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Three Generations of Women Scientists

Three Generations of Women Scientists

  • Date16 March 2022

The memories you make at university last a lifetime. For this grandmother, mother and daughter trio, their memories are tied with the thread of studying Science at Royal Holloway. Meet the three generations of women scientists at Royal Holloway: Clare Steele-King (Biology, 1993), her late mother Rosemary Steele (Biology, 1961) and daughter Jenny King (Physics, 2021).

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When asked why she chose to study Biology at Royal Holloway, Clare says she was influenced by her mother, through ‘her passion and enthusiasm for her subject’. Rosemary was a biology teacher after graduating from Royal Holloway, and her passion for science trickled down to Clare. Clare chose Royal Holloway specifically because she could get direct electron microscopy experience. It was this exclusive, hands-on experience that Royal Holloway offered that no other universities did that appealed to Clare. She states ‘Other universities at the time would let you look at the kit, but Royal Holloway actually allowed you to use the equipment.’

Her late mother, Rosemary, chose biology because, for as long as Clare could remember, she was always fascinated by life science and human biology. ‘Whenever she had a doctor’s appointment,’ Clare reminisces, ‘she would give a detailed and scientific explanation of why she had the symptoms she did’.

Rosemary Steele in her graduation gown, 1961.

Jenny, on the other hand, fell in love with Royal Holloway during an Open Day, where she was able to meet with her department and see that there was a very caring community. Jenny also chose Royal Holloway because of its musical facilities open to her whilst studying Physics. Singing in the Founders Choir, she was able to travel to Rome and Florence to perform. Its close proximity to London was also a major factor for her as there are so many choral opportunities in the city.

During Clare’s time at the College, the Biology building was in Huntersdale, down Egham Hill. ‘It made for a strong community; we felt like it was our own house’, she reflects. Clare’s tutor was the academic who oversaw electron microscopy, and he secured funding for a research placement for her during the summer break. While she was waiting for her final results, which needed to be a 2.1 for her to continue onto a PhD, she went into a complete panic when she heard she had a viva. She spoke to her tutor, whose response was ‘Get everyone from our tutor group, I think we all need to go to the pub.’ In the end, Clare received the grade she needed to continue her academic studies, but it was the warm and encouraging atmosphere with her tutors and classmates that she will never forget. 

Clare Steele-King in her mother's graduation gown, 1993. 

Jenny, studying at Royal Holloway two decades after her mother did, also reflects on the approachability of her lecturers. ‘I loved my tutor and my classmates’, she states, ‘and the varied content of the lectures’. 

One of Clare’s favourite memories is when her class went on a ‘brilliant field trip to Tenerife,’ she states, for a Plant Geography module that was ‘academically very interesting but also good fun’. Clare also sang for the Chapel Choir, where they went on a tour of the Czech Republic. ‘It was just after the Velvet Revolution and a pint cost the equivalent of six pence,’ she laughs, ‘But we also got to sing in beautiful chapels and cathedrals’.

Jenny’s favourite memories also lie in her musical interests, where she was part of the committee for the Founder’s Choir in her last year, and enjoyed being ‘around like-minded people’. With the choir she also went on tour to Italy, where she went to ‘some of the best places with stunning acoustics she’s ever sung in.’

Jenny is continuing her education by studying for a Masters in Acoustical Engineering in Southampton. Diverting into the engineering side of Physics has allowed her to take her studies from Royal Holloway and develop them to make‘a practical change in the real world’, she says. Jenny’s end goal is to improve the acoustics in cathedrals and singing spaces, making a direct impact on auditoriums and lecture halls. Clare, on the other hand, studied for her PhD at Oxford Brookes University, before working as a plant cell biologist. After working part-time when she became a mother, she has now achieved her dream of becoming the Electron Microscopy Lead in the Bioscience Technology Facility at the University of York. ‘If anyone learns anything from this,’ Clare says, ‘It’s that achieving your dreams is possible.’

Being part of three generations of women scientists meant they all inspired each other in different ways. Jenny always heard her mother and grandmother talk about their time at Royal Holloway while she was growing up. Clare and Rosemary paved the way for Jenny to believe that women could be anything, and Jenny grew up with these role models who inspired her own studies in science. Clare adds that she loves the fact that they are able to have a ‘personal connection to a place in the past’. As Rosemary lived locally at the time, they would walk around campus together reminiscing on their own experience studying there.

