Natural Cycles – Rhiannon Lyon

Contraception can be a pain. From the long list of side-effects associated with hormonal pills, to the painful and invasive nature of implants and IUDs, women put up with a lot to avoid getting pregnant. And with the search for a male contraceptive pill that lacks undesirable side-effects (the type that women have put up with for decades) still unfruitful, things look set to stay this way for a while.

Or do they? As the first and only app to become certified as a contraceptive in Europe, Natural Cycles promises a hormone-free, non-invasive alternative to traditional forms of birth control.

Natural Cycles was developed by physicist Dr Elina Berglund, who works at CERN and was part of the team responsible for confirming the existence of the Higgs boson.  The app started out as an algorithm Berglund developed after deciding to stop taking hormonal contraceptives. She started looking into the biology of the menstrual cycle and found that ovulation can be accurately predicted by small changes in body temperature, and this data can be used to calculate when an individual is and is not fertile. Berglund began to monitor her own cycle using the algorithm, along with some of her colleagues at CERN. This ended up working so well that her Berglund and her husband decided to develop the algorithm into an app, so that more people could benefit from it. The latest study shows that the app is 99% effective when used perfectly, or 93% effective with typical use (for comparison, the pill is 91% effective with typical use).

So how does a simple fertility awareness method manage to have such success in preventing pregnancy? To answer this, we first need to understand a bit of the biology of the menstrual cycle.

nat cycles graphPhoto source:

The menstrual cycle can be roughly divided into three stages: the follicular (pre-ovulatory) phase, ovulation, and the luteal (post-ovulatory) phase. The levels of the hormones oestrogen, progesterone and LH vary over these stages, as shown in the diagram above, with the body’s basal body temperature (temperature at rest) changing as a result of these different levels. This is how Natural Cycles detects where the user is in their menstrual cycle: a temperature taken each morning with a two decimal place thermometer.

During the follicular phase oestrogen levels are high, and progesterone levels low, leading to a lower body temperature. At the end of the follicular phase is the fertile window. This is approximately six days long – starting five days before ovulation occurs. This is because sperm can survive in the uterus and fallopian tubes for up to five days waiting for an egg to fertilise.

At ovulation an egg is released by one of the ovaries, and travels through the fallopian tube, where it can be fertilised if it encounters a sperm (which could have been hanging around in the tube for several days).

After ovulation the luteal phase starts. Progesterone levels increase in order to aid the foetus’s development if fertilisation has occurred. The rise in progesterone causes the basal body temperature to go up an average of 0.3°C. If fertilisation has not occurred the progesterone levels then fall again, and the uterine wall begins to shed with the beginning of menstruation, which starts a new cycle.

From this we can see that there is actually only a window of around 6 days each cycle where fertilisation could actually occur, on all the other days of the cycle intercourse will not result in a pregnancy. The Natural Cycles app uses this logic to assign ‘red’ and ‘green’ days – those on which you do and do not need to use protection, respectively. Of course an app that accurately tracks fertility can also be used to increase chances of pregnancy, and around 20% of Natural Cycles users are in fact using it to aid in becoming pregnant.

However, the app may not be for everyone. Success depends on users strictly abstaining or using barrier protection such as condoms on red days, and making sure to take their temperature each morning, having had a decent amount of sleep (as sleep deprivation can cause fluctuations in the basal body temperature). Those who have irregular menstrual cycles, such as people with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), which affects around 10% of women, may not benefit so much from Natural Cycles, as the algorithm is likely to give them many more red days per cycle. A subscription to the app also costs around £40 per year, which is pretty pricey considering that all other birth control is free on the NHS (although you do get a thermometer thrown in). Whether that is value for money for a side-effect-free form of contraception is down to the individual.




Sally Ride’s Space Legacy

220px-sally_ride2c_america27s_first_woman_astronaut_communitcates_with_ground_controllers_from_the_flight_deck_-_nara_-_541940Jonathan James

Sally Ride was an American physicist and astronaut, most famous for being the first American woman in space, in 1983, and the third woman in space behind Russian Cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova and Svetlana Sativskaya. As well as being the youngest American to have travelled to space, at just 32, she is less well known for being the first known LGBT astronaut, a fact not revealed until after her death in 2012. Whilst having been married to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley from 1982 – 1987, her partner for the next 27 years would be Tam O’Shaughnessy, who she met when both were aspiring tennis players years earlier.

Ride joined NASA in 1978, having answered an advertisement in a newspaper for people to join the space programme. Prior to her first flight in 1983, she worked as a communicator for the second and third space shuttle flights and worked to develop the ‘Canadarm’ robot arm, used by space shuttles to deploy and recover deliveries. The flight in 1983 subjected her to a lot of media attention, mostly because of her gender. During one press conference, she was asked a series of extremely sexist question by the media, including whether she would cry if things went wrong, and whether the flight would damage her reproductive organs. Despite everything, Ride simply insisted she was an astronaut.


The Challenger shuttle, moments before the horrific disaster.

On June 18, 1983, Ride because the first American woman in space as a crew member on the space shuttle Challenger. The crew deployed two communication satellites and carried out many drug experiments in space. Ride was the first woman to use a robotic arm in space. A year later, in 1984, Ride embarked on her second mission on the Challenger (sadly to be her last, following the Challenger disaster of 1986, which took place months before she was due to go to space again for a third time.) In total, Ride spent over two weeks in space.

