With the world in desperate need of scientific research to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, our attention naturally turns to the STEM world. However, these fields are not immune from sexism, racism, and implicit biases that can exclude the people who are needed to find solutions to scientific problems. Meriame Berboucha is an inspirational laser/plasma physicist, science communicator, author and blogger. She is extremely generous in sharing about her career and experiences of overcoming exclusion as a woman of color in the physics world in the hopes of communicating, “all individuals should be welcome to do a field of work of their choice, regardless of their background.” We at TruColour had the pleasure of interviewing Meriame to learn more about her awesome work, why diversity in physics is an important issue for her, and how she uses TruColour products.
Question: Can you share the story of how your interest in having a career as a physicist developed?
Answer: I started off wanting to have a career in medicine, but just couldn’t see people suffer or in pain. I knew I wanted to help society, but didn’t know how to do it with math or physics, which were subjects I enjoyed a lot at school. Then I was introduced to the field of medical physics by my school physics teacher. We ended up going to a national lab in the UK, where I was born, and it was there where I fell in love with medical physics. So I decided to do a physics degree at Imperial College London. Over there, I fell in love with lasers. With lasers you can accelerate charged particles, you can do medical imaging and you can even pop balloons! For me, lasers are such a wonderful creation and I’m so glad I get to have a job where I can work with lasers in such a cool location.
Question: You also have a passion for science communication and especially getting more girls interested in STEM - why is this important to you?
Answer: When I was at school, I was told I would never go to university, that physics was a guy subject and that I was ‘smart so I should do medicine.’ I hated how everyone took it upon themselves to guide my direction without asking me what I enjoyed. I hated that physics was considered a subject that was not achievable for me. So when I got accepted to study physics in higher education - I was the first woman in my school to take physics onto higher education - I decided to go back to my school to host a science club for the students, where I aimed to make physics more accessible to the students without the stigma the teachers and other students were putting on them. It was a huge success and the students had lots of fun. I was the only woman of colour physicist they had met, since there was only one male physics teacher at the school. I hoped this showed to them that as long as you have a passion for a subject you can do it.
Question: You have given talks on the challenges of being a woman of color in a male- and white-dominated area of the sciences as well as your experiences of other people not expecting you to have certain interests, such as salsa dancing or singing, because you're a physicist. From your experiences, you have developed this inspiring message for anyone passionate about physics to go for it and be themselves even when implicit bias within society and institutions discourages them from the field. What do you think is the importance of diversity and representation in STEM communities and research?
Answer: I touched on this before, but I never felt welcome in physics at school. I was seen as the weird kid who was doing a subject that wasn’t for them. I grew up never seeing anyone that looked like me doing subjects like physics that are predominantly male. Through starting a blog and getting on social media like Instagram I wanted to put a face to physics that wasn’t commonly seen on bigger media platforms like TV. I grew up seeing documentaries with white male physicists presenting them, so I never thought it was something achievable for me. By taking selfies in the lab and sharing my outside interests like salsa, singing or drawing I wanted others who are similar to me to feel like they belong and that physics is something achievable for them if they’re passionate about it. I want all members of the workplace to feel like they are included, heard and appreciated. For me this is a huge thing, since it just makes you work so much better when you feel included and appreciated in your role.
Question: What are the most unique and interesting aspects of your career for you? Answer: I am lucky enough to work in a place that is home to the largest linear particle accelerator in the world. The science here is big, and people are doing such great stuff to help our society. We’ve got people who are working on making batteries better, others looking into the structure of viruses so we can prevent future pandemics – the amount of science that is changing the world at the place I work in is unreal. It’s a wonderful place filled with brilliant minds and it’s an honour to be a part of that.
Question: What do you think is at stake or the potential consequences of not having diverse identities and perspectives in physics?
Answer: There are so many intelligent individuals that we’re missing out on by society putting boundaries on certain members of our community. All individuals should be welcome to do a field of work of their choice, regardless of their background. Science is global and together we can push the frontiers of science. I believe that as long as you have a passion for a subject you should be able to pursue it. One step I took to change this is that at the lab I currently work in I became the first international student to intern at the lab, which then paved the way for other internationals to join the lab. It was a very emotional moment when I realized that other students from across the world could join in on the science fun. I’ve also taken part in diversity
colloquiums at the lab to bring awareness to minority groups in science and how we as a lab can push for diversity and inclusion.
Question: How were you introduced to TruColour bandages and their products? Answer: I cut myself in the lab and I was looking for the first aid box around the lab, but I happened to bump into one my colleagues. So I told him I cut myself in the lab and that I needed a plaster (bandage). The next moment took me off guard though, for the first time in my life, someone offered me 3 plasters in different shades. I then proceeded to choose the shade that best matched my tan complexion. Not going to lie, I was taken back by the situation. I felt included. In previous talks of mine I’ve described myself as a minority in a minority, I am a woman in physics and I am a woman of colour, so sometimes I feel like I don’t fit in. But a small gesture like a fellow white colleague having different skin toned bandages was just a big step for me to feel included in the white, male dominated field I am in. I just can’t put it into words – it made me feel like they had thought about others who were different to them, but it brought us to the same level.
Question: How do you use TruColour products and what significance, if any, have they had for you in your life and career?
Answer: I work in a lab with a lot of tools and equipment, so more likely than not I cut myself. I always grew up with the ‘nude’ plasters and just assumed that that was the colour of plasters. It was only when I found the TruColour bandages that I realized how nice it felt to have a bandage that blended into my skin tone. And how the ‘nude’ plasters I used to use just always brought up the injury in conversation because it contrasted my skin tone. Now, with the TruColour bandages I can conceal an injury with a plaster that blends into my skin tone and it almost makes me forget the pain of the cut because I can barely see the plaster when I’m going about my day. It just makes me feel like someone has thought about all of us, with our beautiful differences.
Meriame is a PhD program in plasma physics with Imperial College London, but will be carrying out her research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California. She is trying to find out more about the conditions found in the interior of planets like Neptune and Uranus. She uses high power lasers to help recreate these conditions found in space in the lab to find out more about our cosmos. To learn more about Meriame and her work, visit her website at http://meriameberboucha.weebly.com/. Meriame also has a blog where she writes about her work and experiences, which you can visit at https://meriameberboucha.blogspot.com/. Just as Meriame celebrates differences and pushes for diversity in the sciences, TruColour celebrates diversity in healing. Don’t forget to visit www.trucolourbandages.com and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to check out our products.