Royal Holloway helped Clare prepare for her career by providing both professional and personal support. When talking about her tutor, Dr Tony Stead, she states, ‘He knew me, he knew what I wanted to do, I was definitely not a number’. He was a plant cell biologist who was very supportive of Clare’s aspiration to study for a PhD. Having stayed in the field, Clare has also re-met her biochemistry tutor, 25 years later in her work life – and he still remembered her.

Jenny, on the other hand, reflects on how Royal Holloway helped her change her career path when she realised doing straight physics wasn’t for her, and her real passion was to mix ‘science with acoustics’. The Careers department, she states ‘helped a lot with finding a suitable Masters and other areas I could look into’. ‘My professor, Professor Gibson went through my CV and MA application,’ she says, ‘and helped me change my path even though it meant cutting my time short at Royal Holloway.’

When Clare struggled to think of her greatest professional achievement, Jenny asked if she could answer it for her.  ‘When I was growing up, the thing you enjoyed the most about your job was when you had the rare opportunity to do  electron microscopy,’ Jenny says ‘but at the time, you had taken  a backseat to look after us and make sure we would turn out to be semi-nice humans! And when I  left for university, you took the leap to put your career first, and I can see how much you’re enjoying your new job now, and your passion for it has massively leapt forward’.

Clare laughed and agreed. ‘The fact that I found a balance that worked for me,’ she states, ‘is what I’m proud of. I’m very proud to have worked part-time while being a mother and to still be in Science. But to be part of my children’s lives is my biggest achievement.’

What Clare is most proud of Jenny is how she is always ‘following her passions’, she states, instead of following a career path that doesn’t serve her. The fact Jenny was able to change her four-year course in Physics into a BSc and do a Masters elsewhere to explore her interest in Acoustics, is a perfect example. ‘Royal Holloway allowed that sort of flexibility and helped Jenny discover her own path’, she notes.

When asked if they faced any challenges as women in STEM, Jenny states she was attracted to Royal Holloway because it had more women in Physics than other universities she had visited. She also says ‘I had mum and grandma ahead of me, but also people next to me who were exceptional’. Her Masters in Southampton is less gender diverse, as there are only three women in a classof 18.  ‘However,’ Jenny states, ‘Royal Holloway helped prepare me for that. I didn’t come here (Southampton) and think I’m a woman and I shouldn’t be here, but that I’m a woman and I better get on with it – and show them I can do just as well they can!’

Clare on the other hand, only experienced challenges after her second post-doctorate when she wanted to work part-time due to having children. Her research funders were not supportive, so she had to make different choices. Ultimately, Clare slowed her career to be with her children.  ‘Make the decisions that are right for you and don’t beat yourself up about it,’ she states, ‘You can’t have it all, but you should have the opportunity to choose what’s important to you.’ The idea of ‘having it all’ is an ‘unhealthy thing to promote as it’s easy to make you feel like you’re failing,’ she says.

Clare’s late mother, Rosemary, remained in contact with her contemporaries from Royal Holloway until she died last year, ‘she made some strong bonds with the people there,’ Clare says. Jenny performed multiple concerts on campus and there ‘was not a single one Grandma missed. Even if it was exactly the same programme as a performance a night before, she would still come!’

‘Some concerts were live-streamed,’ Clare says, ‘So we got to see Jenny perform while we were 250 miles away, and I would always see my mother sitting down in her prime spot before everybody else arrived – punctual as ever!’

Rosemary always talked fondly about her memories of Royal Holloway, having spent all three years living in Founders. After Rosemary graduated from Royal Holloway, she taught Science at St Helen’s in Northwood but paused teaching when she had children. She then resumed her teaching at Bracknell College for a few years, before teaching Biology at St Mary’s, Ascot where she became Head of Biology. ‘She loved teaching,’ Jenny says, ‘I’ve learnt more about Biology from her than in school.’

When Clare was in her second year at university, Rosemary would attend evening classes at the College once a week, and they would meet up for sugar-covered doughnuts in what is now called Tommy’s. Rosemary was very proud of their shared history and the fact that Clare and Jenny studied at Royal Holloway too.

What these women teach us is that achieving your dreams is possible, and once you achieve them, there is a responsibility to pass that belief on to the next generation. Clare says, ‘everybody should have that aspiration to achieve their dreams. Everyone should feel that it is possible, and have the confidence to pursue what they’re passionate about.’

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