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18 female scientists tell us about their favourite childhood toys

Every child is a scientist… but what encourages them to make a career of it? To celebrate International Women’s Day, science writer Laurie Winkless talked to other women working in science and engineering to see the role their childhood played in their career choices.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in science and engineering. Like many, I was a curious child. My questions on everything from how we make different paints to how a car engine worked were always encouraged. If my parents or siblings didn’t know the answer, we tried to find it together. I am under no illusions of how annoying I was – frankly, I was a pain in the butt – but still, everyone supported my love of knowledge and experimentation.

I was also never made to feel weird about the things I enjoyed to do as a child. I loved toy cars and trains, taking things apart and figuring out how they worked. I also liked Barbie dolls, skipping and playing with tea sets. None of those things made my parents bat an eyelid (or if they did, they never let me see it). And as a result, I never felt that science or engineering weren’t appropriate interests to have!

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Just a few days ago, I had a moment. Standing inside the tunnels of Europe’s biggest engineering project, Crossrail, I felt overwhelmingly grateful for that upbringing. For the doors it opened to me, and for the career that it allowed me to have – once a scientist at the National Physical Laboratory, I now write about science for a living, and my first book, Science and the City, comes out in just a few short months.

So, in honour of today, 8 March, also known as International Women’s Day 2016 (#IWD2016), I wanted to share the childhood stories of other women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). I believe that they show just how important a role a child’s toys and upbringing can have on the careers they chose.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell – President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and discoverer of pulsars

“I remember that I had dolls, and Meccano, and a (shared with my brother) electric train. The Meccano got used quite a lot to make cars for my dolls, but I made the cars myself. It was also through the Meccano that I got to understand gears. I don’t remember science books as a primary school age kid (I do remember the Arthur Ransome Swallows and Amazon books), but I remember reading as a teenager the (popular/adult) astronomy books my father brought home from the Library.

“And here’s another bit of context. In the first year of Secondary school, the girls got sent to Domestic Science and the boys to Science – until my parents protested and I rewarded them by coming top in the science exam. I would love to think the school learnt something from this! (This was 1954, rural N Ireland.)”


Lucy Carpenter_lab__credit_JHProfessor Lucy Carpenter, Atmospheric chemist

“I enjoyed being part of a largish family – with 3 brothers, we played lots of board games, built dens, played pool, and fought!  In my own time, I would love to read, paint, and play and listen to music.  There was never a sense of what we played at being labelled for ‘girls’ or ‘boys’.”

Roma Agrawal, Structural engineer

“When I was eight-years-old, my younger sister and I had a few Barbie dolls, and then we were given a house for them to live in. We needed to assemble it ourselves, so we used our Meccano set to build two cranes and a digger. Then we pretended our dolls were operating the machinery to build their new home. That’s when we got really excited.

“My parents always made sure that my sister and I were exposed to a full range of toys, games and hobbies. It meant that we grew up with no preconceptions about what we could and couldn’t do.”

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Jessica Marshall, Spacecraft systems engineer

“I was never aware of toys being for girls or boys.  When I was 9, I asked Father Christmas for Technic Lego.  My mum had suggested it to me as something I would like.  Indeed, she had bought me trainsets and dolls houses as I enjoyed playing with both and it never seemed strange to me – she has said that it was important to her that I had the opportunity to explore my own interests from a young age, despite that she herself had no particular interest in those things.  Surely that is just good parenting?

“When I was a little older, I had the confidence to know what I enjoyed and therefore building dams and drawing maps, helping with DIY and being the class computer expert didn’t seem to be abnormal for a girl to me.  Never was I called a tomboy. I was just me.”

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng, Nuclear engineer

“When I was young I was always fascinated by how things worked and my Dad, having two daughters, was more than happy to include me in his ‘do it yourself’ endeavours and spend time with me. Toys-wise I headed for something called Better Build It – a Lego look alike – and in my early teens amazingly my Mum put up with me using a chemistry set in the kitchen. Smells and bangs were the order of the day! Hands on and making and doing things were what inspired me to become an engineer.”

WoolyDr. Jenny Wooldridge, Research programme manager

“Doing an undergrad degree in physics, the women were in the minority. A random conversation between us one day revealed something we all had in common- as children we had all played with ‘boys toys’. For many, as was the case for me, that meant there was an older brother in the family and so Meccano and the like were just coincidentally in the house (though to be absolutely fair to my parents, I later had my own scalextric, train set and various other science toys).

