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News > Alumni News > International Women's Day: Catching up with Áine O'Brien

International Women's Day: Catching up with Áine O'Brien

To celebrate International Women's Day 2023 on 8 March, we're shedding a spotlight on female Allanians who have gone on to achieve success in their chosen careers. 
9 Mar 2023
Alumni News

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023 on 8 March, we’re shedding a spotlight on female Allanians who have gone on to achieve success in their chosen careers. 

We have caught up with some of our fantastic female Allanians in celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March and found out what inspired them to pursue their different careers.

Áine O'Brien, who left Dame Allan’s in 2010, is an Environmental Scientist at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre/University of Glasgow. 

Tell us about your career and what inspired you to follow this path?

I’m currently an environmental scientist studying forest fires and climate change using radiocarbon dating and sediment cores.  Prior to this role, I did a PhD in Planetary Science here in Glasgow. Before my PhD, I spent three years teaching high school Physics and Astronomy, after my Physics and Astrophysics degree at the University of Leicester.

I loved Physics from the very first week I arrived at Dame Allan’s. I was always keen on science but there was something about being able to literally understand how the universe came to be that I was so fascinated by at school. Doing Physics alongside A levels in Maths and Chemistry worked well for me, and has set me up well for my career, as my PhD and role now is a complete mix of all the sciences. I still use material I learned in all my A level subjects for my job now! 

What does International Women’s Day (IWD) mean to you?

I think the increased awareness and acceptance of feminism thanks to the visibility of days like IWD are great. The level of lip service paid by some organisations to IWD worries me, though. There’s a great Twitter account that replies to every business who tweets about equality and IWD with their gender pay gap data, and some of the results are pretty grim. It shows we have a long way to go - the awareness is there but the action is not.

The theme of International Women’s Day 2023 is ‘Embrace Equity.’ How do you embrace equity in your daily life?

Equity is something I’ve worked on a lot throughout my career. 

Even as a student at Dame Allan’s Girls School the boys got to go on a full residential weekend for their Year 7 induction, whereas us girls had a day trip to Beamish. By that stage every child had been on a trip to Beamish in primary school, so it wasn’t as exciting as a residential weekend doing team building activities! That is definitely the earliest I can remember feeling treated unequally as a woman, and being pretty annoyed about it! The grievances of our year group seemed to work as the following year the girls got to go on an adventure weekend as well!

Fast forward to 2023 and I would say that I’ve only become an infinitely more outspoken advocate for equity, be that disability, race, gender, socio-economic background, religion etc. I try to remove barriers for others into STEM through outreach and public engagement, as well as pushing those in power to make a change. I recently did some analysis to show women and minorities in Astronomy were much more likely to experience bullying and harassment in the workplace. This really needs to change. I don’t like to tell people how great it is to work in science knowing full well that if they are from an underserved background they won’t have the same chances as some of their peers.

Which women inspire you the most? Did any particular female teachers inspire you?

I am so grateful to all my teachers at Dame Allan’s. I am pretty certain I would never have done a physics degree were it not for Mrs Hill. And I still use the chemistry I learned at A level with Dr Fraser pretty much every day studying meteorites. Both those women encouraged me a lot during my time at school, and I just wish every student had the support I had! I am also really grateful to Mrs Whitehouse, without whom I am pretty sure my space career wouldn’t be a thing, as it was thanks to her I went to Space School UK in 2008 and ultimately chose to do an Astrophysics degree.

Have you experienced any barriers in the workplace due to being a woman? If so, how did you overcome them?

I did some engineering work experience aged 16. I was told by one of the engineers I was shadowing that as a woman ‘I shouldn’t be an engineer, I should be a nurse’. That was pretty grim. It really threw me and made me feel super unwelcome.  I’m glad that I now have the confidence to speak up when I hear things like that, and I’d like to think the world has moved on at least a little since then.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Mostly how important it is to learn to fail. 

I had a really hard time at university at first. Thanks to the support of the teachers at Dame Allan’s I hadn’t found studying at school that hard, but at uni it was a different story and I started getting low grades and not knowing how to handle it. After reaching rock bottom and not knowing if I could finish my degree. I had intense imposter syndrome (still do!) but I changed universities halfway through and eventually got my confidence back. Many people said to me how much resilience I would gain from the experience and it’s absolutely true. 

If you’d told me 11 years ago that I would now have a PhD in Space Science I would never have believed you. PhDs are full of setbacks, though, and if I hadn’t learned how to cope with that earlier in my career I would definitely have quit!

If you could invite three inspirational women (dead or alive) to a dinner party, who would they be?

Mikaela Loach - because her work on climate justice is amazing, particularly as she is so good at finding hope, and fixing on the positives when it comes to tackling global warming.

Liz Carr - because there’s nothing I love more than a good crime drama, so when you add to that her amazing disability activism, there’s a lot I’d love to talk about!

Finally, Taylor Swift, cause I am unashamedly in her top 1% of listeners on spotify year on year!

What advice do you have for women starting out in their careers?

Learn resilience as early as you can.

Find a support network.

Speak out against injustice in whatever way you can, but try not to feel too guilty if sometimes you think you’d put yourself at too much risk in doing so and can’t.

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