Sarah Chapman, STEM Inspiration Outstanding STEM Ambassador 2019
Updated: Jan 9
Sarah Chapman is EMEA Application Engineering Manager for science-based tech company 3M, and a STEM Ambassador. More than that, she is a vehement STEM outreach enthusiast, and a champion for diversity and equality within the industry.
Sarah embodies and perpetuates our mission that 'STEM is for all', something she tirelessly campaigns for in her professional life and beyond.
Widely recognised for her contribution to the betterment of our industry, Sarah is a multi-award winner. Last year alone, Sarah was awarded the WISE Outreach and Engagement Award 2019 and the STEM Inspiration Outstanding STEM Ambassador Award 2019, Women in Business Spotlight on STEM Award 2019, and was highly commended for STEM Inspiration Diversity and Inclusion Award 2019.
Here, Sarah takes the time out of her packed schedule to answer a special edition of the STEM NOW Q&A...
What is your assessment of the challenges that the UK STEM industry faces currently?
SC: Studies show a link between diversity and innovation . In my job, I see first-hand the creativity, collaboration and insights that a diverse workforce brings. In the UK, not only do we have a major skills gap (STEM Learning put the cost at £1.5 billion and reported that 89% of STEM businesses found it difficult to hire staff with the required skills) but we also lack diversity with some groups severely under-represented (for example just 10% of those employed in professional Engineering roles  are female). If we want to increase innovation and generate productive, sustainable growth in the UK, we need to bridge these gaps which starts with inspiring our young people to consider STEM careers.
What is the first step someone should take to go from STEM enthusiast to STEM advocate?
SC: For those in the STEM industry, simply sharing your own story in some way, arranging a workplace visit for students or mentoring someone can have a big impact. It is not just STEM Ambassadors who can be advocates; parents, teachers and other role models play a big part in challenging stereotypes. 3M’s State of Science Index, which explores global attitudes toward science found that few people recognise all the different types of careers that require science . 58% of adults would pursue a science-based career if they could go back in time but there is a perception that science is difficult; 37% believe that only geniuses can have a career in science. The survey suggests the number one way to increase interest in science is to explain it in a way that relates more to everyday life. All of us in industry, especially non-geniuses, can raise awareness of the variety of jobs and the importance of curiosity, collaboration and creativity skills.
What is an experience that has opened your eyes?
SC: In a consumer society, it’s easy to forget how precious resources are; I think we have lost some skills of previous generations for mending and making new things from old. I was reminded of this when a student in a school in Zambia showed me, over Skype, a radio they had made from spares. Activities such as this are an important way to develop the skills required for Engineering. Perhaps with the growing interest in sustainability we will see a resurgence because buying a make-your-own radio kit with full instructions just doesn’t compare to my childhood memories of rummaging through the “bits and bobs box” and having to improvise with a paper clip or wait for someone to use something up.
What motivates you to advocate for STEM so passionately?
SC: I believe that many of the challenges facing the world today will be solved by the Scientists and Engineers of tomorrow. For example, it may be too late to rely on behavioural changes to combat climate change, but with the help of game-changing technology, we stand a chance.
What is a worthwhile project you wish people spoke more about?
SC: There are so many amazing projects out there; the STEM Learning website is a great place to find resources, especially for STEM Clubs. My favourites projects are those aimed at the general public – I love watching the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and this year they have added live streaming nationwide. I am also a big fan of the My Skills My Life resource which features real-life STEM role models.
How can people from non-STEM backgrounds contribute to/get involved with STEM?
SC: This is so critical if we are to better engage the general public in science. Non-specialists are ideally placed to help Scientists and Engineers explain how their area of interest relates to everyday life. I work closely with the Corporate Communications team in my company on our STEM outreach activities. They have skills and experience in event management, copywriting, public relations, design, journalism and marketing to help bring science stories to life and make them understandable and memorable for the audience. We also have volunteer ambassadors who are not in core-STEM jobs but work for a STEM company in areas such as marketing, business, finance and legal. Their perspective is so helpful to show young people that it’s not all white coats and overalls.
What part do family members and other role-models play in encouraging young people to consider a future in STEM?
SC: The “Not for people like me?”. report from The WISE Campaign, stated that, “A number of reports indicate that parents and the wider family remain a key influence in career choice for many under-represented groups including girls, ethnic minorities and young people from low income families.” STEM companies, ambassadors, outreach organisations and schools can help by involving friends and families in STEM activities and using digital media to share their stories and challenge the perceptions of STEM careers.
What is your favourite aspect of your work?
SC: I love the variety and working with people. My current role is international, so I get to learn about different cultures and styles. I also like it when I get to visit customer sites – seeing a building going up or a high-speed train being made is amazing. My company has more than fifty different technologies which means there is always something new to learn.
What has been your best moment as a STEM Ambassador?
SC: There are so many to choose from. I will never forget the look of disbelief on my colleague John’s face when I told him that, for the first time, we would be welcoming 60 primary school children into our offices… and the buzz that went around the office when they arrived. Watching their crocodile formation confronted by the revolving door at reception was hilarious and it was wonderful to see their faces light up when the receptionist greeted them like grown-ups and gave them each lanyards. We went on to run an ideas workshop but to be honest it was that first impression that really made it memorable for them – ten years later students applying for work experience have told us they remember that visit from their childhood. For many it would have been their first experience in a workplace meeting real Scientists and Engineers. Suffice to say, John is a huge advocate for STEM outreach and we have since welcomed thousands more students for workplace visits.
