Soapbox Science N.L. is taking female-led science to the streets

·3 min read
Sarah Sauvé is one of the organizers of the Soapbox Science NL event that was held at the St. John's Farmers' Market on Saturday. Soapbox Science NL aims to promote female and gender-diverse scientists and their research. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Sarah Sauvé is one of the organizers of the Soapbox Science NL event that was held at the St. John's Farmers' Market on Saturday. Soapbox Science NL aims to promote female and gender-diverse scientists and their research. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC - image credit)
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

Raising awareness about gender disparity in science and bringing female-led research to a larger audience. That was the goal of an event held at the St. John's Farmers' Market Saturday.

It was arranged by Soapbox Science Newfoundland and Labrador which wants to promote female and gender-diverse scientists and their research.

Co-organizer Sarah Sauvé says the need for gender parity in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and medicine — is an important message, especially here in the province.

"Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the biggest disparities between men and women in science. It has the least gender diversity," said Sauvé.

Soapbox Science N.L. was started virtually in 2020 and is modelled after its UK counterpart founded in 2011.

The platform was named after the concept of its events — speakers literally stand on soapboxes to talk to a broad public audience.

"The idea is to put both the spotlight on women and gender-diverse people in science, and also to bring science directly to the public," said Sauvé about Saturday's event.

It featured eight female scientists who spoke about their respective fields of research, spanning different areas from gut microbiome to cancer and heart conditions.

One of the speakers was Francine Burke. She is currently completing her master's degree in neuroscience at Memorial University's St. John's campus.

Burke became involved with Soapbox Science N.L. to showcase her research as a female scientist to a larger audience outside of the academic community.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

"Women are underrepresented in science," said Burke. "It's really important for us as women to come together in a public event like this and really show everyone what we can do."

She says she has first-hand experience with gender disparity in university science classrooms.

"Especially when you start off in university ... You have hundreds of people in your class, and by far, I've been underrepresented as a woman in those courses," said Burke. "Especially in the harder sciences like physics and like harder math courses."

The platform, says Burke, is an empowering network for female and gender-diverse scientists.

"It's great to come together with a group of women who are like-minded, who are all strong-headed, really interested in what they do, super passionate about why they're doing it," said Burke.

Henrike Wilhelm/CBC
Henrike Wilhelm/CBC

According to Sauvé, male domination in science has been a longstanding issue.

"Historically, many people have been marginalized from science on purpose," said Sauvé. "But we want to change that and that is changing ... It's important to have different viewpoints. The more diverse viewpoints we have, the more we can discover."

Some research, says Sauvé, suggests that gender disparity in science is getting smaller in some countries. She stresses that the largest gap can't be found at the university entrance level but in higher degrees, something that's referred to as 'leaky pipeline'.

Doubts from others during her teenage years couldn't stop Burke from pursuing her dreams. Now, she wants to encourage young women and gender-diverse people to do the same.

"There were times I was laughed at. There were times that, you know, I was told I would not be able to accomplish those dreams," she said.

"I think that sometimes boys are told, ... 'you're meant to do the bigger things'. And that's absolutely not true."

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