10x5 Snapshots: Perspectives on the Human Experience
by Raisa Ostapenko on 19 March 2015
In honour of its 50th anniversary and, of course, in the spirit of International Women’s Day (March 8th), Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge recently invited its students to apply to partake in the internationally-themed “10x5 Snapshots” event. The event offered ten selected students the opportunity to discuss a topic of their choice. Some presenters spoke about their research at Cambridge, whilst others chose to shed light on their passions or concerns. The “10x5 Snapshots” was a testament to both the breadth of diversity amongst the student population at Lucy Cavendish and to the College’s undying commitment to giving women of all backgrounds the opportunity to realise their goals in a nurturing environment.
The first speaker was Wan Woo, who is pursuing a B.A. in Sociology. Woo, who has spent a great deal of time travelling across North Korea, believes that the Western media, blinded by a “spectre of anti-communism”, chooses to propagate a “one-dimensional” image of the socialist state. “More often than not, ordinary North Koreans are just like us. They are concerned with careers, marriage, and love,” she said. According to Woo, despite feelings of great reverence for their leader, most North Koreans have no animosity towards the West. She commended the country’s government for its 2002 economic reforms, which have led to the formation of markets and other capitalist practices, including the right for citizens to own private property in certain places. “More can be done on our end to improve diplomatic relations ... we cannot continue being ignorant,” she said.
Representing women in the sciences, our second speaker was Isa Bonachera-Martin – an MPhil student in Physics. When Bonachera-Martin was a child, she was often told that a woman is guaranteed a good life if she pursues a profession such as law. In a bout of adolescent crisis, however, our speaker chose to study technology. In fact, her school ended up hiring two additional teachers specifically to satisfy Bonachera-Martin’s curiosity and desire to explore the sciences. Eventually, she ended up at the University of Michigan, where she was first exposed to Physics. Focusing on rockets, hot air balloons, and robotics, she rose to the ranks of the President of the Robotics Society by the end of her academic career at the university. Bonachera-Martin spoke about the noteworthy role that women play behind the scenes in the sciences and called attention to the fact that, at times, men are awarded for leading research that is backed up by entire teams of talented women. Recognising that women are under-represented in the sciences, she asked her listeners not to be discouraged if there are few science classes in their curricula, few women in their classes, or few female leaders in their surroundings. The best that we can do in our quest to reduce the gender gap is to remain encouraged, she said.
Our next speaker – first-year historian Cherish Watton – spoke about the Women’s Land Army – a civilian organisation created during the First and Second World Wars to uptake the agricultural responsibilities of the men who were drafted into the military. The work was demanding. Most of the 23,000 “land girls”, said Watton, came from urban backgrounds and had never before even seen a cow. But the land girl movement was significant, because it challenged societal expectations both for femininity (one example of this being the fact that the girls wore trousers) and for the very role of women. The Army gave women the opportunity to leave home, to experience independent lives, and to cultivate their own identities. Participants were often discriminated against by men and received little recognition for their accomplishments. At the beginning of the Second World War, said Watton, Britain imported 70% of its food, but by the end of the War, it was 70% self-sufficient – a feat that the historian attributed in part to the land girls’ efforts. Watton, who has created a website dedicated to the Women’s Land Army, believes that Britain owes the “Cinderella Army” an everlasting debt.
Seham Akkad – our fourth speaker and a postgraduate medical student – spoke about the role of women in healthcare in rural India. Akkad spent some time working at India’s Christian Medical College – a well-known private hospital in the south of the country offering low-cost care for people of different backgrounds. Some patients, said Akkah, travel for thousands of miles to seek treatment at the hospital, often having to rely on various modes of transportation and sometimes even coming from neighbouring countries. Akkad spent a week working in rural medicine, which required her to travel to nearby villages, which are visited on a weekly basis by “mobile van hospitals”. Those nurses who travel to rural areas educate the local population on various conditions and medications and treat patients who are too ill to get themselves to the hospital. Many of the female doctors working at the hospital, said Akkad, come from affluent backgrounds. There are few nurses, so patients are often required to bring female family members to care for them in hospital. “This is ironic, considering how much training UK nurses have to go through to fulfil their roles,” she said.
