education, the workplace and the family.  I do, however, think observing and talking with Lori about her own experience, to find out her own priorities and sense of being a woman in this discipline, will help me ask the right questions of history.  This scheme seems to encourage ever-greater nuance and sophistication in our research into historical experiences, and that can’t help but bring us closer to reflecting the full range of women’s lives, both then and now.  I’m looking forward to finding out, albeit in a better fitting lab coat.

Julie Hipperson is a third-year PhD in the History Department at King’s College London, researching women in veterinary medicine.  She explores the themes in her work at pioneersandprofessionals.wordpress.com and also thinks about the intersections between history and science at humsciworkshop.wordpress.com

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