Thoughts from my speaking tour

In December, Ed Yong wrote an interesting article about how fewer women than men are invited to give talks at top US universities.

This article was very timely for me. In November, Jenna Congdon, a PhD student at University of Alberta, had asked whether I would be attending the Conference on Comparative Cognition in April 2018. The conversation quickly became a question about whether I could also give a talk at her university.

I used to hate giving talks but I love them now. I work with jumping spiders (family Salticidae) to investigate topics relating to animal cognition and, while they may have tiny brains, spiders are full of surprises and they continue to fascinate me. Why wouldn’t I want to share that joy with a room full of people? Jenna and I even decided that I should give my talk on Friday the 13th of April, which seemed like a great day for spiders. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder – why stop there? Why not take the message even further? After all, travel from New Zealand is long and expensive, and I might as well maximize my time.

At the beginning of January, I tweeted Ed’s article and asked if anyone in North America would be keen for me to give a talk at their university. With Ed’s help, and with the help of other loyal Twitter followers, my query got retweeted and seen by over 18,000 people. It did spark some interest, but no offers. While this was disappointing, I was glad that I tried and I remained undeterred.

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I ended up being busy enough. I’ve been attending the Conference on Comparative Cognition most years since 2012, and I’m usually the only spider researcher there. People at this conference remember me and I had earlier been asked whether I could give talks at the University of Tennessee and at Brooklyn College. Before I knew it, these places were added to my itinerary, as well as University of Manitoba, MacEwan University and University of Florida.

The plan was that I’d give seven talks, but I also found myself eagerly agreeing to speak at a science cafe in Tennessee (“Chatt about Science”) as well as give a second talk at Brooklyn College for a general audience. I was excited about sharing the spiders with as many people as possible.

My home institution in New Zealand doesn’t provide funds for visiting speakers, so it felt particularly good that my travel expenses within North America could be covered – my flights, accommodation and meals. I was deeply touched by how generous everyone was. Life as a scientist can be isolating at times, but the kindness and hospitality I received from everyone at these institutions was making me feel less alone and also making me feel much appreciated. I even got interviewed by about my tour.

Fiona speaking at Brooklyn College (photo: Mark Moffett)

Fiona speaking at Brooklyn College (photo: Mark Moffett)

It quickly became apparent, though, that I was doing more than sharing spider joy. Most of my talks were hosted in Psychology departments, but they were also attended by philosophers, entomologists and other biologists, as well as at least one mathematician, physicist and forensic scientist. There were even people from other universities who travelled to attend my talks. In other words, the spiders were helping to bring people together and helping to spark interesting conversations. They were encouraging diversity.

This got me thinking about being a woman in science. At this stage in my career, I was fortunate to have the time to tour around. While I don’t know where my career will take me next, I do know that I care about science communication and that a speaking tour was valuable experience for me. Of course, many people do not have the luxury of being able to spend weeks touring around, but there should always be the opportunity to give talks. There are many things we can gain from doing so – for one thing, we all need to feel encouraged and appreciated by our peers. Moreover, a diversity of speakers helps to foster a diversity of thoughts and ideas.

I met many interesting people along my journey, but I particularly enjoyed talking with the female students at the different places I visited. I hope that, as a female scientist myself, I could be a source of inspiration for them. There are so many challenges that we face as scientists, but it’s important to find opportunities to celebrate our successes when we can. And, if there was ever the opportunity for another speaking tour in the future, I would do it in a heartbeat.