By Sinéad Nolan
This week the CHIRON team were delighted to congratulate one of our project leads, Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly, on winning the Red Woman of the Year Award 2016 for STEM.
Selected from five shortlisted nominees to be named the most inspirational woman in STEM in 2016, Praminda’s success will hopefully spread ripples further afield than her department at Bristol laboratory where she is an Associate Professor, to the wider society where women still only account for a shocking 12.8% of the entire STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce.
The majority of Praminda’s work focuses on developing technological solutions for people living with disabilities or long-term health conditions. She played an influential part in developing SAM (Self-help for Anxiety Management), an app to help people to understand their anxiety, monitor anxious thoughts and follow self-help exercises. SAM has had over half a million downloads to date. Praminda also works for Designability in Bristol as their head of electronics and computer systems. She said of the award:
“I feel very honoured indeed for the recognition. While we still do not have enough women working in STEM, there are a number of amazing women achieving so much and to be selected feels very special indeed. It inspires me even more to ensure that I do my very best to get more women and girls involved in exploring the opportunities offered by working in STEM related areas. One of the biggest challenge is overcoming the misconceptions that STEM subjects are hard or boring – we need to do more to show the creativity in STEM and the myriad of exciting application areas.”
She added: “Engineering today requires good communication and listening skills in addition to technical understanding and expertise. There is so much useless, difficult to use and unattractive technology out there, which frankly is a disgrace. We know that taking a participatory approach to design and applying user-centred methods for design and development can make all the difference (…) however with more women coming in, bring with them different perspectives and agendas is helping to break the barriers to let in new ways of approaching the challenges that our society faces.”
Now in their eighth year, the Red awards bring together people from a broad range of professions and walks of life, from scientists and creatives, to fashion insiders and charity pioneers, who are all celebrated for being ground breakers and trail blazers in their own right. The event was attended by women from many sectors – with their host for the night TV and radio presenter, Fearne Cotton, and speakers and attendees including Samantha Cameron and Millie Mackintosh.
“The highlight for me was being surrounded by so much energy and passion,” says Praminda of the evening. “I was in awe of all the other women there receiving awards – and a new found admiration for what can be achieved with determination and passion. I would encourage everyone to read about all the nominees. I was most moved by listening to Claire Throssall’s acceptance speech and her courage to reach deep into herself and achieve what she has.”
Of her work, judge Cathy Newman (a judge on the Red awards) said: “Praminda is a star in the male-dominated STEM firmament, but as well as fulfilling her potential, her tech wizardry has helped disabled people lead more fulfilling lives, too. Her app is practical and ingenious.”
But despite all the praise, Praminda was able to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground and reflect after the glow of the event, upon the dual role women play in society and how we still have a long way to go.
“My hopes for the future of women in science is where we won’t actually have to discuss this at all. We would all be equal, respected for what we do, rather than our gender or background determining how we are perceived and pigeonholed.”
“We need a range of different channels to reach out to people and showcase the ability and achievements of women that can often get lost. There was an interesting BBC article last year which was sad to read – The Women Whom Science Forgot. There is still so much sexism in our society where women are judged by their looks rather than their ability and it is vital to make sure that ability and achievement are what inspire and inform our younger generations.
“Acknowledging this is a great way to reinforce what is important, what really matters. There are still a number of places where women don’t get the same opportunities and privileges to help them achieve their full potential as men do. We need to do everything we can to change this.”