Mel McKendrick: If only I’d been encouraged to study STEM

STEM can give girls what they want for their future.
STEM can give girls what they want for their future.
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One of my earliest memories as a child was of a television drama featuring a fully holographic television. It captured my imagination and has remained with me for decades.

My school was very focused on learning about science as an academic subject, not learning about science just because it’s fascinating. I avoided STEM subjects in school in favour of arts but never missed an episode of Tomorrow’s World. Nobody ever asked me if I would be interested in making those holograms a reality. Why not?

I came from a family of boys and nobody considered that I, as the only girl, might have any form of STEM career, but they were quick to comment on what I wore. I learned that I could gain approval through fashion and embarked on a career as a fashion model. I believe that there are expectations on girls, particularly now with the rise of social media that can shape their view of themselves. When I eventually went to university, I loved the science of Psychology but avoided using experimental technology because I lacked confidence. I had heard a lot of messages by then that people did not associate my image with STEM and I allowed it to shape who I thought I was.

During my undergraduate degree I set up a mental health charity and this inspired me to apply for an MRes and PhD to investigate social perception and anxiety. I was also interested in social anxiety having been badly affected by it during my modelling career. It was my motivation to investigate something I cared about that made me look for the most effective way to study it. I started programming experiments using eye tracking and realised that I actually loved technology. It was exciting and opened a whole new world of discovery where I could answer all my questions about how people interpret each other. This completely changed how I viewed myself.

Towards the end of my PhD I had enough passion for eye tracking and technology to start my own technology company to develop eye tracking software for medical training. As a female CEO of a tech company and a STEM academic, I have never felt more fulfilled (and I still love fashion). STEM and more traditionally female interests are not mutually exclusive. Females may have different motivations/interests and it is important to understand them.

I would like to see modern technologies brought into the classroom. Let young girls experience the wonder of a virtual or holographic world, measure some behaviours when they are doing so and then explain to them the teams and processes involved in engineering a VR application, the physics of holograms, the psychology of measuring behaviour, and the statistics involved in analysing it. Let them design their own applications using gamification. Find out what games, sports and hobbies they are interested in and show them how they can be represented virtually with them playing the roles of STEM researchers and STEM entrepreneurs.

The difficulty that many technology companies have with breaking into the medical market is that they don’t always ask clinicians what they want before trying to sell them technology. I think that the same may be true of STEM and females. Ask girls what they want for their future that will reflect their interests and then tell them how STEM can give it to them. The Scottish Government, through its National Advisory Committee on Women and Girls, is doing just that. They are canvassing the views of hundreds of people – young and old – to feed into a report that will advise the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on how to make Scotland a more inclusive society. I’ve had my say and I would encourage others to do the same.

I now have the chance to work with holograms in my eye-tracking work. How much time would have been saved had someone picked up and acted on my early love of holograms and told me that a career in STEM would perhaps enable me to be one of the people who could bring them to the world?

Dr Mel McKendrick is a Chartered Psychologist and Assistant Professor in Psychology at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. Dr McKendrick is supporting the First Minister for Scotland’s Advisory Council on Women and Girls, an independent body set up to tackle gender inequality.