To celebrate International Woman’s Day this week, I am very proud to present my next S.H.I.T. interview with Dr Susie Mitchell, a great friend of mine and a truly inspirational woman.
I first met Susie at St. Andrew’s University when I heard this awesome laugh over the beat of The James Taylor Quarter coming from the room opposite mine in our hall of residence. I popped my head round the door to find this girl in amazing platform boots with a clear penchant for jazz funk. It was the start of a solid friendship.
I soon found out my new friend was a science ‘geek’. Yup I know, it’s very wrong to presume that all scientists wear lab coats and are generally square bears, but that is what us pretentious nobs from the arts faculty thought.
This naive stereotype is exactly what Susie has helped dispel throughout her successful 20 year career in the world of scientific research.
In her current role as Programme Director for Glasgow City of Science and Innovation (GCOSI), she champions the city’s science contributions to the world and, amongst other things, regularly hooks up scientists and creatives (in her own words, think ‘Innovation Tinder’ – swipe right for an engineer) to combine their skills, and spark new ideas to tackle problems and improve lives.
Throughout her career Susie has also championed diversity and equality in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and in 2016 was recognised by Equate Scotland – an organisation who make a positive difference for women in science, engineering and technology – as a Leading Woman of Scotland, for her contributions to STEM and Scotland’s advancement.
She was awarded a Ph.D. in cancer research from the University of Glasgow’s Beatson Institute in 2000 for which she received the John Paul Award of Research Excellence, and has also worked in a variety of settings within the public sector and the private sector (including the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee).
And if that wasn’t enough, she’s not let her love for music go, and is a keen session singer and songwriter, and occasional radio presenter for BBC Scotland and the BBC World Service.
So without further ado, let’s hear from the lady herself.
Describe a typical day in the life of Dr Susie Mitchell.
For the most part, the first hour is like Groundhog Day. Shower followed by a rushed coffee amidst somewhat chaotic multi-tasking; make-up on, check meeting schedule for the day whilst ironing top, one eye on morning TV (to absorb the days’ idol celebrity gossip and the latest news), fling some food in the cat’s bowl, find weather-appropriate shoes (easier said than done), then drive (or if time, walk) to work.
After an invigorating vocal warm up in the car duetting with Smooth Radio’s (yes, I’ll admit it) featured artists of yesteryear; the silvery titanium shell of the science and innovation hub that is the Glasgow Science Centre comes into view and I never tire of it.
By day, I am the Programme Director for Glasgow City of Science and Innovation (GCOSI): a partnership of over 90 diverse organisations (from educators, artists and scientists, to broadcasters and businesses) that are all key players in Scotland’s flourishing science and innovation base.
A tale of two cities, Glasgow is a vibrant city of music and the arts but it is also a world-class city of science and innovation. Our organisation acts as an interface to spark new collaborations (innovation mash-ups if you like!) that explore the art of the possible and seek to find new solutions to some of our biggest challenges. At a recent event we explored how humanoid robots are supporting some disabled people to live more independently.
No day in my job is the same. One day, I could be hooking an artist up with a scientist to collaborate on an art exhibition on mental health. The next day I could be writing a funding bid to develop a virtual reality experience that showcases Glasgow’s science to the world, or talking to young learners about where studying science could take them in life.
I can also find myself helping broadcast media to source science and tech experts for radio and TV programmes.
My connections with the media led me to presenting for a BBC radio show, ‘Scots That Changed the World’, where I get to narrate beautifully crafted stories on some of the inspirational scientists that transformed our modern world; charting their discoveries but importantly, also their incredible life stories, such as Williamina Fleming – a teacher from Dundee and lone parent who, by a twist of fate, would become one of the greatest astronomers of our time.
By night, I try to do some exercise and take time out for music; that might be a rehearsal for a gig, a recording session, or some songwriting at home in my home studio.
What do you most love about your job?
Hands down, the people.
