Inspirational women working in STEM joined forces on Friday 6 March to shine a spotlight on scientific achievements following news that less than 50% of the British public could name a female scientist. The event was scheduled to mark both International Women’s Day (8 March) and British Science Week (6 – 13 March).

Held at The Biosphere, a scientific facility based on the 24-acre purpose-built development Newcastle Helix, the event celebrated the careers of several influential women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) disciplines.

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Speakers and guests at the event included some of the businesses and women based at The Biosphere who form part of the growing £1.1bn life science eco-system in the North East.

Just last month, educational charity Teach First reported that less than 50% of the British public could name a female scientist and that there wasn’t a single woman’s name featured in the national curriculum for science. Given the significant work and developments in health and life sciences taking place in the region, organisers were keen to shine a spotlight on the North East women making a difference in the sector.

Chi Onwurah MP, who herself trained and worked as an engineer and currently serves as the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM, officially opened the event with a passionate speech about women’s achievements in STEM. Chi said: “The number of talented women working in STEM is continuing to grow, but there’s still a perception that these subjects are for men which is not the case.

“Some of the North East women I met today are involved in research that could truly transform the lives of so many people – whether that be through new cancer drugs or medicine safety. These women are role models, inspiring the female scientists of tomorrow.”

Joining Chi speaking at the event were:

  • Professor Ruth Plummer, Professor of Experimental Cancer Medicine at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research at Newcastle University, who spoke about her career and how we can encourage more young girls and women to move into a career in STEM;
  • Dr Shaheda Ahmed, Scientific Manager at Alcyomics, who told the audience about how she moved from a career in banking and finance into science after her son was diagnosed with a rare genetic illness; and
  • Professor Nicola Palmarini, Director UK’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing, who talked about why we need men advocating women in STEM.

The Biosphere is a specialist facility tailored to the commercialisation of life sciences, providing biology and chemistry laboratories and high-quality office space.  It is home to a range of innovative businesses working in the field of health and life sciences; Biosignatures, NewChem Technologies, Cognassist, Jiahua, Northgene, MDNA, ExplantLab, Dermuris, Iksuda, Alcyomics, BiberChem, Newcells and Atelerix.

The event was an opportunity for the sector to come together, share stories and discover new ways of inspiring young women to embark on a career in STEM.

Cllr Joyce McCarty, Deputy Leader of Newcastle City Council, said: “The health and life sciences work that is taking place in Newcastle and the wider region is world-leading. However, although the general public see the shiny new buildings built on Helix, they may not necessarily know what goes on behind those laboratory doors. We’ve got a lot to be proud of in Newcastle and that’s why we felt it was important to encourage our female scientists to share their stories and encourage more young girls to follow in their footsteps.

“There certainly won’t be a shortage of career opportunities in STEM in the region, so we hope these case studies and stories that will continue to be shared online and through social media will really highlight both the impact being made and the opportunities on offer.”

The Biosphere has secured significant funding through the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020 and the Government’s Local Growth Deal through the North East LEP. Both funds help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations.