Creative social research with scientists
By Jennifer Leigh, senior lecturer in higher education and academic practice, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Kent and vice chair (research) WISC, and the board of the International Women in Supramolecular Chemistry (WISC) network (www.womeninsuprachem.com).
In recent years I have been bringing creative research approaches into a sphere where they are not known – the physical sciences. I started off as a chemist. I have a degree in chemistry and completed 2½ years of a chemistry PhD before leaving while pregnant with my second child. I trained as a yoga teacher, then went on to qualify as a somatic movement therapist and then complete a PhD in education. I now work in higher education, and find myself almost full circle, and even back at the laboratory bench at times.
There is a lack of diversity in science. In chemistry, outreach teams have done an amazing job, with around 50% of undergraduates being women. Yet attrition rates are high, with the biggest dropout post-PhD, and only around 9% of full professors. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry there will never be gender parity at the current rate of change. Gender disparity is only one aspect of equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI), and it has to be looked at intersectionally to be meaningful. There is only one Black professor of chemistry in the UK (Royal Society of Chemistry, 2022), and proportions of disabled scientists are small (CRAC, 2020). We need to understand why and effect change.
I was approached by the international Women in Supramolecular Chemistry (WISC) network to be part of that change as the only social scientist on the board. I am one of the statistics of women leaving the chemical sciences, and have the skills needed to lead WISC’s research with an ethos that embeds EDI expertise, social research methods, and an area-specific approach to support the retention and progression of women in this sector.
WISC is doing something different – building networks and communities, and encouraging scientists to reflect. I use qualitative and creative research methods with scientists to process experiences that are hard to put into words (such as the concept of success – see picture). This work is not about studying scientists. Instead, I actively engage them as collaborators and partners, which can be seen in the author lists of our publications.
Success: a collaborative collage made by members of a UK research group
I lead an ongoing collaborative autoethnography across UK, Europe, and the US, and work directly with research groups in the UK and US. This data was triangulated with a member survey to illustrate experiences of managing research through Covid-19. Our book, which expands on this work, uses fiction and art as part of an embodied inquiry (Leigh and Brown, 2021) into the work and lives of women in STEM.
I have also been back in the lab, using video as part of rhythmanalysis, leading a public engagement project, and shedding light on the reality of working in a lab as a woman.
When I first started working with WISC, they were apprehensive about getting involved with qualitative work. However, they saw me as an insider, and trusted me enough to give it a try. It did not take long for them to see its transformative value, and to start to apply the tools they were learning about reflection in other aspects of their work and lives. Reflection is not part of the scientific curriculum. Connecting groups and individuals with reflective tasks allowed them to process their experiences and to see that they were not alone. For example, the group discussing success in the picture above were open about their shared experiences of disability, chronic illness, and the overwork culture endemic in academia.
There have been challenges with dissemination. By definition, interdisciplinary work does not fit within disciplinary boundaries. However, we were adamant about wanting to reach a scientific audience, and now have articles in leading chemistry journals that had never published primary qualitative data before, demonstrating that qualitative social research has as much value as hard numbers. There has been considerable research on measuring the ‘problem’ of women in science. WISC’s work contributes to understanding and presents solutions.
There are also challenges in how this work is seen and valued. Interdisciplinary social research does not always fit easily into research assessment categories or funders’ calls. Novel work can be hard to review, and while its value for impact or change is real and acknowledged, it can be hard to resource.
CRAC. (2020). Qualitative research on barriers to progression of disabled scientists. London: https:// royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/topics/diversityin-science/qualitative-research-on-barriers-toprogression-of-disabled-scientists.pdf
Leigh, J. and Brown, N. (2021). Embodied inquiry: research methods. London: Bloomsbury.
Royal Society of Chemistry. (2022). Missing elements: racial and ethnic inequalities in the chemical sciences. London.