Speeches

Imperial college 

diversity in stemm

Dr Jessica Wade, Dr Faith Uwadiae and me

Dr Jessica Wade, Dr Sunday Popo-Ola and me

Dr Jessica Wade, Dr Faith Uwadiae, Dr Michael Cox and me

FrANCIS CRICK institute 

SPOTON LONDon

diversity beyond gender

all-party parliamentary group on diversity and inclusion in STEM

  May 23, 2018

 

 

Thank you British Science Association for giving me an opportunity to speak this evening about how to increase neurodiversity in STEM. My name is Siena Castellon. I am a 15 year-old autism and neurodiversity advocate. I am also a mathematician. In September, I will be starting sixth-form at King’s College London Mathematics School, one of only two state specialist math schools in the UK.

 

As a high-ability autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic secondary student, my disabilities have presented unique educational challenges. Students like me frequently fall between the cracks. We often perform sufficiently well at school for special educational needs and disability teachers to conclude that their limited time and resources are better spent on SEN students with severe impairments. Teachers are also more focused on our deficits rather than on identifying and nurturing our strengths. We generally have spiky profiles – excelling in certain areas and struggling in others. As a consequence, our abilities are often overlooked and our talents often remain dormant and undiscovered.

 

In order to increase diversity in STEM and benefit from the creative-problem solving and innovative approaches that come from having a neurodiverse scientific community, it is necessary to identify, nurture and support high-ability SEN students from an early age. This process must begin at secondary school, if not earlier and must involve a more comprehensive approach to identifying high ability-students whose talents may be masked by their disability.

 

From a young age, I was exceptional at mathematics. The irony is that I spent years languishing in the middle set math group at school, because my dyslexia meant I frequently inverted my numbers. My primary schools used very rigid criteria to determine who was good at math. The use of rigid criteria that focus on the correct outcome, rather than creative problem-solving, innovative thinking and high-order thinking, are especially disadvantageous to students with learning disabilities.

 

 I was lucky in that my parents identified my talent and nurtured it. Unable to find any suitable programs in the UK, they decided to send me to programs in the US. From the age of 10, I spent my summers at residential university-level math programs, including Stanford University’s Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes.  I was admitted to these programs on the basis of internationally recognised IQ tests rather than on how I performed on my class tests. The university math and physics programs designed for academically gifted youth were the first time that I was academically challenged and intellectually stimulated. At the age of 10, I was taught Newtonian mechanics and the theory of relativity.  The two-week residential programs were also a place where I felt at home, because I was not perceived as “weird” or “eccentric,” I was amongst children like me.

 

Unfortunately, the UK still does not have similar programs. The programs I attended in the US are prohibitively expensive and out of reach for most families. Most UK students like me do not get the opportunity to develop their aptitude or talents at such a young age.  Sadly, many do not fulfill their full potential, because their talents go unrecognized and they are not provided with the necessary nurturing and support to develop their talent. 

 

Furthermore, high-ability autistic students have a particularly difficult time in secondary school. A recent study found that 75% of autistic students are bullied. I have had my education significantly disrupted due to disability-related bullying. I was forced to leave Cheltenham Ladies College and Sevenoaks School (where I was an academic scholar) because of bullying. In between schools, I was temporarily home-educated. Upon joining the home-education community, I discovered that a disproportionate number of young people in home education are autistic students who were forced out of mainstream education, many of whom excel in mathematics and computer science. The education system should be nurturing the talents of these gifted young people. Instead, they are being ejected from the education system and their talents go untapped and discarded.

 

In order to ensure that more students like me pursue careers in STEMM, there are many changes that will need to be made and many issues that will need to be addressed. Secondary schools need to use different criteria to identify high-ability students whose disabilities are masking their true academic potential. Initiatives must be put in place to nurture and support high-ability autistic students who are gifted in STEMM so that they are not forced out of mainstream education and so they can develop their formidable talents.

 

Secondary schools need to identify and promote disabled STEMM role models and develop STEMM specific peer mentoring schemes. For example, a peer-mentoring scheme that matches autistic university students studying STEMM with autistic secondary students interested in STEMM. 

 

Another area that should be developed is creating more opportunities for SEN secondary students to take part in STEMM apprenticeships and STEMM work placements. STEMM work placements and apprenticeships should be created specifically for high-ability autistic students and students with learning differences. I am fortunate in that I discovered that UCL has a work placement scheme for autistic secondary students. Since my initial one-week work placement at UCL’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), I was offered an indefinite student work placement and am taking part in on-going autism research projects. The skills I have learned while working at CRAE are invaluable. Recently, investments banks have recognized the value of employing autistic mathematicians and have began adapting their interview process and work environment to support autistic employees. However, there is still much work to done.

