Today is Ada Lovelace Day, the annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, tech, engineering and maths. As the Tweets flow thick and fast and the new website holds its ground, it’s time for me to think about my own contribution.
This year I have chosen Emily Cummins as my Heroine. At just 24, Emily has already won a number of awards and accolades because of her work on sustainable tech. She was named one of the Top Ten Outstanding Young People in the World 2010, won the the Barclays Woman of the Year Award in 2009, and was Cosmopolitan magazine’s Ultimate Save-the-Planet Pioneer 2008.
One of Emily’s most notable inventions is an evaporative refrigerator that doesn’t need electricity, for use in developing countries for the transport and storage of temperature-sensitive drugs. But it’s not just her inventiveness that makes Emily a great role model – it’s her willingness to tinker, try things out, and invent. And that is something she puts down to having been supported in her tinkering as a child. She said in this interview with Female First:
I had a really inspirational granddad who gave me a hammer when I was four years old! We used to spend hours together in his shed at the bottom of the garden, taking things apart and putting them back together again. By the time I started at high school it meant I already understood the properties of different materials and how certain machinery worked. I’d always had a creative spark and because it was encouraged from an early age I suppose I had the confidence to take it forward and start inventing for myself.
There’s a very valuable lesson there to anyone who has daughters, granddaughters or nieces: Give them hammers, screwdrivers and, when they’re old enough, power tools. Encourage them to spend time in the garden shed or the garage with you, learning not just how to take things apart, but how to put them back together again. It’s through playing with technology – both hi-tech and lo-fi – that we learn how it all works, and once we know how it works, we can invent.
I don’t have a daughter but I do have a niece, and I love buying her the science and technology kits and toys that no one else thinks to get for her. I know she loves her chemistry set and her electric circuitry set, and she knows that she’ll get more fun things to play with from me that she can’t yet even guess at. I hope that that, as she gets older, she’ll remember how much fun she finds them and will carry on thinking of herself as someone who can do science and tech, and won’t give in to boring gender stereotypes.
Emily makes a great role model for girls like my niece, and young women, but also for those of us who are a little older, who deep down, just want to get out into the garden shed and start tinkering. Emily shows us just what women can achieve, given the room to experiment and invent. And we all ought to remember that it’s not too late to get ourselves a hammer and start making stuff.