My Summer in Barcelona: Football, Identity, and Women in STEM

LiA Showcase Blog Post - Summer 2022
My Summer in Barcelona: Football, Identity, and Women in STEM

Late summer in Barcelona. It’s matchday at Camp Nou, the final game of pre-season. The stadium roars as newly signed striker Robert Lewandowski walks out onto the pitch, his name emblazoned on the back of what must be half of the jerseys in the stands. The match begins; one, two, three minutes pass, and then he shoots! And he scores! Barça, Barça, Baaaaaaarçaaaaaaa….

My task for Summer 2 of Laidlaw was to translate “Invisibles y Ocultas”, an exhibition of the lives and work of 24 women in STEM. To accomplish this I worked in liaison with the exhibition’s curators at the Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona, and also with my supervisor from the Universitat de Barcelona. My goal in this translation was to broaden the reach of the exhibition by bringing it to an English-speaking audience, adding to the Catalan- and Spanish-language versions already freely available for download on the museum’s website. The purpose of this exhibition is to bring the names and stories of these women out of obscurity and into the light, giving them the visibility and recognition that for so long was denied to them.

As I worked my way through the material, navigating grammar clauses, cross-lingual scientific terminology, and Spanish idioms that didn’t quite translate, I learned the stories of these incredible women, blazing their paths through a world that wouldn’t stop throwing obstacles at them. I found out how Rosalind Franklin’s ‘Photograph 51’ paved the way for DNA structure to be identified, but the male scientists who were awarded this discovery’s corresponding 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine didn’t make any acknowledgement of Franklin’s work in their acceptance speech. Unfortunately this was not the first time a woman had been overlooked in this way - in the 1950s, Chien-Shiung Wu’s two male colleagues received the Nobel Prize in Physics for a hypothesis proof that she had made essential contributions to. Another woman, Cecilia Payne, completed her studies in the 1920s, but was not allowed to graduate as the University of Cambridge did not award academic degrees to women - and didn’t start doing so until 1948. Payne, undeterred, moved to America to complete her studies and hypothesised (correctly) in her doctoral thesis that stars were primarily composed of hydrogen and helium - an idea for which she was mocked and ridiculed… by the same man who would later come to this conclusion himself, and get the credit for being the first to make this “discovery”. These are only a few examples from a plethora of cases of gender discrimination experienced by these women, a discrimination oftentimes exacerbated by other intersecting elements of their identities such as race, ethnicity, and sexuality.

When I think back about the six weeks I spent in Barcelona completing my Leadership in Action experience, football surprisingly ended up being one of the non-project things that shaped it the most. I was so lucky to come across the ‘Celebreak’ women’s 5-a-side community during my time there, oftentimes playing three or four matches a week in various different sports centres around the city. Although I initially came to football as a way of making some friends while abroad, as the weeks progressed I began to realise how incredibly appropriate it was that what had brought me to Barcelona - my LiA project about the history of women in science - had now turned me into a huge advocate for woman in football. Much like their counterparts in science, women’s football teams have long faced an uphill battle. For example, in 2017 the Irish women’s national team brought the media’s attention to their appalling lack of facilities and resources, which oftentimes left them with no option but to share tracksuits and change in airport bathrooms. Five short years later, this same team have now achieved the incredible feat of qualifying for the 2023 World Cup for the first time - showing the amazing and important impact that proper support, visibility, and recognition have in uplifting and enabling the successes of these women. I thought it was very fitting that my LiA coincided with this historic summer for women’s football - in Barcelona I got to watch another historic victory live from my laptop, as the England women’s national team become first-time European champions - and I really enjoyed how I was able to make connections between the  experiences of the women in STEM of my exhibition, and the growth of sport equality and equal access spurred on by the women breaking new ground on the football field.

As a woman studying Theoretical Physics, my work on “Invisibles y Ocultas” obviously held deep personal meaning to me - it was a hugely gratifying and validating undertaking, and was something that I am really honoured and proud to have been able to do. The figures in the exhibition collectively span a time period from 2000 B.C. right up to the modern day, and I was struck time and time again by absolute rage at the injustices they had to deal with, as well as such a deep sense of rightness and belonging and kinship with these women, in these fields, over these eras, over all these years, walking the same path, blazing the trail without knowing about all of the others that came before them. This, I think, is the most important thing that I accomplished with my LiA project, and is the lasting impact that I hope it will have going forward - getting these women’s stories out there to set right our society’s false narrative of a womanless scientific history, so that all the girls and women following a life in science will know that yes, they belong here. They always have.

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