Careers in IP & STEM - The Mentors Along the Way

This article was written in celebration of Ada Lovelace Day, 13 October 2020.

"Ada Lovelace is frequently regarded as the first to recognise the full potential of computers, publishing the first algorithm that was intended to be carried out by a machine for more than pure calculation. How did this incredible woman become a critical contributor to one of the most important machines in modern day life?

Quite unusually at the time, the early 1800s, Ada’s mother insisted Ada be tutored in both mathematics and science from an early age. Her education included teachings from Mary Somerville, an astronomer and mathematician, who was one of the first women admitted into the Royal Astronomical Society. Ada was also taught by William King, the family doctor, and William Frend, a writer and social reformer. This mentorship for her interest in science continued as an adult, with Mary Somerville introducing Ada to Charles Babbage. Charles Babbage continued to support Ada’s education, facilitating Ada’s enrolment at the University of London to study advanced mathematics with Professor Augustus de Morgan. Ada would later go on to work with Charles Babbage on the analytical engine, a proposed mechanical computer. It was through this collaborative work with Charles Babbage that Ada published her article theorising the full potential of computers. Throughout her life Ada continued to interact and engage with many respected minds of the time including Michael Faraday, Charles Dickens, Sir Charles Wheatstone and Sir David Brewster.

But what relation does an incredible Victorian mathematician and scientist have on a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics today?

Mentorship

Throughout her life Ada had supportive and engaged mentors that encouraged her interest and passion in science and mathematics, finding and facilitating further opportunities for Ada to continue learning and pursuing her interests.

I know my own journey to a career in intellectual property (IP) would be considerably different and far more difficult without the mentors I’ve had along the way. I can trace the support and encouragement right back to my parents, primary school teachers, secondary school teachers and multiple academics and peers through university.

Whilst science is far more welcoming to women in the 21st century than the Victorian era, it still has progress to make. I came across people who were sceptical about my abilities and ambitions in science. Fortunately, whenever I began to doubt myself I had someone backing my corner and believing in me. I had a PhD supervisor that encouraged me to take time out from my project to find out more about being a patent attorney and was happy and excited for me when I took an afternoon off for a patent attorney careers talk, then a day off for an IP firm open day, then a week off for work experience at an IP firm followed by another week off for job interviews. I had the benefit of an amazing physics teacher, Mrs Green, during my GCSE years and from her support and passion I didn’t doubt my place in that classroom. If I hadn’t had the support I did, would I have handled negative experiences the way I did? Probably not. Would I have continued studying science and mathematics? I’m not sure. If I didn’t have the support of my PhD supervisor to pursue an interest in an IP career it’s highly unlikely you would be reading these words.

I am aware that I am lucky to have received such support throughout my life and continue to do so in my firm. I know that this is not everyone’s experience. I know that this support made me stay in a room or on a course of action when I felt that I shouldn’t. How do we make the feeling of belonging inclusive to all? How do we encourage women into STEM subjects? How do we encourage black and ethnic minorities into STEM? These are questions I have heard since my teen years. I have no easy answers. If there were, I’m sure we would have fixed the issue already. I think mentorship and encouragement, providing support and advice where we can to everyone from everywhere is the very beginning.

My advice if you are struggling for support, and this is easier said than done, is look for it outside your immediate circle. In a world with ever increasing connectivity, asking advice from someone you respect has never been easier (Thank you Ada and computer!). Most Universities and Industrial institution websites include contact details (often an email) for their employees. You can reach out to people for advice and in hope for mentorship with a simple email. Alternatively, there are a huge number of figures from STEM fields on Twitter. You can literally tweet the world’s greatest minds in their field and ask them directly. There is nothing to be lost from reaching out and asking advice. The worst-case scenario is that you are ignored which isn’t nice but it’s okay. The best case is that you end up being mentored by someone you respect. A good mentor is priceless.

There is something to be said for being brave and giving something a go; whether it’s reaching out to someone to ask for help and support or continuing on a path when people don’t believe in you. It’s difficult when someone says you can’t do something and to persevere anyway, but it’s something you have to do at times. If inventors gave up every time something didn’t work first time a) I would be out of a job and b) we would be missing a lot of things in our lives. To continue and eventually triumph is a characteristic common in those that work in STEM, but we don’t do this alone. Just look at Ada’s life and her accomplishments."

For more information, please contact Pip Carr.

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