Woman’s Way has long been championing strong women and Dr. Niamh Shaw is one of the cause’s greatest proponents. I was so proud to interview Niamh for such a long-standing, high quality institution of publishing – here’s what I wrote.
NIAMH SHAW – THE PEOPLE’S ASTRONAUT
It’s no great secret that there’s a paucity of women in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) sector and it’s particularly prevalent in Ireland, with less than 20% of jobs occupied by women. Things are slowly changing, says Dr. Niamh Shaw, a performer and astronaut-in-training who merges STEM with the Arts (STEAM) to create theatre and science events for the general public. Although there are inspiring women in Ireland holding senior positions in STEM (Northern Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a huge influence), Niamh believes we must band together to achieve full parity.
“It’s our collective responsibility to reach out to Irish communities of all ages to nurture their curiosity, showing them that STEM is everywhere, that it’s genderless and most importantly, already present in the everyday activities that they currently enjoy.”
Niamh’s diary is positively overflowing. Since the start of the year, she has toured to Cheltenham Science Festival with her interactive family show called My Place in Space, participated at Belgian and Austrian conferences and delivered the keynote speech at the Galway ATLANTEC Festival. It was at this festival that Niamh felt she could really make a difference by organising a mother and daughter event. While the daughters went on a tour of Hewlett Packard, Niamh addressed mothers to find out how science fits into their’ everyday lives. She suggests that developing TV, radio and online programmes can make STEAM appealing. These shows should reflect the core values of the youth, says Niamh, who mentions Gogglebox, Britain’s Got Talent, Snapchat and YouTube videos as frames of reference. Nurturing that interest is imperative because with the ever-evolving technological landscape, the next generation needs to develop a very comfortable relationship with STEM, she attests.
“We need to have a society that can speak the language of science and of English.”
So why is the gender gap rife in STEM-based careers? Niamh is loath to ascribe one all-encompassing reason, as it is a deeply complex issue. She believes it needs to be introduced from an early age in the home so that by the time a child encounters these subjects at school, she is ready for them to be a formal discipline. “It can’t just be a subject in the classroom. Primary school can keep that curiosity engaged but if that doesn’t happen, you have a child that goes into secondary school and they have this book in front of them with foreign terminology – it’s so out of their comfort zone.” Teaching STEM in this way is like teaching English using grammar alone, says Niamh. “It’s like taking a sentence and saying adjective, past perfect tense, noun, pronoun. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Normalising STEM in everyday life is key, she asserts. Influences need to come from a critical, minimal amount of sources including family members, teachers and role models. Growing up, Niamh was so exposed to STEM in the home that she never considered it a boys’ club. Role models are vital, she says; in fact lack of visible female role models is the most cited reason why girls are not progressing to careers in STEM, according to Accenture’s recent study Powering Economic Growth in association with Women Invent Tomorrow at Silicon Republic.
Misconceptions about the field still exist, although the barriers are finally being broken. New research conducted by Universum (a global company for employer branding) entitled Myths and Misconceptions: What Matters to Women in STEM Now highlighted some deeply entrenched views that widen the gender gap, including the view that women want to leave work to rear children and that men are innately more inclined to STEM. “It’s totally dependent on your immediate frame of reference and if you’re surrounded by people that are reinforcing that world view,” says Niamh.
“I don’t make any reference to the difference between boys and girls [in my work]. I assume everyone is the same. It’s really important how you talk about this because you can make it into an issue.”
Last year, there were 2533 women studying STEM in Irish universities compared to 1989 men. The attitude that women are not as interested in STEM subjects is a prevailing one. We need only look at the recent film Hidden Figures about a team of relatively unknown female mathematicians working at NASA to discover that women working in this field can often be overlooked or worse still, written out of history. Another myth that needs debunking is that creative and scientific careers are incompatible. Niamh manages to marry the two effectively and she believes others can too. “I think everybody is artistic, scientific and creative. It’s the things we say to ourselves that get reinforced.”
Having gone down a traditional path initially, Niamh was employed by UCC to do post-doctoral research. “I was doing that for a couple of months and I kind of went uh-oh – I knew it wasn’t right! I like to make things happen and move on to the next thing! The pace of research is the opposite – it’s about drilling down and becoming an expert in your field.” Although she was offered what she describes as “an exciting opportunity” to work in New Zealand, she decided to reignite her passion for acting and was cast in a recurring role on Fair City – to this day she is still recognised by people who remember her as Frances McGuigan, a former nun-turned-waitress in the popular Irish soap opera. “It seemed like I had a chance to make a strong decision. I couldn’t understand it but I knew I was on the right shift of something.”
I tell Niamh that I saw her perform many times in The Craic Pack, a Dublin-based comedy improvisation group. She remembers it with fondness. “Improvisation set me free. It helps you let go. When you come from academia, it’s the opposite. It’s about the fear of being wrong – you never publish the results that don’t work. In improv, failure is the only way to figure stuff out.”
This venture was the start of a prestigious and illustrious career move for Niamh, as she now pairs with M*A*S*H. actor and scientist Alan Alda with his centre for Communicating Science, providing communications training for scientists using improvisation and theatre skills.”
It’s so important to carve out your own career path, says Niamh, instead of following the route that you feel you should.
“In 2011, I allowed myself the life I’ve always wanted. Every time I tried to do a 9 to 5, I wanted to bolt for the door. There was a deep sadness in me. I knew I was disappointing the little girl inside of me who wanted to do more.”
Earlier this year, Niamh embarked as chief artist and documenter on the Prima Mars 173 mission in the Utah desert. The conditions mimicked what life on Mars would be like as the first colonists. There were limited water and food supplies, broken toilets and intense heat to deal with but Niamh soldiered on. “I was really out of my comfort zone. I eat well, I exercise well and I like to push myself mentally but I am no Grizzly Adams.”
The mission was tough; every day, the team would climb the rocky terrain in a suit with limited visibility and a heavy rucksack simulating an oxygen tank. She didn’t sleep for the entire 14 days because she was chronically dehydrated. But the camaraderie kept her going. And she is keen to highlight the strength of the collective. “When you’re around people who share the same dream, everybody works twice as hard. Niamh is now the artist in residence at Blackrock Castle and is working with the astronaut centre in Cologne making her next show. “It mirrors the way that when teams work together anything is possible.”
She encourages young people to dream big. “My focus is to go on these missions and report back what this feels like and how an ordinary person can go to space. That’s my life’s experiment.” And what a noble experiment that is.
For more information visit niamhshaw.ie