Meet the women using 'miracle material' graphene to inspire girls into science
If you haven’t been keeping up with science, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing: graphene is going to change the world.
Discovered in Manchester in 2004, graphene is a two-dimensional material that's stronger than steel, but also incredibly light. It canconduct electricity and heat. What's more, one sheet - around a metre squared in size and a single atom thick (so thin it can't be seen with the naked eye) - can support the weight of a 4kg cat.
No wonder many have called it a ‘miracle material’.
Now, graphene is the subject of an exciting new exhibition at The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester called Wonder Materials: Graphene and Beyond.
Since its discovery, scientists have been falling over themselves to find innovative ways to put graphene to use. One of these is Catharina Paukner, founder of Cambridge Nanosystems, who has pioneered a method to create grapheme on a mass scale, using greenhouse gases - so more scientists can begin to experiment with its uses too.
“Our message of how we make graphene is different to anyone else’s” explains Paukner. “Because we turn a harmful substance into a useful product and can do that really efficiently on a large scale, which allows us to make and develop applications for everyone.”
"Our education system polarises science and the arts, when the processes can be extremely similar"
Surprisingly, 31-year-old Paukner, the so-called ‘first lady of graphene,’ is just as excited about it’s aesthetic possibilities as it’s scientific ones.
“Imagine a material that is like paint,” she explains. “You can use it to paint an artwork on the wall of your living room, or you can use it wherever you want heat, and get rid of having a radiator. It’s flexible so you can just do it yourself, you don’t have to have a plumber. And you can change it as you wish - and be creative with it.”
This seems to be the resounding consensus among the scientists and artists taking part in the exhibition - that the most exciting possibilities graphene offers don’t involve more tech and gadgets - because it can work with what we have in our homes already.
“It doesn’t require of us to change the way we live” offers Paukner.
And now, via this exhibition, it seems that graphene could also be the vehicle through which the next generation of female musicians, artists and scientists can be inspired.
They need it. According to statistics from WISE - a campaign to promote women in the science, technology and engineering industries - women made up a mere 14.4 per cent of the STEM workforce in 2015.
While this number is on the rise, changes are happening far too slowly.
But while we’re all well-versed in the dearth of women in STEM, similar problems affect arts and music. Membership to PRS (Performance Rights Society) is also worryingly low, with only a 16 per cent women. Behind the Glastonbury headliners and the stadium tour sell-outs lies a male dominated workforce.
“Where are all the female composers?” asks Sara Lowes, who during her time as composer-in-residence at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester created the musical work Graphene Suite.
“It’s bizarre because the front face of the industry looks pretty well mixed and progressive, but you only have to dust the surface to reveal how things have barely changed at all.”
So, how exactly do you use a world changing 2-d material to capture the imagination of young women and encourage them to follow careers in science, arts and music? “My brief was to explore commonalities in the creative processes of music composition and scientific research” offers Lowes.
“The aim of the project was to bring the two worlds closer together; to show that both are open to experimentation, require huge reserves of patience - and are always working in the pursuit of discovery and further learning.”
Our education system polarises science and the arts, when actually the processes involved with both can be extremely similar. By drawing parallels between the two, Wonder Materials makes progressive steps towards changing this perception, hopefully earning each subject new fans.
"There are a lot of women out there who could have had brilliant careers in science but were turned away"
Dr Melinda Blees
Another key scientist in the exhibition is Assistant Professor Pinshane Huang of the University of Illinois, who started working with graphene in 2009. Huang refers to herself as the “eyes of the world of two-dimensional materials” and is a photographer of atoms who invents new ways to see and understand materials at the level of single atoms.
Huang, like Paukner, is adamant that scientists need to share more of their research in order to engage not just women but the public. “If I can do something to inspire a young person to become a scientist, become a teacher, or vote to make sure we have funding for scientific research, that makes it worthwhile for me.”
Another of the researchers involved from across the pond is Dr Melinda Blees of Cornell University. She too believes in the democratisation of science, not least of all to encourage inclusivity.
“Science, like all human endeavors, works best when it’s diverse” states Blees. “There are a lot of women out there who could have had brilliant, joyful careers in science, but instead they were turned away from the subject because they were made to feel like it wasn’t for them.
“Science struggles with a lack of diversity in general—with regards to race, gender, our LGBTQ community—and that’s a loss to us all.”
The women I speak to from this exhibition don’t blame overt discrimination for holding them or their would-be peers back, but sexism on a subtler level - that particular breed of benevolent sexism that lurks in the corner. Huang concludes: “Insidious instances of bias and stereotyping have a real and negative impact on recruiting and retaining young women in science.”
To counteract this, Paulkner and Huang believe in the power of mentoring - and having a supportive group of people around them. Tellingly, when I praise Paukner for what she’s achieved by a young, she laughs and says: “I have a great team.”
A throwaway, self-deprecating comment perhaps - but one that serves as a reminder. If even the first lady of graphene needs an ego boost sometimes, we should all offer more support to those facing bias in these unbalanced industries.
They might just change the world one day, too.