Our fifth speaker, Tianqi Dong – a PhD student in Engineering – described her experience living in the city of Changsha in south-central China. Upon witnessing a young man faint after his morning exercise, Dong asked herself whether she was going to live in a city of smog and haze for the rest of her life. In her province, said Dong, women who are not married by age 25 are considered “left-over ladies.” Thankfully, by the time her family had enquired as to how she planned to rectify her “status”, Dong had received a scholarship to Cambridge. In England, said Dong joyfully, you can watch the cauliflower bloom as you cycle along a path; you can breathe freely. “At Lucy Cavendish,” she said, “no one cares whether you are married or not. Here, people are concerned about what you can contribute to the world.” Dong, who encourages younger generations of women to enter the sciences “without being worried about marriage,” plans to use her expertise to help the Chinese government introduce “greener” policies and clean the country’s environment. She hopes that, in the next few decades, all people in China will be able to realise their dreams just as she has.
Our sixth speaker was Californian Joyce Lau – an MPhil student reading Economic and Social History. Lau spoke about the rising costs of higher education in the United States and about how some students seek to fund their studies by unconventional means. She referred specifically to the notorious case of American Miriam Weeks (better known by her stage name Belle Knox), who joined the adult film industry in 2013 in order to finance her education at North Carolina’s Duke University, where the estimated cost of attendance in the 2014-2015 academic year exceeds US $63,000. In a March 2014 appearance on American talk show The View, Knox argued that participation in the industry has offered her a sense of freedom in a society in which women are often “robbed of their sexual autonomy” and “subjected to sexual violence”. Critics, however, including Lau, have called the accuracy of such claims of empowerment into question. Lau believes that participating in subservient pornography that prioritises male expectations and desires for sex undermines the feminist movement. “[Knox] is participating in the very patriarchal society that she is attempting to [defeat],” said Lau.
Annalisa Occhipinti, a PhD student specialising in Computer Science with a focus on Bioinformatics, wore an origami nurse’s hat during her presentation. Occhipinti spoke about the challenges oncologists face in selecting appropriate medication for cancer patients. “How do we know which [of the many available] drugs will be the most effective?” she asked. One of the options, she said, is running consecutive clinical trials on one patient and monitoring his progress. “But we do not have the time to do this, because the cancer is constantly evolving,” she said. Scientists are becoming more aware of how cancers evolve and can rely on mathematical formulae to determine how any dose of any medication would theoretically affect the condition of any particular patient, she said. Therefore, instead of experimenting, Occhipinti proposes that doctors use a computer model to run all of the potential clinical trials for any patient virtually within a single day.
Our next speaker was Nikolina Skandali – a doctor and a second year Master’s student in Psychiatry. Skandali’s research is focused on a question of great relevance to most people: that of subjective wellbeing, or happiness. Along with a group of researcher led by Dr. Robb Rutledge at University College London (UCL), Skandali was able to build a “computer task” based on a precise mathematical formula that monitors happiness. The task, which received a great deal of media attention (having been covered by BBC News, The Telegraph, and a number of other leading news organisations), attracted over 18,000 participants. Researchers relied on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to measure each participant’s brain activity during moments of temporary happiness, looking specifically at those areas that are normally affected by depression and anxiety. The researchers’ observations have led them to conclude that momentary happiness is affected not by the rewards that people get for their efforts, but by their expectations of what will happen. “Happiness plays a very important role in mental health and resilience,” said Skandali. “It is essential for neuroscience and psychiatry to determine what guarantees subjective wellbeing and [for these observations to be] incorporated into policymaking.”
Our ninth speaker was Patricia Vazquez Rodriguez – an MPhil student in Medical Science. Like Skandali, Vazquez Rodriquez studies emotions. Her focus, however, is on fear. “Emotions produce physiological and psychological changes,” she said. “Fear can deprive us of having awesome experiences.” She spoke about the existence of the comfort zone – the mental space in which a person feels in control, safe, and surrounded by the familiar. Around the comfort zone, she said, is the “learning zone”, which is where people can expand their worldviews through new experiences. “Some people are passionate about [being in the learning zone]. Others are terrified of leaving the comfort zone,” she said. Vazquez Rodriquez’s address was frank and heartfelt. She encouraged all people to leave their comfort zones and to embrace life experiences. “Scary things push us,” she said. “Risks will help you to conquer your fears and will make you come alive.”
Our final speaker – Imtashal Tariq – was sadly unable to attend. Tariq, however, intended to speak on the subject of relationships, re-imprisonment and resettlement and on perspectives of women in prison.
Raisa Ostapenko (2014) M Phil (Modern European History)
Photo credits: Gemma Maitland (2013) Psychology and Behavioural Sciences