Reflections on ‘shadowing’ a woman working in science, by Cressida Jervis Read

Craft, Controls, Connections and Career…. The confined, warmly damp, busy world of the insectaries at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was where Dr Nina Stanczyk, Research Fellow in Medical Entomology and my partner scientist in the WISRNet Shadowing Scheme and I started our tour of her workplace. Collecting a number of Anopheline mosquitoes from their netted cage in the insectary, we took them up to a brightly lit lab for the experiment Nina was due to carry out that day.

Nina’s research investigates how mosquitoes respond to different chemical odours, particularly those that attract and repel them. That morning she was looking at the electrophysical response mosquitoes have to different chemicals as they are blown over their antennae. Several weeks later, after the Christmas and New Year break, we met up again to talk in more detail about how she came to work in her research area and to what extent she felt the issue of being a ‘woman in science’ had been significant for her. In fact, Nina was keen to emphasise that in her career so far being a woman had not been a particular issue. She pointed out that the majority of people she worked with were women and recalled a particularly inspirational doctoral supervisor who had shown it was possible to both lead and continue to do science research as a woman.


The experiment that morning used the process of electroantennography. A decapitated mosquito’s head was mounted between two very fine electrodes, one to its brain, the other to its antennae. A sample of a chemical was then blown over the mosquito’s antennae. Effectively, this briefly and minutely completed the circuit, as the mosquito’s antennae reacts to the sample, causing its brain to produce a minute measurable electrical signal. Samples ranged from lactic acid (which it’s known mosquitoes respond to), to ‘researcher’s foot odour’ dissolved out of socks.

Nina was also showing a junior colleague how carry out electroanntenography. As Richard Sennett (2009: 11) has observed in his book on craftsmanship, while an understanding of knowledge and theory underpins the processes of a technique, all skills begin with mastering the bodily practices of the technique. Deftness and a controlled, fine dexterity was required to mount the tiny insect’s head on a custom-made electrode made of finely drawn glass capillary tube filled with saline solution. Meanwhile, careful control was needed to introduce the chemical sample into the apparatus without touching it, all while standing on one leg to operate the foot pedal that released the sample.

Later, Nina talked about how she had come to learn skills and research practices that have been essential to her work. A first graduate job as a laboratory research assistant raising mosquitoes lead to PhD research with her then supervisor and current boss. This created opportunities to specialise in new research techniques such as the opportunity to learn ‘single hair’ electroantennography in a Swedish lab. She describes how the intense concentration on detail and fine dexterity required meant that the work had to be done early in the day, adding only half jokingly, before any coffee was drunk. With a first degree in genetics and doctoral research as an entomologist, she has built up a set of skills that have allowed her to ask research questions at the intersection of disciplines. Yet, as she also points out, the requirement for science graduates to have lab experience, before they can work in a lab to get experience, can exclude people from scientific work or lead them embark on PhDs before they know whether day-to-day of lab work is really for them. She observes that while she has been lucky enough to benefit from colleagues and atmospheres in labs that have emphasised learning how to ask questions, cultivate specialist skills, sharing experience, knowledge and techniques, this is not the case in all labs.


As we spend the morning in the lab, the question of what counts as a reading, what to record and what to discard emerge from the practice of the experiment in progress. What order should the samples be tested in: randomly, or those which will decay soonest so that the experiment will get done and produce results? Part of the aim of the WISRNet Shadowing Scheme was to bring scientists and historians closer together to better understand how each works, so it is fascinating to hear the interpretation of results and meaning of controls discussed, as scientific method is negotiated in practice. Questions of interpretation are central to the work of historians and social scientists too, but the way they operate, are validated and discussed is very different. In both cases, though, it often is the craft knowledge that is smoothed out of formal accounts as they are written up into journal articles. Discussing the details that are included or not, I am reminded of the tongue in cheek ‘Overly Honest Methods’ Twitter hashtag that posts jokey statements of research protocol.


Relationships in the lab as the basis for learning and developing the craft of research are clearly important. Nina describes her experiences of working in labs in other countries, noting how the connections made there also valuable for finding out about jobs, especially in small fields of research. That other people know your speciality and the skills you can bring to a job is useful, if someone is trying to fill a post, but as she also observed, so are informal references. She described emails flying between labs as much to ensure that the prospective candidate is the kind of person that a team can get on with, working in a lab, day after day, as to confirm their academic or intellectual credentials.


Talking to Nina, all these elements seem to be needed for a career, but can also present dilemmas. What happens when relationships don’t work or don’t offer the opportunities to develop one’s research skills and experience? How does one decide to push one’s career forward? Nina commented that chatting with fellow postdocs, there was a ‘cloud of mystery’ about how to manage the next stage of one’s career; should one apply for another postdoc, but how many postdoc positions are ‘too many’ and signal a lack of career progression? Plus, at what cost? Moving continents to pursue research can also have consequences for personal relationships. Nina observed that it’s not clear that research work outside of academia at this career stage would offer any more job security or less stress, with industry perhaps even more competitive with the pressure to produce successful new products.

