Written by Suze Kundu


Having a chops with… Dr Helen Sharman – part two

Our resident scientist Suze Kundu was over the moon to spend time with the first Briton in space, Helen Sharman. In part two of their natter, they chat about attitudes to women in science, why she steers clear of events promoting women in STEM subjects and, y’know, being an astronaut.

Helen Sharman (left) and Suze Kundu.

Helen Sharman (left) and Suze Kundu.

Suze Kundu: Science used to very much be part of British culture, hand in hand with the arts – in fact I believe Albemarle Street in Mayfair, home of the wonderful Royal Institution, was the first one-way street in an attempt to manage the sheer volumes of traffic when public science lectures were delivered. These days, we need to actively engage the public with science. Why do you think this is?

Helen Sharman: I think it has a lot to do with British culture today. In Russia science was absolutely part of the culture when I was there. I think a lot of it is down to the language that we use. In English, the word for ‘science’ comes from quite a different root than the English word for ‘knowledge’, but if you look at, say, the Russian language, or the German language, ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’ share the same root, so the idea that knowledge is generally good can mean that science is no different from that.

These countries have incorporated science into their culture much better than the countries that speak English. I also think that in Britain during the Industrial Revolution, science was seen as the dirty work – the coal and engineering and so on – so physically people were covered in coal dust, and I have read that science has been a little tainted by that.

SK: I’m currently doing a social science research project on the impact of role models on female school students’ decisions to study science and engineering. You are quite a role model for me, and I’ve used your biography as a case study for women in science and engineering in my outreach activities. Were you aware of your impact as a role model for women in science and engineering?

HS: I am very flattered! When I am asked to appear at events that promote women in STEM subjects, I have steered clear, because as the first British astronaut, I went not as a woman specifically. People often say, “Well there must have been a man before you” and I think the more that I do those events, it makes me out as the first British woman in space, and not the first Briton.

For a long time the UK Space Agency was putting Tim Peake across as being the first British astronaut (Tim was incredibly embarrassed about all of this), but it’s now changed and is quite happy to accept that I was the first British astronaut! I wanted to make sure that record was made. I think it’s important to make it known. It comes back to what you’re saying about role models.

“I have always done what I wanted to do. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had the confidence in myself to get on and do it. I was the only girl doing physics and chemistry at school, and I didn’t care.”

SK: You were chosen back in 1989. Was there any backlash to you being a woman at all? Do you think it would be different in today’s social media culture?

HS: I think it would have been a bit different. It is very difficult when you are in that situation, because I can’t say what it would have been like if I were a man. It is only looking back now that I can see some things, such as the newspaper article that showed a picture of the final four, three men and me, and in the caption the men were all named, and my name said ‘and Helen Sharman, the token woman’.

SK: Having worked in male-dominated fields, in your experience do you think that science has changed its attitudes to women now?

HS: I think it has changed, yes, but I think that was more a communications issue. I’ve never been fussed though. I have always done what I wanted to do. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had the confidence in myself to get on and do it. I was the only girl doing physics and chemistry at school, and I didn’t care. I do remember having a conversation with my German teacher when it was time to choose A level subjects, where he asked me whether I knew whether I was going to be the only girl studying physics and chemistry, and did I think I would be better off doing German instead. That was the first time I thought about being the only girl, but it was never an issue for me, and as I said earlier, I was the only chemist at GEC, and that was how I saw myself, but I also happened for a long time to be the only woman there too. It never bothered me, and I got on and did stuff.

Here's a Sharman, waiting for the sky.

Here’s a Sharman, waiting for the sky.

There were more women at Mars, but nowhere near the number of men. In space flight, far fewer women have been into space than men, but there are lots of factors, and this is similar in academia in science and engineering. People wonder why, and I think it is important to encourage women to stay in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, but personally I always wanted to do that in a way that doesn’t do it overtly. When I was at school, if someone had said, “You’re a girl, you can come to this event” I would have said, “No thanks, I’m not interested.”

SK: You are in the chemistry department, which is a beacon of equality, having been awarded the gold Athena SWAN award (the highest level of recognition for a department’s efforts to create a better balanced and supported working environment for all, that in its remit attempts to redress the gender balance in an institution). The problem with this initiative is that many people see the scheme as just a campaign for women to fight for other women. In reality this would benefit everyone, through the improvement of support through academia for carers, new fathers and mothers, etc. As a female role model, do you feel that there is more pressure on you to get involved in activities that encourage more women into science and engineering, or have you embraced it?

HS: I’ve never felt the pressure – I suppose the role model thing just came about. It is quite flattering, but I never tried to be a role model. I just did what I thought was right, and I hope I will always do the right things for the right reasons. We all make mistakes, but my aim is to do the right thing in life, so I don’t have to worry about the role model bit.

