Women in natural sciences: International Women's Day 2014

07 March 2014

To mark International Women's Day, we showcase some of the current projects run by women at the Museum.

On 8 March every year, International Women’s Day recognises the economic, political and social achievement of women, and supports their advancement.

This year's theme is 'Equality for women is progress for all'.

Women at the Museum

Women play a crucial role in the operation of the Museum, both front of house and behind the scenes. Around 160 women scientists currently work as curators and researchers across life and earth sciences disciplines, many of whom spend time in the field.

Much of their work impacts on universal efforts to improve world health and safety, biodiversity and climate change research, and our understanding of the planet.

Women scientists include: Prof Sara Russell, Head of the Mineral and Planetary Sciences Division, currently using chondrites, the very oldest meteorites, to research how the planets formed.

Dr Sandra Knapp, Head of the Plants Division, specialises in the biodiversity of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, a genus that contains tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines, specifically to ensure food security and sustainability. 

Dr Anouk Gouvras, whose fieldwork and research contribute to the campaign to eliminate schistosomiasis, a debilitating parasitic disease that affects the poorest communities. 

Prof Juliet Brodie, a Research Phycologist, who looks at the impact of climate change on the distribution and conservation of marine algae. 

Dr Clare Valentine, who progressed from assistant curator in the Zoology Department to Head of the Collection in 2011. She now oversees the curation of the approximately 80 million specimens held at the Museum. 

Traditionally in science, there is a gender bias towards men, but one field that has seen a notable increase of interest from women is forensic anthropology.

Women in forensic science

Museum forensic anthropologist Heather Bonney and forensic entomologist Amoret Whitaker, both of whom were recently awarded their doctorate, work on in-house projects, such as the digitisation of human remains kept at the Museum, but also work on behalf of the Museum as consultants to the police.

Dr Bonney is often called in by police forces when human remains are found unexpectedly – perhaps dug up on a building site or in a garden – or sometimes to the scene of a mass disaster. 

Her main role is identification - affirming the remains are human, and then building a biological profile such as sex, age and ancestry based on features of the bones. Dr Whitaker uses insect evidence to estimate the minimum time since death.

Bones on TV

'I don't know if this increase in women in forensics means that women are less squeamish than men,' Dr Bonney said. 'But the increase in university courses and the number of women entering the field do seem to have coincided with the popularity of TV shows such as Bones, CSI and NCIS, all of which have female scientists in leading roles.'

The Museum runs regular Crime Scene Live events that involve the public in forensic techniques to solve a murder mystery. Due to popularity, these are currently sold out, but similar events are planned for the future.

A temporary exhibition of work by women artists opens in the Images of Nature gallery tomorrow, displaying illustrations of natural history created by women over four centuries. 

  • by Nicola Pearson

Further information