Comparing the gendered experience of academic research in the US, where her previous postdoc placement was based, with the UK, Nina recalled a PhD student confiding to her that she didn’t feel she could have a relationship while she did her PhD. ‘I was thinking that’s not good! I mean I know you get stressed and the rest, but it shouldn’t stop you – it didn’t me.’ Nonetheless, in the US, as in the UK, she comments:

‘It was always the [women] who had kids seemed to have a work/life balance. They were the ones who said, no, enough, now I’m going [home]. But they were the ones who were usually advanced enough in their career to say so.  I suppose the problem comes in earlier in your career and you don’t have the seniority to say.’

Reflecting on the experiences of female friends working in science who have children, she notes that for some priorities have changed, so that stable jobs (not short term contracts) and the need to provide for their child, prompting in one case a return to school science teaching, become more important.


Nina is clear that she does not see that gender has been an issue in her career as a woman working in science so far. Yet, in the decisions that her female friends have made after having children, it is also evident that people’s perspectives on the demands made by work in relation to the rest of one’s life can change, even if those demands are less extreme than those of the US tenure track system. Everyday lab-based relationships of conviviality are underpinned by exacting craft skills which suggest a presence in the lab is highly valued, something that may become more difficult with small children. How do lab-based relationships and the standing of ones current research in a small, competitive field combine with the dilemmas of negotiating postdoctoral career progression amidst structural pressures of job insecurity and short term contracts?

In this context it is hard to know whether a predominantly female workplace is one that is more supportive to the careers of women in science, or simply reflects the high proportion of women entering the field anyway. It is not clear that the numbers of women in science will continue to increase: will a longer route to permanent posts produce disproportionately gendered losses at particular points in the career path? Or as Nina suggested, might the disinclination of scientists of either sex to retire from active research, reduce the opportunities for younger colleagues to progress up the hierarchy of an institution, so that senior posts perhaps reflect the gender balance of earlier decades, changing only gradually?

All of these points offer sound, largely structural reasons for why there are still fewer women working in science more generally. Yet, given the degree of commitment to the practice of research itself implied in this account, it is tempting to speculate whether the hesitation in discussing gendered differences in science more generally reflects a concern felt by women about appearing less than totally dedicated to the work itself.

Reflections on ‘shadowing’ a woman working in science.

This project sought to bring historians of science and practicing scientists together to forge mutually beneficial exchanges of information and experience. As someone who trained as a social anthropologist, rather than a historian, I found this a stimulating experience that illuminated aspects of the values and practices of both fields: history and science. Deploying unfamiliarity and difference to produce new insights into one’s own and other people’s ways of doing things, a strong interest in teasing out unwritten rules and social relations are all constitutive practices to anthropological knowledge making. So, entering the unfamiliar world of the lab and hazily remembered principles of scientific method to observe (rather than participate) in the practice, teaching and learning of scientific craft was fascinating and also curiously familiar.

Yet, trained with an empiricist’s interest in the present and making generalisations that can be validated (albeit in very different ways), the WISRNet project raised questions for both Nina and I about the nature and purpose of what it sought to collect and do with its material. In this respect, as a recent migrant to the world of the history of medicine and science, I have also been trying to gain a feel for the craft of historians and the kinds of questions that are be particularly important to them.  One common concern anthropologists and historians share is the importance of context; what might a broader focus open up of interest to scientists, beyond a pragmatic, functional view of relationships? Is it enough to simply collect material? What questions do the different disciplines overlook? Given my training it is perhaps unsurprising that what most catches my eye is the way relationships are negotiated in the lab. But how do the more interpretive practices of historians and social scientists sit with the highly structured frameworks of scientific method? In fact, what emerged from being pushed into the unfamiliar environment of the lab, was a contrast between methods of inquiry, but also commonalities in the form of questions about interpretation, how to understand a particular result, and the disjunctions between theory and practice.


Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. London: Penguin.

Twitter: #OverlyHonestMethods: Accessed 20th March 2013.

Dr Nina Stanczyk discusses her work on repellents and DEET sensitivity in mosquitoes: 

Cressida Jervis Read is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at the University of Oxford, exploring the emergence of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne ‘neglected tropical disease’, in Delhi. This is part of a larger project at the Unit entitled ‘The Challenge of Urbanisation: Health and the Global City’. She completed her DPhil in social anthropology at Sussex exploring the politics of development and urbanisation in the same city.

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