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Sing a song of science

As you may have seen from our news pages, today Pembroke fellow Professor Tim Bussey has released a music video.

She Blinded Me With Science is the title song of a new EP by his band, Violet Transmissions. The video is a collaboration between the band, the organisation ScienceGrrl and film-maker Ben Roper. It features a number of real women scientists, as well as TV scientists from the hit TV series Orphan Black.

We spoke to Professor Tim Bussey and Dr Heather Williams, Director of ScienceGrrl, about this remarkable project.

To start with, can you tell us a little bit about your own backgrounds?

TB: I did an undergraduate degree in chemistry and then spend about ten years as a full-time professional musician, before going back to university and embarking on an academic career. I moved to Cambridge 22 years ago to do my PhD and, after a couple of postdoctoral positions, I got a permanent lectureship in Psychology in 2000. I became Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience last year. I run my lab, the Translational Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, with my wife Dr Lisa Saksida. During this time I’ve continued to make music.

HW: I did my undergraduate degree in Physics with Medical Physics before going on to train as a Medical Physicist in the NHS. I took a side-step into academia to do a PhD in Positron Emission Tomography before joining Central Manchester University Hospitals. I am now a senior medical physicist, specialising in Nuclear Medicine and it’s imaging applications in particular. This means that I have a role in development and support for the NHS imaging services, as well as some research and teaching. I have also been a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) ambassador for over 10 years. I was involved in establishing ScienceGrrl, a network supporting and celebrating women in science, in 2012 and I am now one of the Directors. We offer networking for women scientists, input into national strategy and policy issues, and outreach projects through our 19 local chapters, which are dotted all over the UK. I’m also a musician, but trained in classical piano and cello rather than rock!

Why do you feel so passionately about celebrating and supporting women in science?

HW: When I went to university only 1 in 10 scientists in my physics classes were women. That was 15 years ago and nothing has changed. A recent report by Science Grrl, Through Both Eyes, includes some poignant statistics. Only 13% of those working in occupations classed as STEM are women, as are only 5.5% of engineering professionals. There is simply no reason for women to be so poorly represented, there’s nothing inherent in women that makes them bad at science. I was already a bit disgruntled about this when, in 2012, the EU released a video as part of their ‘Science: It’s Girl Thing’ campaign. The way that depicted women scientists was quite incredible, it was so divorced from the reality of who female scientists are and what they do – it was like lighting the blue touch paper for me. I knew that I had to do something, and I wasn’t alone. I’ve since become aware of quite how narrow the accepted definitions of ‘attractive and successful’ are for women and men in our society, and this contributes to keeping the number that work in science static when we should be moving towards greater and greater equality and opportunity. I wanted to find a way to highlight the fact that these things are still an issue.

TB: I had also been aware of these issues from a very early stage in my career. Whilst my wife was doing her PhD in robotics, there were more people called Dave in her lab than there were women! Yet during the time I’ve had my own lab, many of the very best scientists in it have been women. As Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Pembroke, I see clearly that many of our best applicants and students are women. Yet when I look around at people who have reached the same career level as me, who sit on the same committees and speak at the same symposiums, I don’t see as many women as there should be. There is an inconsistency there. That was my motivation to do something that would raise awareness.

So how did your collaboration come about?

TB: The whole thing sort of came together at once. I have been singing in a band, Violet Transmissions, for a couple of years. I came across the song She Blinded me with Science and saw that I could bring together my music and my science – two things that I have always kept as very separate parts of my life – and use the combination to say something about the issues surrounding women in science. The first stage was to email Thomas Dolby, who recorded the original song. He loved the idea and was really supportive, offering samples from his track. He was a bit of a hero of mine, so that was very exciting. Then someone recommended that I approach Ben Roper films about making a music video and Ben agreed to work on the project for a fraction of his usual fee because he believed in the cause. Finally, I needed an organisation to partner with. I felt strongly that I shouldn’t try to stand up and talk about what it is like to be a woman in science, so I needed to find some experts. Someone recommended I look at ScienceGrrl and I was really impressed by their work and also their whole attitude.

HW: That’s when we were approached by Tim. He was looking for an organisation that promotes women in science and that would be well-suited to making a music video. We have the contacts, the experience and also the media presence. Also, after our calendar photography project, a video seemed like a good next step for us. I met Tim and Ben for coffee with the other Directors and we immediately felt confident that we could work together. We get along very well. Tim is a very capable scientist but doesn’t take himself too seriously, and Ben is equally skilled in his own field as well as being very flexible and accommodating. As an organisation we operate in a very similar way, so it was a good cultural fit and therefore an easy collaboration.

How did the TV show Orphan Black come to be involved?

TB: There have been lots of blogs and articles written about how well the show embraces diversity. Many of the main characters are women and at least four of them are scientists. Yet it is dealt with in a way that is very matter-of fact, as though to say that it is just a normal part of life. It seemed like a good fit and I have a friend who works on the show so we were able to have them give us some clips for the music video.

HW: I think that providing role models for young women is crucial. I saw the involvement of Orphan Black as another way of us including women scientists as role models but from a different angle. Really it was an honour to be able to use footage from such a high profile series.

Can you tell us about the process of making the music video?

HW: We took a lot of effort to make sure it would look and feel absolutely right. At ScienceGrrl we already knew several women scientists from a diverse range of personal and professional backgrounds who would be willing to appear in the video. It was important for us to leave space for these scientists to come across not only with integrity and intelligence, but also charisma and life. I know these women and they are brilliant at what they do and passionate about it too. But they are also great fun. It was important that we captured something of who they were as individuals and that they are more than their jobs. That’s quite challenging in a music video that’s less than 4 minutes long, but I’m really pleased with how it has worked out.

TB: This was not the first time I’d made a music video. This time was a bit different though, because we wanted to take a serious subject and portray it in a fun way. The women in the video are all ordinary people and real scientists; we wanted it to seem very natural, so people watching would think, ‘Of course they are in a lab – why wouldn’t they be?’ I really like the celebratory tone of the video. I also think it is good quality. When you say that a Cambridge don is releasing an EP it sounds a bit naff. But the band is made up of really talented musicians and so both the song and video turned out well, particularly given our (non)budget!

What do you hope that the music video will achieve?

HW: Many young women have never met real female scientists, which makes it very hard for them to visualise themselves taking that route. Within ScienceGrrl we now have over 300 members and the vast majority of us are working scientists. I hope we can show people a range of authentic role models, and this video is part of that, not least because it will be accompanied by a series of blogs from the sciencegrrls involved. Hopefully it will encourage more public recognition of the work of women in science, and encourage more women in STEM to own that identity and be more visible: showing young people who we really are should encourage them to step up and be who they are, and hopefully explore science as an avenue for expressing that.

Finally, Tim: as a Cambridge professor turned rock star, do you think that you are going to become a local celebrity?

No! But I hope that people will see the reason that I made the song and relate to that. I think that men and women alike can support that message. Although who knows, maybe Violet Transmissions will be playing a gig in Pembroke’s New Cellars one day…

For more information, visit (Photo credit: Ben Roper Films ©)

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