 

It is also important to have fully joined-up services that provide autistic students and students with disabilities support across both the transition from school to higher education and from education into employment.  Providing transitional support to autistic students is particularly important because many autistic students end up dropping out of university or are unable to find employment. Since only 16% of autistic adults are employed, it is important to invest resources in increasing job opportunities for people who are autistic.  Furthermore, autistic students should be provided with mental health support, because a majority experience anxiety and other mental health issues. These mental health issues are not caused by autism but rather by the overwhelming demands of being neurodiverse in a world that is not designed to accommodate us.

 

Most universities have an inclusion and diversity strategy, a strategy that focuses on increasing the number of students from certain disadvantaged groups, such as ethnic minorities, women and socio-economically disadvantaged students. Unfortunately, many of these universities do not specifically focus on inclusion and diversity of students with invisible disabilities: disabilities such as learning disabilities and autism. These invisible disabilities should be made an area of specific focus in university inclusion and diversity strategies.

 

I am particularly proud to be the student representative of 2eMPower, a project that has identified and is addressing many of these areas. 2eMPower was founded by Professor Sara Rankin, a professor of leukocyte and stem cell biology at Imperial College. Professor Rankin is dyslexic and dyspraxic and credits much of her success as a scientist to her learning differences. She believes it is important to increase neurodiversity in STEMM because our creative problem-solving skills and innovative way of thinking will be an asset to the scientific community.

 

2eMPower, aims to harness the untapped potential of high-ability students with learning disabilities and autistic students so that they can achieve their full potential. 2eMPower supports and mentors high-ability SEN students to excel in STEMM by taking a multiplatform approach.  2eMPower runs bespoke STEMM workshops specifically designed to support high-ability SEN students. In September, we ran two all-day workshops for students and their parents: one workshop was designed for students with learning differences and one workshop was designed for autistic students. These workshops are the first of their kind in the UK. At the workshops students are introduced to current university students studying STEMM who have similar disabilities. They will be provided career advice that takes into account their personal strengths and disability-related limitations and will be provided transitional support from secondary school to higher education and from education into employment. Furthermore, 2eMPower runs teacher and PGCSE student training programs on how to make STEMM accessible to SEN students.

 

The recent creation of specialist maths schools is also a step in the right direction. King’s College London Mathematics School has a disproportionate number of students who are gifted autistic mathematicians. Although only a few years old, King’s Math School is now one of the top schools in the country. It proves that autistic students who get the right support and guidance can be highly successful.

 

In order for the UK’s economy to remain globally competitive, it will need to have a highly-skilled STEMM workforce. A highly skilled STEMM workforce can only be achieved if we invest in identifying and developing the abilities and aptitudes of our most talented students and we create an inclusive and neurodiverse scientific community: a community that embraces and supports people with unique insights and innovative approaches: people who have the potential to become pioneers and make significant contributions to the advancement of science and technology. Where would the world be without the ground-breaking discoveries and contributions of neurodiverse scientists like Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton?

International women's day 2018 CITY HALL | London ASSEMBLY

                                                                                                                             March 8, 2018

 

International Women’s Day Speech

 

Standing in front of you today to celebrate International Women’s Day, I am really hopeful for my future and the future of girls and young women around the world. We are in the midst of an unprecedented global movement for women’s rights, equality and justice. In the blink of an eye, there has been a cosmic shift and monumental leap towards gender equality. The prevalence of sexual harassment, violence and discrimination against women has finally been exposed and acknowledged. In the last few months, I have witnessed a renewed determination for change that promises a brighter future for girls and young women around the world. People world-wide are mobilizing to create a future that is more equal, where women have a voice, key roles in government, business and academia and equal pay.

 

Each one of us has the opportunity to transform this momentum into action, to change the landscape and create a new, fairer world – a world that is inclusive not only of women, but of all who have been disenfranchised and have lacked the power to be heard or have lacked the power to change the society they live in. It is time to step out of the shadows and into the light.

