Leeds Discovery Centre’s Dead Inspiring project: How insects are being used to empower young women in science

It has long been a bugbear for campaigners trying to get more young women involved in science.

Sunday, 9th May 2021, 6:00 am
Curator Milo Phillips who is running a project to empower women in science with Leeds Discovery Centre's insect collection (photo: Bruce Rollinson)

And now a Leeds museum is using its extensive insect collection as part of a project to inspire an increasing number of women to pursue a science career.

Created as a result of gender inequalities in the industry, the Dead Inspiring project at Leeds Discovery Centre aims to empower girls and women and show them that science is an avenue open to them.

An array of insects are stored at the discovery centre, with some having been there for nearly 200 years, and up until now they have been largely untouched due to a lack of people, money and time.

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The preserved bugs are the project’s way of ‘getting people excited’ about science (photo: Bruce Rollinson)

Now, the preserved bugs are the project’s way of ‘getting people excited’ about science.

The project offers workshops and activities to schools and community groups and gives students or those interested in science the opportunity to volunteer and facilitate the digitalisation of the collection.

For Milo Phillips, an assistant curator of entomology for Leeds Museums and Galleries, the project marks a time of addressing the representation issues in the science industry.

While the bugs have always been stored at Leeds Discovery Centre for the public to explore, not many people knew about it beforehand (photo: Bruce Rollinson)

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “Gender equality is a massive issue in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry and so we want to try and help that from our side by using our really cool collection that hasn’t been used before.

“Things in shops with bugs on tend to be marketed for boys, and although sometimes there are some things for girls with butterflies on, the gender representation is massively skewed.

“Young women don’t see science as an avenue that is open to them because of how children are generally taught about what is available so there’s a huge barrier for girls getting into science and we want to help to fix that.

“We want kids to know what an actual scientist is and that it isn’t just an old man in a lab coat.

“It’s all these cool people and all these cool things that you didn’t know were actually science - like the insect collection.”

While the project has already begun by providing school workshops, learning resources and opportunities to get hands-on with the collection, Mr Phillips hopes that there will be a longer term benefit to museums by developing a women-in-science strategy.

This will come a couple of years down the line and will help to inform the sector on the use of collections in powerful and effective ways.

He said that while the bugs have always been stored at Leeds Discovery Centre for the public to explore, not many people knew about it beforehand.

He added: “Part of the way we are using the objects to empower young women is by digitising and accessioning the collection because even we don’t actually know all of what’s there yet.

“The problem we have had is that not a lot of people think about Leeds Discovery Centre or even know that the store of insects exists and is open to everyone.

“It’s where we keep everything that isn’t on display in museums or for exhibitions and so we have decided to make this into a new and digitised collection because everyone has a reaction to insects.

“Even if you’re grossed out by spiders or really like butterflies, everyone has some kind of reaction.

“It’s a really nice thing to be able to work with that and show people that they’re invested without even realising it because everyone knows what an insect is even if they don’t know all of them.

“We can draw on the fact someone might have been annoyed by a mosquito once for example and turn it into something else in order to get people excited about science.”

Mr Phillips hopes that he will be able to welcome young or aspiring scientists to Leeds City Museum with an ‘insect week’ at the end of June as lockdown restrictions ease further.

He said: “It’s all about being able to take insects out and talk to people and bring scientists along to show people that cool people can talk about the things they care about and that they can do that too.

“It’s useful if the right people can be put in front of groups of young women so that they can see who scientists really are.

“Insect week will be a series of activities and workshops all about natural science and the main idea of the Dead Inspiring project is helping women to see that this is open to them and to everyone - because if you get that right, everyone can have a good time with science.”