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Women Transforming Science: A Kent chemist hopes to inspire more female scientists

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A chemist from Kent is on a mission to persuade more women to ignore stereotypes and follow their dreams to take up careers in the male-dominated world of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Dr Teresa Ambrosio, from Deal, who grew up in Italy but now works at the Discovery Park in Sandwich, has created Women Transforming Science – an Instagram page to help women achieve their potential.

Dr Teresa Ambrosio talking about women in science

Now 31, her fascination with science led to her moving to the UK in 2015 after getting a scholarship at the University of Nottingham.

Last year, after she finished a PhD, she landed a position in Kent as a research scientist.

When she started, she says she was "making drugs" for use in the pharmaceutical industry but has since moved to a different team that plays a role in the type of technology most of us have at our fingertips.

Dr Ambrosio said: "Basically I make chemical reactions. I have all this glassware and then I mix stuff to make new compounds.

Dr Ambrosio makes chemical reactions in the lab
Dr Ambrosio makes chemical reactions in the lab

"So there are molecules for electronic devices, so when we buy TVs, smartphones, all the stuff with screens, they have colours, and we make the colours for the electronic devices, so it's quite interesting."

Dr Ambrosio moved to Kent in March 2020, just as the lockdown begun, and although she found it hard to readjust she says she thoroughly enjoys her job.

She said: "I was always very smart at school, I was doing really well, but one day we had this module, and it was about chemistry.

"The teacher at the time was talking about molecules, protons, neutrons, atoms, and I was so fascinated and I really, really enjoyed it.

"That was in secondary school.

Dr Ambrosio teaching Chemistry
Dr Ambrosio teaching Chemistry

"Then I moved onto my A-levels and I kind of dived into the topic more, and I really enjoyed it. I only specialised in science when I went to university."

Dr Ambrosio is a first generation scientist – no one in her family has any prior knowledge or career in the subject.

She said: "It was really at school that I got the chance to study science and be interested in this topic.

"In Italy, university is much more accessible.

"We don't pay the crazy tuition fees like in the UK, so although I don't belong to a rich family and my parents are not scientists, I did manage to go into university, and I don't have a student loan now and I got a scholarship to cover my expense, so that was really good.

Dr Ambrosio in the lab
Dr Ambrosio in the lab

"Many people think that you need to be smart, or you need good grades, in, maths, physics or chemistry, to be a scientist, and for me, that was the case, but I had lots of friends in school that weren't interested at the time.

"When you are 15, 16, you have different interests, you want to play, you want to go out with your friends and a lot of people really found their interest in science at university.

"They probably didn't even have good grades in school."

Dr Ambrosio explained that although she was smart and excelled in school it was her hard work, resilience, commitment and constant studying that got her a PhD.

She said:"If you're really smart, it doesn't necessarily mean that you will succeed, the motivation, the hard work, is what really gets you to move forward."

Dr Ambrosio with her PhD
Dr Ambrosio with her PhD

Since 2016, the number of women working in STEM subjects has increased by 216,552, however, women only make up 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK.

Dr Ambrosio said: "When I was at university, in my personal experience from where I am from in Italy, my classes were mixed half and half.

"And I have to say that all the girls performed much better than the boys. I think the divide between men and women in science is a generational thing.

"Traditionally, men had the better jobs they had to provide for the family. So, this was never expected from women, but I think this is a bit of a society stereotype around the role.

"Also for women, they feel like they always have to decide between their career, or their personal life in terms of whether marriage and kids are more important.

Dr Ambrosio is encouraging more women to get involved in the STEM industry
Dr Ambrosio is encouraging more women to get involved in the STEM industry

"So this is why I see many women leaving the profession, because childcare or the household is traditionally accepted for women to take care of whereas there is no expectation for men.

"For me, as a first generation scientist, there is no one in my family doing what I am doing, so, it is hard to find someone to be a role model and relate to.

"But when I wanted to see women in science, there was no one that I knew.

"The society expectation around the role of women and men, and also lack of role models in a profession that is dominated by men makes you feel a bit lonely.

"So that is my perspective on why many women leave the profession, or they tend to go into a profession where there is more of a representation from women, of women."

Dr Ambrosio enjoying the Kent sunshine
Dr Ambrosio enjoying the Kent sunshine

When she was doing her PhD, for a long time she was the only woman in her lab, however, when other women joined she immediately felt the difference.

"I felt like it was more of my environment," she said. "I had topics to talk about, we could go out together and I could make a life outside the job.

"For me, my PhD was a very tough experience, emotionally, in terms of workload. There's lots of expectations and you work in an environment where everyone is smart.

"You always question yourself: 'do I belong here?' Being the only woman in the lab was hard so I reached out on Twitter and Instagram to academic communities.

"I saw all these women doing the same things that I was doing, and we became close friends.

Dr Ambrosio wearing her Women Transforming Science T-shirt in Sandwich
Dr Ambrosio wearing her Women Transforming Science T-shirt in Sandwich

"Some of them would really help me navigate the imposter syndrome and problems I was facing."

When she was about to finish her PhD in 2019, she wanted to see what she could do to help women find the same support network and community that she had.

Dr Ambrosio said: "I created Women Transforming Science.

"It was my initiative because there is so much need to find support, to find representation, to find role models, to feel like there is someone else out there, like you, doing the same things.

"The page is growing incredibly and I am so happy because it's providing lots of value and support for women to find their own communities to be in and to find a sense of belonging."

The Women Transforming Science logo
The Women Transforming Science logo

Dr Ambrosio feels that Kent being near London makes it an invaluable place for the science industry in terms of jobs and travel.

However, speaking about the stereotypes of women in STEM, she said: "There is this impression of women in science that they look antisocial, or they look boyish and there is a negative conotation around women in science that they are not girly enough.

"This is not true, I wear lipstick every day, I look quite feminine.

"You don't have to fit into the stereotype of a scientist or what you see on TV to choose this profession.

"You don't have to be smart, or have good grades or anything like that to become a scientist.

Dr Ambrosio presenting her research at an international conference in Vienna
Dr Ambrosio presenting her research at an international conference in Vienna

"Being a scientist is very rewarding because you get lots of skills about critical thinking and thinking independently, which I think women need to know to be more independent, to be more comfortable with their own voice and with their own choices.

"It's quite an empowering profession.

"Follow your dreams, even if you feel like you don't see anyone around you doing something similar.

"We have the power of the internet, so even if you don't see people physically around you there are women all over the world with the same interests, passion and ambition as you that you can connect with."

To find out more about Dr Ambrosio you can visit her website here.

To follow her Instagram page click here.

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