 

No change is too small, because collectively we have the power to change the world. Changes, inroads, are happening all around us. I have made small, seemingly insignificant changes in my life. For example, in September I entered my further maths class to discover that I was the only girl in the class. The teacher asked us to introduce ourselves and to disclose the grade we got on our maths IGCSE. When it came to my turn, the maths teacher interrupted me. My teacher told me that I did not have to give my grade, the assumption being that he was being chivalrous in sparing me the humiliation. It was only day one of a year-long course and already I had been relegated to being inferior, lesser because of my gender.  The fact that I got an A* in my maths IGCSE at the age of 14 or that I had just returned from spending five weeks at a university-level maths summer program gave me the inner confidence of knowing that I belonged in the class. But that is not to say that my resolve to specialize in a field dominated by men did not waiver. As many women in my situation have done, I took the pragmatic view that I would prove myself to my math teacher and that over time he would recognize my passion and aptitude for maths. But sadly, this did not happen, instead each lesson was a version of the first lesson – a constant reminder of the prevalence of gender bias. And so I resigned myself to have to endure this treatment, a price I had to pay for wanting to be a female mathematician in a male dominated field.  A few weeks ago, emboldened by the global movement for women’s rights and no longer resigned to being a second-class citizen, I raised my concerns of gender bias with my tutor. Since then, my maths teacher has undergone a transformation. On the surface it may appear to be a small victory, but to me it is a sign of hope. Now, when I go to my further maths class, I am a mathematician in a room of mathematicians who share a love of maths. By speaking up and having a teacher who was receptive to change, I have learned that I do not have to endure or put up with the status quo. It is an empowering lesson: I have learned that as important and pivotal as the recent global movement of women’s rights has been and will continue to be, it is just as important to address the small, seemingly inconsequential inequalities that we learn to tolerate on a daily basis. Each of us can sculpt the future by chipping away at gender biases. If we each do so, collectively we can shatter stereotypes and ensure that we realize our full potential.

 

This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Although we have made significant inroads, there is still much to be done.  According to Women in Science and Engineering Campaign (WISE), a campaign that promotes women in science, technology and engineering, in 2017 only 10% of girls got an A level in computing, only 22% got an A level in physics and only 28% of girls got an A level in further maths. According to wise, in 2017, only 24% of people employed in STEM industries were women, only 11% of engineers in the UK are women, only 15% of STEM management roles were held my women and only 23% of board members in the FTSE 250 are held by women. There is still significant progress to be made to ensure gender parity. We must continue the march the suffragettes started one hundred years ago, a march towards equality and inclusion for all.

 

Gloria Steinem, the world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once said that:

 

 “the story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”

 

I consider myself a feminist, but also so much more than that. I am a human rights advocate, not only for women, but for all human beings. Whether that be autistic people, people with a physical disability or a learning disability, the transgender community or other people who have faced prejudice, intolerance and discrimination. On this day, International Women’s Day, I ask you to walk in the path of the titanesses that came before us, to think bigger and be bolder. To take strides towards an inclusive workplace that embraces people from diverse backgrounds, with different skills and experiences. To take strides towards a work culture that is more flexible and inclusive. An inclusive culture that encompasses diversity of background, diversity of experience and diversity of perspective so that everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, disability, religion or sexual orientation, is valued for being themselves.

 

Through collective action and shared responsibility, each one of us can take purposeful strides towards creating a fairer world, not only for women, but for all human beings. As well as being a young women, I am also autistic, dyslexic and dyspraxic. Despite my age, I have weathered many storms. I have been ostracized by my peers for being different and have been a victim of bullying for most of my life. Yet, my experiences have forged who I am and have taught me that I have the power to turn negative experiences into positive action. When I was 13, I created a website to support bright kids with learning disabilities and kids with autism. Since then, I have broadened my commitment to building a fairer world.  I work as a peer outreach worker for the Mayor of London working with charities that support young people in London, including charities that support young people with physical disabilities, learning disabilities and with mental health issues. I am also conducting autism research at UCL’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education because I believe it is important for autistic people to be actively involved in directing autism research, instead of being passive, back seat participants. One of my aims is to address the current gender bias in the autism diagnostic test, which results in a significant misdiagnosis and under diagnosis of girls and women with autism.

 

Through collective action and social responsibility, we can remove any barriers that stand in the way of achieving equality, in achieving meaningful participation in the economic, social, political and cultural fabric of our lives. I am lucky in that I am guided by women who are a beacon of hope and inspiration. Women who illuminate my path and who have paved the way towards equality. Women like Anne-Marie Imafidon, who is here with us today, women who have taken bold strides to close the gender chasm in education and who are transforming the landscape so that girls have a brighter future. Each of you can join us on our march towards equality and inclusion by discarding archaic stereotypes, facing your unconscious prejudices and biases and by embracing a more inclusive, diverse work force that celebrates the unique strengths of each individual, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age, disability, religion or sexual orientation. To quote Oprah Winfrey “A new day is on the horizon.” Change is in the air. And so I stand here today, full of hope and promise that I will get to grow up in a fairer world where my gender will not hold me back, where I get equal pay for equal work, where I will feel safe and be respected and where there is no glass ceiling or limitation to what I can achieve.