The books and women that will inspire a lifetime of loving STEM subjects

Published on: 02 August 2019 Author: Amy McCulloch

Author Amy McCulloch shares the women in science, technology, engineering and maths that meant so much to her growing up. Turns out, there are also a lot of books for teens these days that combine a love of science with reading...

Illustration by Emily Rowland

Sometimes I think that it was part of my destiny to be inspired by women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), simply because I was named after one of them! My namesake is Amy Johnson, the incredible female pilot who flew solo from London to Darwin, Australia. From early on, I wanted to follow in her footsteps, and becoming a pilot became my ultimate dream! But not just any pilot – I wanted to be an astronaut.

This dream was enhanced when I was 12 and my school did a trip to Montreal’s Cosmodome for a weekend of Space Camp.

The whole weekend was transformative for me. Not only did we learn how to perform calculations in a gyroscope and to build drop-proof capsules for eggs out of Styrofoam and plastic, but I learned about some incredible female scientists who went on to become my greatest inspirations.

Male-dominated environment

Canada had two female astronauts (one of whom is now the Governor General of the country). Julie Payette (an engineer by trade) and Roberta Bondar (a neurologist) became my idols. My dream of being an astronaut (and specifically, a pilot for spacecraft) intensified. I studied science right up until the end of high school, participating in science fair competitions at a national level and even winning a gold medal in the engineering category. I taught myself how to code in BASIC and C++ and learned how to solder.

But the computer classroom and the science fair competitions were predominantly male spaces, and I felt myself constantly having to prove myself to my male peers. As a result, I gravitated to other girls who shared my love of science – and we supported each other as we competed (and often won!) against the boys.

Our inspirations were other women who made an impact in traditionally male-dominated environments. I personally loved Mary Shelley, author of the first science fiction novel with Frankenstein. Others looked to Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, or Ada Lovelace, one of the world’s first computer programmers, or Hedy Lamarr, the actress and inventor of our modern Bluetooth technology.

From science to science fiction

My dream of becoming an astronaut pilot suffered a devastating blow when my eyesight deteriorated to the point that I wouldn’t be allowed on any pilot training scheme. By then, I had also discovered a love of reading and writing (unsurprisingly, science fiction!) and like so many science-loving girls my age, I chose to go into the humanities when it came to higher education.

Mary Shelley, circa 1840

While I went on to become a novelist and storyteller, that love of STEM and the inspiration those women provided never left me. Eventually, I distilled that love into my main character of Jinxed and Unleashed, Lacey Chu. It was so gratifying to be able to tap into a part of me that had lain dormant for a while – the teenager who was obsessed with asking questions, filled with curiosity for how the world works, and who didn’t want to conform to societal expectations.

And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be able to fulfill my astronaut dream too. Does Elon Musk have any room on Space X for a novelist?

Fiction for STEM-loving teens

From the front cover of Unleashed by Amy McCulloch

Thankfully, STEM-loving teens have a lot more books to read to be inspired than when I was young. For some recent YA books featuring girls in STEM, be sure to check out:

  • The Tesla Legacy by K K Perez: This follows a precocious young scientist named Lucy Phelps whose fateful encounter in the Tesla Suite of the New Yorker Hotel unlocks her dormant electrical powers.
  • Heartstream by Tom Pollock: An incredible story about social media and its dangers. A taut psychological thriller about obsession, fame and betrayal, for fans of Black Mirror.
  • This Mortal Coil by Emily Suvada: Catarina Agatta is a hacker. She can cripple mainframes and crash through firewalls, but that’s not what makes her special. In Cat’s world, people are implanted with technology to recode their DNA, allowing them to change their bodies in any way they want. And Cat happens to be a gene-hacking genius.
  • Cinder by Marissa Meyer: Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She's a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister's illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai's, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world's future. No one – including Cinder herself – knows that Earth's fate hinges on one very special young woman...

Amy McCulloch's Unleashed is out from 22 August. You can follow Amy on Twitter @amymcculloch, on Instagram @amymccullochbooks and also on her website.

Topics: Science, Features

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