Meet the women working to develop vaccines and build flood defences who are encouraging more girls into STEM careers

Although gender divides in laboratories and surgeries are narrowing, women remain under-represented in careers like engineering and biomedicine.

But as teachers and university admissions service UCAS reveal an uptake in female students applying to health-related university courses in the wake of the pandemic, The Yorkshire Post spoke to women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields about their chosen careers and why more girls should consider becoming coders, virologists and dentists.

Professor Nicola Stonehouse is a leading virologist based at the University of Leeds whose research has focused on the protein make up of viruses and is currently overseeing the development of a new vaccine for polio.

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She started out by studying a degree in biological science at the University of East Anglia, before later doing a PhD in Swansea. Prof Stonehouse moved to Yorkshire in the 1980s where she started out as a lab technician and discovered her interest in researching viruses.

Milly Hennayake is a civil engineer in Leeds who helped work on the city centre's major recent flood defence gates

"Viruses are fascinating because you can learn about so many different things by looking at them," she said.

"There's studying infections, looking at therapies, vaccines and even evolution.

"Virology has very much entered the public realm because of the pandemic. But there is still so much to find out and basic questions we don’t know the answer to.

“There will always be the need for better drugs, better vaccines. And there will be other pandemics in the future.”

Professor Nicola Stonehouse is a virologist based at the University of Leeds who is overseeing the production of a new polio vaccine

She said more and more women were getting into the field at undergraduate level, but that "we lose women the higher up you go".

"There are very few of us left in the top levels," she said.

From infections to infrastructure, Milly Hennayake is a civil engineer based at Arup in Leeds who has helped design flood defence mechanisms in the city centre.

Engineering remains an industry dominated by men, with women making up only 12 per cent of the field according the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Women currently only account for 12 per cent of engineers

Ms Hennayake said there was a misconception of engineers being "a man with a spanner in his hand" but that it was a diverse field with jobs requiring both science and creativity.

"There are so many things engineering extends to all sorts and you can do whatever you are interested in. It could be food, or fashion or vaccine production.

"The main concept is solving the problems of day-to-day life."

As data and computer coding becomes more and more part of our everyday lives, more girls are also being encouraged into careers in computer science.

Sowmya Mony, from Sheffield, was a website developer who retrained to teach computer science through the Transition to Teach programme, with the aim of inspiring more girls to take up the subject.

“When I was younger, I was lucky that my brother was into computers and did an undergraduate degree in computer science. Computers and coding was quite normal to me but not everyone has that.

“There can still sometimes be the perception that only boys like gaming and computing, and I hope that the pandemic and children’s greater exposure to technology, will encourage more girls into STEM subjects helping them to see the value in technology in day to day life."

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