Dad drove Emily to a career as a scientist


DR EMILY Grossman is making a career out of inspiring the next generation of scientists.

But the daughter of Susan and Ashley Grossman has taken a long and winding road to get there, with every twist, turn and bump having a profound effect on her message.

Growing up in north-west London, the 30-something, who read natural sciences at Queens’ College, Cambridge, went to shul on High Holy Days with her grandparents — one of whom, Rosemary Friedman, is featured on our Arts & Entertainment pages this week — and was proud to be Jewish.

She went to cheder in West Hampstead, but aged 11, she drifted away from her Jewish roots because she didn’t feel like she fitted in.

She had a similar experience with science.

The Londoner explained: “Before I started my degree in physics at Cambridge I had been to an all girls-school and didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary for a girl to want to be a physicist.

“I wasn’t aware that there is actually a really poor representation of women in science professions — especially physics.

“A recent study showed that in nearly 50 per cent of all mixed-sex state sixth-forms, there isn’t a single girl studying physics.

“Having not been exposed to that, it came as a surprise that I was one of the only girls in my class at Cambridge.

“I found myself in a predominantly-male environment for the first time, and quickly started to lose my confidence.

“I began to feel a bit different, not just because I was a girl, but because I am the type of person that likes to learn in a supportive environment and needs a lot of encouragement.”

Emily, who joked that her favourite word growing up was “Why?”, now found herself in a competitive macho environment that she was not used to.

She recalled: “It was very much sink or swim. I became afraid to ask questions because people laughed at me when I got things wrong or they rolled their eyes if I said I didn’t understand stuff.

“It’s identical to what a lot of girls, who I now teach, tell me about their experiences going from a single sex environment to mixed sex ones.

“They end up sitting at the back of the class and are too scared to ask questions.

“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a competitive, macho environment, but it doesn’t suit everyone . . . and some people can really lose their confidence, which is what happened to me.”

This led Emily to believe that she wasn’t good enough or tough enough to continue with physics.

Ironically, she explained, she still had to sit the physics exam, which she did very well in.

“I came out crying, thinking I had got it all wrong, while the boys came out laughing and joking,” she said.

“Later I was shocked to discover that I had done as well, if not better, than most of them!

“It was all down to my perception of my abilities — that is what had changed — not my abilities, which is the message I try to give young people today.”

Emily’s love of science came from her father. She cites him as one of her biggest inspirations.

She recalled: “We used to go on long car journeys for what he would call theory afternoons.

“I didn’t know what theory was at the age of five, but I knew we’d have a fun afternoon.

“He was inspiring me at a young age by telling me really exciting stories about the world.

“One time he told me that we all used to be monkeys, which I thought was really cool!

“Later on in school I learned that this was the theory of evolution.

“He also told me that if we travelled really fast, time would slow down — it was only when I was studying A-level physics that I realised this was the theory of relativity.”

Emily took a break from the science world to pursue her love of acting, a passion that she had inherited from her mother — but only after going “as far as I could” down the academic route, which involved a PhD in cancer research at Manchester University.

Emily trained at the Guildford School of Acting.

Her parents were “really supportive” and “just wanted me to do whatever made me happy”.

She continued: “They knew that I loved science, but also knew that I had always also loved singing and drama.

“They came to every performance I was in, both as a student in Cambridge and Manchester, and also later on when I left drama school and became a professional actress for a time.

“It wasn’t any real surprise to them that, after finishing my PhD, I took some time to explore another aspect of what I loved doing.

“I did everything from Shakespeare, where I played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to playing Snow White in pantomime — I’m not terribly Jewish.”

Emily returned to the science world thanks to a BBC scheme called Expert Women in 2013.

The BBC Academy, in conjunction with BBC News and Women in Film and Television UK, arranged a free media familiarisation day for women with particular expertise who were interested in appearing on television, radio and online as contributors or presenters — something which appealed to Emily.

The aim was to offer an introduction to the media, including practical experiences in front of a camera and in a radio studio, as well as masterclasses with industry professionals including experienced programme makers — this appealed to Emily’s theatrical side.

Emily was accepted as one of 30 women to attend the training day, from more than 2000 applicants.

She said: “I was excited and utterly terrified at such a perfect opportunity to bring my two passions together.

“The first thing we were taught was about ‘impostOr syndrome’ — the idea most of us often feel that at any moment someone is going to tap us on the shoulder and say ‘really? What are you doing here’.

“We were told that this was a real thing and many people suffer from it.

“It stops a lot of women, and some men too, from succeeding and from fulfilling their potential.

“They said that, due to this, if they want a female science expert to speak in the media they will usually have to ask five or six before one would says yes, whereas generally the first male they call will immediately say yes.”

Emily is using this lesson to inspire the next generation of young people, both male and female.

She now works as a science broadcaster, educator and writer — appearing as a science expert on numerous TV shows and gives talks in universities and schools around the country.

She said: “It’s taken me four careers and a lot of set-backs and challenges, but I’m finally doing what I love, and, what’s more, I’m bringing my whole self to work every day.”

So what is the message that she gives to future scientists?

“To keep believing in what it is that you love and are passionate about, and to keep going”, she said.

“I kept believing that one day I would find a place for myself.

“Over the past 30 years, since my school days when I thought I had to make a choice between my two passions, I have finally brought everything together and now I am able to make a living doing something that I truly love.”

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph