Members of the E&T team have been asked to blog about inspirational women, in honour of Ada Lovelace day, which prompted me to think about who inspired me when I was young. In science and technology the only famous woman I could initially think of was Marie Curie. This morning I remembered Valentina Tereschkova, the first female astronaut – I clearly recall seeing the television reports of her achievement, and becoming aware that women could do the same things as men (this of course was a time when London Transport could legally advertise different pay rates for male and female bus conductors, while only men were allowed to be drivers).
But the women who really inspired me to study science were my teachers, and especially the two who taught me science throughout the whole of my secondary schooling – so I want to pay a tribute here to Ballinda Myers and Amalia Michaels.
At the age of 11, I and my peers were terrified of Miss Myers – a diminutive New Zealander with a fearsome temper, who chain-smoked in the prep room and bellowed at her unfortunate technician when the lab equipment hadn’t been set out to her satisfaction – but we all discovered that she was an awesomely good teacher, who got us all to remember and understand the intricacies of the periodic table and complicated chemical reactions, and at the same time to appreciate the achievements of the great scientists of the past. She it was too who gave us the pragmatic advice that if we had no strong aptitude for one subject over another we should stick with science because it kept a lot of doors open, without preventing us from later choosing a non-scientific career. Wise guidance, which I have often passed on younger people who were ‘good all-rounders’.
Mrs Michaels was a very different character, a mild and gentle woman who not only taught us physics but broadened our cultural horizons and encouraged us to aim high. She took our sixth-form group to meet her former Cambridge tutor, and organised theatre visits, as well as introducing us to her children and involving us in various charitable activities. She showed us how to have a career without sacrificing family life.
I never became an engineer, but I have been writing about engineering throughout my professional life, and I am profoundly grateful for the education that made it possible.