SK: One of the things I have been trying to do in my science communication is target Parent Teacher Associations, and places like the Women Institute (the WI), to go in and do something like ‘the science of baking’, with the aim of changing their perceptions of science and scientists in the hope that they don’t propagate those ideas to the next generation. Parents are so influential on children, so no matter how much you change their minds during an outreach event, children will forget all of that if they go home and a parent says to them, “Well that is lovely, but chemistry is not really for girls…”

HS: At school, my best friend at the age of seven said, “You don’t need that book on dinosaurs – that’s a boy’s book.” I distinctly recall it because I remember thinking, “Ha! What a ridiculous thing for my best friend to tell me!” and yet clearly she thought it, so she had been brought up in that way.

More recently, I did a bit of work with the Chemical Industries Association on how we should be communicating, and a whole group of us agreed that we needed to tackle this in a three-pronged way. Yes, you have got to get to the parents, because otherwise by the time the kids are at school, even at the age of five, they are drawing pictures of engineers who are wearing a flat cap and carrying tools, and drawing pictures of scientists who have frizzy hair and are all male. You also have to get to those people that are making decisions on what to do, such as 12 year olds who are actually deciding what subject to do when they know enough science to think about it a bit but haven’t quite decided, and you also need to get to the public at large. All these things need to happen simultaneously. You can’t focus on one track and ignore the others, otherwise the people coming through have been ‘contaminated’ by everybody else.

We must also realise that there are some people that would never want to do science, as it just isn’t for them. I know people that just don’t want to do languages, or they’re not into social sciences, or art, or music. Well, great! We’ve got to accept that.

“I don’t think people recognise me. Of course if I start talking in a big loud voice about MY SPACE SUIT right in front of the Science Museum, people might twig…”

SK: When I knew I was coming to have a chat with you, I very vaguely crowdsourced some questions from friends, with the invitation, ‘if you could ask an astronaut any question, what would you ask?’ This first one is from my boyfriend Karl Byrne – not a biased selection, just a really good question! Did you get space sickness?

HS: I was very lucky because half of all astronauts are sick up there. I won’t say that I felt brilliant, and for the first day or so. I think if one of us had been sick, there would have been a bit of a chain reaction! But we were selected on the basis that we were less likely to be space sick. We had to do motion sickness tests. The Russians believe they can build up a stamina against motion sickness by keeping you going on the spinning chair, and moving your head up and down and side to side while the chair is spinning round, in an attempt to further confuse the balance system under high G force. Some people can manage half a minute, two minutes, three minutes, and the Russians keep making them try until they build up to 15 minutes. I never had a problem so I did 15 minutes straight up! It’s not a clever thing, it is, I presume, just a balance system thing.

SK: Everyone is basically worried about vomming in space, so I have a similar question from my friend Kimberley Anderson: did you get indigestion in microgravity?

HS: I don’t remember getting indigestion, but I do remember that when I ate, I would feel hungry, I knew I was hungry, and I wanted to eat, and then at some point I remember feeling full, and that was it. Once I felt full I did not want to eat any more, whereas I suppose I am normally a bit of a pig on Earth. If I’ve got a nice meal and it’s all very tasty, I don’t think about whether I am full, to be quite honest, it probably isn’t what I should do but I finish whatever is in front of me on my plate! For some reason, in space, once I got full, I got full. It’s awkward though, because you’ve got bits left in your packet – where are you going to put the blooming thing?!

SK: My friend Scott Keir wanted to know how you felt when you came back down to Earth. I presume he meant both physically and emotionally. 

HS: Physically you really notice your weight, your brain very quickly readapts, and you feel ‘normal’ again, and you ‘use’ gravity. I remember being pulled out of the spacecraft, standing up – I hadn’t lost must strength, as I had only been in space for eight days. It is the balance system that then needs to recalibrate on Earth, and the lowering of the blood pressure on your brain, which is not used to the blood being pulled down towards your feet. Astronauts on their return to Earth tend to appear weak, but actually they’re usually having trouble standing up from the blood pressure first, then the balance, and finally any muscle weakening. You feel heavy, so it took me a while to get used to the fact that my leg didn’t actually weigh a huge amount, so I didn’t have to lean over to lift it up! It took me about twenty paces to be able to walk in a straight line.

Emotionally, you don’t have time to think about it. It’s not like you land and you get off an aeroplane and sit in a corner of the airport and chill out for a while. You stop, and there’s a medical debrief, and then a technical debriefing, and the combination of all of this and meeting delegations of people and taking part in official ceremonies and the travelling around first from the landing site back to an airport where you can take a flight back to Moscow – all of this is going on, with press conferences too, so you don’t really get a chance to stop. It’s not like suddenly your amazing adventure has just finished. It goes on and on. I don’t think people recognise me, though. I can happily walk through places. Of course if I start talking in a big loud voice about MY SPACE SUIT right in front of the Science Museum, people might twig, but by and large people don’t.

Read part one of Suze’s chat with Helen here



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Written by Suze Kundu

Suze is a nanochemist, both literally and professionally, and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Materials. Suze is also a science presenter, and loves dancing, live gigs, Muse and shoes. @FunSizeSuze