A more recent one was during the 3M Young Innovators Challenge, for which I am a judge. I remember saying to one team that I hoped one day to see their building designs in the city skyline. A few weeks later we received a letter from one of the student’s grandparents, explaining that they had been invited to display their work, a scale-model of the Tokyo Tower, at the Japanese Embassy in London. Another letter from their teacher described the “powerful impact and transformative effect" of the competition saying that "pride in their project has changed their demeanour at school," which has been accompanied by extra effort in class and new ambitions. This is just one anecdotal example but with thousands of STEM Ambassadors across the UK helping to create similar experiences for young people, I am confident that, collectively, we can really make a difference.
Can you remember what first sparked your curiosity in science and how this has led you to where you are today?
SC: At school, I hated science and thought chemistry was only for super-brains. I never imagined someone like me could have a successful, fulfilling career in STEM. Everyone said I was a born dancer – no-one ever said I was a born scientist! My ballet aspirations were halted due to injury and I changed A-levels, to include Chemistry, as an act of rebellion. I felt very out of place at first but then my teacher told us how she had previously worked in industry and her job had been to formulate a well-known soft-drink to maintain consistency despite changes in the fruit harvest. That blew my mind – it was the first-time that I saw science as relevant to everyday life and, despite an ongoing struggle with maths, I went on to graduate with a degree in Chemistry.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a future in STEM?
SC: Don’t limit your choices and education to technical subjects. Soft skills such as collaboration, communication and creativity are vitally important for most STEM roles and subjects such as languages, arts and business can help you build them. You do not have to be top of the class in science or maths and you do not have to go to university. Curiosity, team work and passion are highly valued, there is a range of roles to suit everyone and lots of apprenticeship schemes to help you train. Lastly, get as much experience as you can – attend workplace visits, seek work experience and use the wealth of publicly available STEM education resources to find topics that interest you and learn more about careers.
Why is diversity and inclusion in STEM fields important and what can people and businesses do to promote diversity in STEM?
SC: Most businesses will tell you they would like to be more innovative. With a strong link between innovation and diversity, the business case is clear, but many still struggle to recruit, retain and benefit from diverse talent. In his book, Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking, Matthew Syed poses a question… suppose you have a team of ten people working on a problem, how many ideas do you get? The answer is that it depends on the diversity of the group. “With homogeneous groups people tend to get stuck in the same place. Diverse teams come up with fresh insights, helping them to become unstuck.” Inclusion is critical here; if people cannot safely share their diverse perspectives and fresh ideas, business will not benefit. Using gender as an example, being the only women in a room full of men can make it daunting to speak up, especially with a radical idea. Catalyst reported that “Boards that are at least 30% women offer a positive environment for innovative ideas to spring from gender diversity” . I often hear that, because one exceptional person from a minority group has a senior job in a high-profile STEM company, the diversity box is ticked. Just because it is possible, does not mean it is easy, common or accessible; sometimes holding up exceptional examples without some more relatable ones, can make it feel even harder to follow that path. I want to create an environment where people from all backgrounds can feel included and see a STEM career path within their reach. Only then can businesses benefit from the rebel ideas and recombinant innovation that Matthew Syed references. STEM outreach is a great way for businesses to help boost the STEM pipeline – don’t underestimate the impact of workplace visits, sharing employee stories and offering work experience days.
Businesses also need to look at their recruitment processes, create inclusive cultures and ensure diversity initiatives are impactful at all levels of the organisation. The WISE Ten Steps programme has some excellent resources to help businesses ensure that women have the same opportunities to progress in their career as their male counterparts. In my experience, changes that benefit gender diversity can also help other under-represented groups, for example flexible working practices, but we should still look at all aspects of diversity and not focus only on those that are easy to measure.
Who has inspired you during your STEM journey and why?
SC: I have a pretty long list of inspirational mentors, sponsors and role models collected over a fifteen-year career but one of the public figures that inspires me is Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE (pictured). This is not because she is an amazing space scientist (I am a chemist and generally more interested in zooming in on things than big picture space stuff) but for her work in STEM outreach. I love how she makes science accessible and relatable. She presents the BBC programme Sky at Night and talks to schools about the power of dreams. She describes herself as “a dyslexic black kid from a council estate” and she is not afraid to be herself – I watched a talk online that she did whilst cuddling her baby daughter - a refreshing antidote to the endless images of stressed-out working parents. One day I hope to meet her in person.
Do you have any pet peeves about the way science and engineering is covered in media?
SC: Yes – lab coats. I understand why media professionals want content to “look like science” but this just reinforces the stereotype – to quote the Royal Society of Chemistry, “Not all chemists wear white coats” and furthermore, not all labs have lab coats. I refuse to wear them in interviews/photos unless there is a genuine need for it within the environment.
What have been your biggest successes this year?
SC: WISE recently reported that “For the first time ever, there are over one million women working in core-STEM roles in the UK”. As the proud winner of a STEM Inspiration Award and the WISE Outreach and Engagement Award, I like to think I have played a small part in helping the UK reach that milestone.
What are you looking forward to in 2020?
SC: There is still a serious STEM skills shortage in the UK and many groups remain severely under-represented, so I am really looking forward to expanding some of my STEM outreach projects and reaching a broader audience. I am expecting my second child and hope to visit lots of schools and workplaces to talk about parenthood and STEM careers… and perhaps challenge some negative perceptions “Maggie style”.
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