“Whilst there are obviously many factors that shape a person and their life choices, this was an interesting find, and inwardly I assumed that any children I had would obviously be interested in all types of toys whatever their gender. Now I have two girls, what I had never thought about was the sheer weight of peer pressure. It’s an entirely normal stage of development for small children to want to fit in with each other, and like the same things. And so when a critical mass of adults send out the message that certain activities and toys are suitable only for certain genders, pretty much 100% of kids will absorb and live that message, because that is what children are programmed to do.

“It’s such an easy fix- remove the gender labels (and associated colours), and open up choice for our children. We just need to reach critical mass to achieve it.”

Professor Marina Resmini, Materials chemist

“As a child I enjoyed playing with dolls and I was very proud of my Barbie doll’s dress collection however I was also keen to play ‘soldiers’  and to build dens with my younger brother. My father, a professor of nuclear physics, spent some time during  weekends repairing our broken toys and doing some DIY around the house, and I remember enjoying so much being the n.1 helper, being allowed to use real screwdrivers,  sand paper, hammer and nails. The sense of achievement after assembling my first flat-pack desk, including drawers, as a young teenager is still a vivid memory. There was no sense of distinction between boys and girls in activities and I was strongly encouraged to try different things.”

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Dame Judith Hackitt DBE FREng, Chair of the Health and Safety Executive

“I had dolls and teddy bears when I was a child but mine often found themselves lined up in orderly seated rows being taught by Judith the teacher.

“Without a doubt my favourite toy was my ever growing Lego kit – it wasn’t pink, it was red and white and I built houses, airports,  hotels, fire stations and all sorts with mine. After getting my first big box for Christmas when I was about six years old, I gradually built the set by adding small boxes paid for out of my pocket money – almost on a weekly basis.”

Dr. Kimberley Steed, Research and enterprise manager

“I spent many a happy day with my stickle bricks – modular blocks of all shapes and sizes for building…well, anything! I kept mine in a black bucket with googly eyes stuck on the side and took great pleasure in up-ending the bucket, and then sifting through the primary-coloured blocks to build increasingly wacky structures, usually cars. I used to love constructing a standard-looking chassis and wheels and then building the craziest-looking car body onto it.

“When I think back, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have stickle bricks, so they must have been present in my life from a very young age, and now I’m playing with them again…when my nephew recently turned 2 years old I knew exactly what to get him. He’s now the proud owner of his very own bucket of stickle bricks!”

Dr. Tatiana Correia, Nanotechnology and Metrology Manager

“As a child, I had never the perception that some toys or plays were not for me. I used to play either with remote controlled cars, Barbies or boardgames with girl and boy friends. Although my parents do not have a science background, they always supported my curiosity by giving me a lot of freedom to choose my toys and with whom I would play them. From them I got the message that I could do anything – I remember for instance that at some point I wanted to become a hairdresser and a civil engineer. I genuinely thought that I could combine both careers at the same time!!

“I loved to play a board game named Wizard – Ask and I Will Answer. The Wizard was a painted magnetic figure with a wire pointer, to whom we would ask questions, which were printed on a paperboard. The Wizard would always get it right: he would ‘magically’ roll over a glass mirror and pointed to the solution of all the mysteries about science, maths, geography or History.”

 5th birthday toysLindsay Chapman, Metallurgist

“No matter the toy, I told stories with them. I initially followed the wordless instructions for my first Lego set (invaluable training for future furniture assembly) & rapidly constructed my village. One parent thankfully restrained the other, who objected when creativity blossomed and the instructions were abandoned to the scrapbook.  Some of these structures exist in the attic today “You’d spent so much time on them I couldn’t bear to break them up”. Our complex sagas, whether using Lego or Sindy dolls, countered the frustration of the limitations of my character when playing as Princess Leia with the boys next door – the only time my toys were limited by my gender.

I was transported on adventures by my bicycles, toys that required learning valuable maintenance but that brought me travel independence, and continue to bring me joy and satisfaction, decades later.”

Professor Katherine Blundell, astrophysicist

“I was very fortunate to have had a very supportive upbringing. There was a strong steer that you should try to be good at everything… the clear message was: whatever you do, don’t do nothing!   From that platform of freedom and encouragement, I was given the sense that things are out there to be understood, explored and enjoyed.”