By engaging with such a range of organisations, I meet a real eclectic mix of people; from inspiring young innovators to fabulously eccentric artists and world-renowned cancer scientists.
What connects them all is a passion for discovery and creativity, and to improve lives by innovating better places to live, better products to use, and healthier and fairer societies. It’s very cool to be able to make connections between these amazing people and watch their ideas come to life.
Being a contributor to both the science and music worlds, how do you prioritise?
I’m not going to lie, it is hard. I need to make time for it and be disciplined. I’ve had some full on jobs in the past where my music definitely suffered because I had very little creative space in my brain or simply free time. I am careful about the music projects I get involved in now, the criteria simply being 1) does it excite me and 2) will it benefit me creatively?
Multitasking is my world. My journey to work has always been a favourite time slot for learning vocal parts for gigs, and even songwriting. And lets face it, belting out tunes is a cracking way to start the day, even if I attract some raised eyebrows from my fellow commuters.
What was your best moment on stage and why?
It’s got to be singing to over a billion people at the closing ceremony of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
There I was in my spangly gold jacket (see above pic) flanked by my good pal Janey (also in said spangly jacket) proudly singing at the top of our lungs in our own city, alongside music legends (Kylie, Lulu and Scottish folk legend Dougie McLean), bringing to a close one of the biggest cultural and sporting celebrations in the city’s history. I mean, my legs where shaking all the way though with nerves, but that was something else.
Historically women have not been so visible in the world of science but how is that changing?
I think it’s a mix of cultural factors and social stereotyping within education, at home, and in some workplaces that have resulted in the underrepresentation of women in STEM.
As an aside, I remember being told at school by a teacher that I shouldn’t have opted for the car engineering course during an activity week when I was 15, because it was aimed at boys. Almost rebelling against this comment, I ignored the advice and cracked on. But inside, this comment planted a seed of doubt in my ability to do the course before I’d even started.
Even if women secure a STEM role, we tend to leave lab research earlier, we are promoted less, and we win fewer research grants and investment – an area which is critical for research ideas to see the light of day and create the impact we want and need them to.
There are a swathe of ‘women in science’ campaigns and we are making some progress, but there’s a lot more to do. Importantly, we need more role models for girls and women to encourage and inspire, and not just on TV. The influence of parents, family, teachers and peers is so important.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
Rather than one single piece of advice from someone I know, a quote I stand by is one by the extraordinary Maya Angelou: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
I think that’s a rule for life!
Who has most inspired you in your life?
So many people have shaped and influenced me, but it has to be my parents.
My dad, a Jamaican immigrant came to the UK in the 1950s and upon his arrival, was branded as ‘educationally subnormal’.
Despite a difficult start in life, he fought against adversity to become Scotland’s first black Professor and has since been knighted for his contributions to science, equality and human rights.
Equally my mum was an exceptional child psychologist specialising in autism, who juggled being a wonderful mummy, with a highly rewarding career that impacted hundreds of children and their families.
You’re on stage about to perform your song ‘Abolition,’ what 5 people, dead or alive, would you like to perform with you?
How can we encourage our children to embrace science?
A key thing for me is showing children and young people that science and creativity are two sides of the same coin. We know that when art, design, engineering, and science come together, we enable great innovation. This isn’t a new thing – Leonardo da Vinci was all over that!
More recently Steve Jobs regularly pointed out that Apple always tried to marry art and science, with the original Mac team having backgrounds in anthropology, art, history, and poetry. It is creativity that turns a technically functional product into a desirable one.
We also need to be delivering inspiring education (from the early years) that emotionally connects with children to show them that science, maths, technology, and design can be applied to solve some of the worlds biggest challenges – from climate change to space travel – so they don’t think (like we all did at some point)…”when am I ever going to use this in real life?”
And finally, what makes you S.H.I.T.?
Laughing uncontrollably with family and friends, walks in Scotland’s great outdoors with my better half, watching great musicians that move me, drag shows, oh and my diva cat!
You can hear Susie’s song ‘Abolition’ and other tracks here.