Norway_polarbearDr. Melanie Windridge, physicist and author of Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights 

“I grew up in a house of women.  I am one of three girls, but as children we had cars and Lego as well as dolls and My Little Pony.  I never thought about whether toys were ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’ and my parents never labelled them as such.  We enjoyed the mixture.

“I particularly liked building ugly big vans from the Lego that could fit one of my dinky cars in the back.  I would drive them around and then open the back hatch and more cars would emerge.  I also played with dolls.  I had one Barbie with waist-length hair that I just adored.  Then one day I decided she needed a trim and in an effort to cut her hair straight I ended up giving her a bob!  I was devastated.

“My sisters and I also liked doing big jigsaw puzzles and watching musicals, and we spent a lot of time outside in the woodland climbing trees and building dens.  I ended up going into physics, though neither of my sisters did.  I think it was just “in” me somehow – I liked logic problems and puzzle books and building things.  And that was fine with my parents.”

Louise Wright, Mathematical modeller

“Both of my parents had a science background – they met at university when they were training in chemistry. They both hugely encouraged me in science and maths, and in the exploration of knowledge in general…. I didn’t get easy answers, I was always told to go and investigate it myself. It was teaching me research skills! I was interested in Lego and Meccano and had a microscope and a nifty optics kit that you couldn’t set anything on fire with (unfortunately).”

Kids and my train set

Wendy Sadler, Director of Science Made Simple

“One of my earliest memories of playing with science is my mum playing a game with me in the bath using a squeezy fairy liquid bottle and a ping pong ball! We used to try and balance the ball on the jet of water which involved a complex balancing of forces, much hilarity and a very wet bathroom floor! I’m sure it helped pique my curiosity about the world. I also absolutely loved Lego and was a proud member of the Lego builders club. I always built houses and when I got one of the clockwork motors I can remember the joy of being able to build a fully functioning wind-up windmill!

I did have a Girls World I think but remember getting very frustrated with the mechanical operation of the ‘growing’ hair! I think my two other favourite toys were a Playmobil Camper Van (you could remove the van and drive the car part away – which still seems like the best way to combine comfort and convenience!) and my red train set. The trains had no batteries or flashy additions, but the track had multiple shapes and combinations (and a turntable) and I can remember hours of time trying to work out how to build the best shaped tracks with the pieces we had. When my kids and I last visited my mum, I was delighted to see them still enthralled by the process of designing transport systems when we got the old train set out!”

Professor Elizabeth Tanner OBE FRSE FREng, Biomedical engineer

“Our house had a landing half way up the stairs. When my younger brother was about 8, our father put down an area of ply board (leaving just enough space to get up the stairs) and our first train set was built on the space and then Scalextric racing cars were put down in the middle. My brother will still tell you that he had to battle with my father and me for access, we thought they were great fun to play with and occasionally my brother was allowed to join us. My father’s hobby was carpentry so I was encouraged to design and build things in wood – I find I still use those manual skills today.”

Elizabeth Carrey, Biochemist and former senior lecturer at UCL

“I don’t remember many toys – I belonged to the generation that was sent outside to play, so we played on the swings, climbed trees, made dens in the undergrowth, and so on. My earliest scientific observations were made on family walks: the icicles suspended under thick ice from the top of large puddles, and the insulating properties of woolly socks.

“When I was 9 or 10, I was given an illustrated copy of ‘Man must Measure’ by Lancelot Hogben – I still have it. This was an ideal blend of my interest in ancient buildings such as the Pyramids, and the mathematics needed to build them. From then on I understood the power of mathematics in helping to build our world.”

So, what about you? Did your childhood toys have any bearing on the careers you chose? Comment below or tweet @LetToysBeToys using the official hashtag #IWD2016

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3 Comments

  1. Nicola Wilson

    I love this article, thankyou so much! I have a twin brother and we grew up sharing each other’s toys, from cars to Barbie’s. My favourite toy was a lego technical truck that transformed into a robot, I loved building it. Now I have a PhD in experimental physics under my belt and I work as an Engineering Portfolio Manager.

  2. My sisters and I am also liked doing big jigsaw puzzles and watching musicals, and We spent a lot of time outside in the woodland climbing trees and building dens. I ended up going Into physics, though Neither of my sisters did. I think it was just “in” me somehow – I liked the logic problems and puzzle books and building things. And honest was fine with my parents. That was really interesting, thank you

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