Following the Challenger disaster, Ride moved from space flight to the political sphere, working on the Rogers Commission to investigate the reasons behind the disaster. Later, she would go on to found NASA’s Office of Exploration, which continues to lay the groundwork for much of NASA’s future exploration. She would also work with schools to encourage students to pursue careers in the space industry, contributing to seven short stories aimed at children, and spent some time as a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego.


Then US President Barack Obama, awarding Sally Rides posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom to her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy.

Sally Ride’s legacy continues to this day – she has received several accolades both during her lifetime and posthumously. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Barack Obama. A year later, in 2014, she was induced into the Legacy Walk, an outdoor public display that celebrates LGBT history and people.

A Profile of Margeret Mead

m mead

Rhiannon Freya Lyon

Born in the US, 1901, Margaret Mead is recognised as one of the most influential anthropologists of the 20th century, often seen as the woman who laid the foundation for second wave feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Through her studies of isolated civilisations in the South Pacific, Mead was a pioneer of the idea that behaviour is culturally learned rather than being innate. She specifically focused on gender roles (the expected behaviour of an individual based on their gender), and how these are greatly shaped by the society we grow up in.

During her early academic career, Mead was especially interested in studying cultures uninfluenced by Westernisation. This lead to her first pacific island field study in Samoa which largely consisted of interviews with adolescent girls, observations from which laid the grounds for her first book Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928. In this book she put forward the idea that Samoan cultures didn’t adhere as strictly to gender roles as the US: that adolescents had more freedom to explore their sexuality, that extra-marital sex was not so taboo, and that these attitudes lead to more healthy development. She put forward the controversial view that the Western way of doing things was not necessarily the best or most progressive way of doing things.

In 1935 Mead started digging into the differences in gender roles and temperament across different cultures in New Guinea, recorded in her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies. She found that different cultures had different attitudes towards aggression and what the roles of men and women were in society. For example, the Arapesh people were peaceful and neither men nor women were involved in war. Contrary to this, among the Mundugumor people both men and women were involved in war. The women in the Tchambuli ethnic group were responsible for catching and trading of food, while the men were more involved in the politics of the tribe, with neither gender being dominant over the other. Mead found that across cultures men and women would be responsible for different things, but in general whatever the role of the man was, this was held more highly. This observation broke ground by separating the biological sex from a socially constructed gender.

During World War 2, access to the South Pacific was cut off and Mead’s focus therefore shifted to the US. During this time Mead and her former academic mentor Ruth Benedict founded The Institute for Intercultural Studies.

As with anything that challenges the status quo, Mead’s work attracted a lot of criticism. People did not like the idea that their ideas of gender and gender roles were not as set in stone as they may have thought. One of Mead’s most prominent critics was Derek Freeman, who was very determined to discredit her and her findings, publishing several books on her “hoaxing”. There are of course legitimate criticisms to make of Mead’s work, her downplaying of some of the negative elements of Samoan development for example. But Freeman’s criticisms went beyond this in his (somewhat successful) attempts to damage her reputation. His work has now by and large been rejected by the anthropological community, due to his unreliable methods and tendency to cherry-pick his data, while misrepresenting Mead’s work.

After the Second World War, Mead went back to New Guinea in order to study the impact of exposure to the wider world on the people living there as a result of war. She found that after contact with the wider world, societal ideas among previously cut-off cultures had changed.  This trip ended up informing her beliefs in the way cultural ideas shape social problems such as racism and disregard for the environment, and lead to her famous quote “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Although her mother was a suffragist, Mead never publically labelled herself a feminist. She was however very outspoken on women’s equality and civil rights. Her work contributed to the rise of second wave feminism by focusing on how gender roles are shaped by the society you live in, rather than being inherent.

Later in life Mead became a curator for the American Natural History Museum, President of the American Anthropological Association, Vice President of the New York Academy of Sciences, and served various positions in the American Association for the Advancement of science. She was a public speaker and university lecturer, speaking on a wide variety of subjects. In total Mead authored 12 books, and co-authored many more. She is seen as being a very accessible writer and speaker, able to successfully engage with members of the general public to spread her ideas further than the circle of academia.

Mead said of relationships “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationships”. This illustrates her views, unconventional at the time, and possibly even now, that romance need not be heterosexual or monogamous to be valid. These views were displayed in her own personal life, although her relationships with women were not public knowledge at the time. Mead had three successive husbands, the last of whom she had a child with; alongside her marriages she also had a long-term lover Ruth Benedict, her former mentor. She spent the later years of her life living with fellow anthropologist Rhoda Metraux, with whom she had a romantic relationship.

Over her lifetime Mead was awarded many accolades for her contributions to anthropology and wider society, including being posthumously awarded the Presidential Award of Freedom.

Women in STEM: in Sheffield and Beyond

Emily Vincent

Most of us have seen the statistics and stereotypes surrounding women studying or working in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) fields; it can sometimes seem an inescapable reality that these areas are male-dominated. The obvious male bias in science raises lots of important questions.


Image Credit: MaxPixel

What are the issues?

In the UK around 20% of A Level physics students are girls, and women make up only 25% of those choosing STEM subjects as a degree. Just 12.8% of the STEM workforce are women, and the number falls to 9% when considering those specifically involved in engineering. These figures only scratch the surface, as a quick internet search will show.

Less quantifiably, we live in a culture which promotes the stereotyping and belittling of women in STEM fields. We’re used to seeing memes joking about “that one girl in your mechanical engineering lecture” alongside those suggesting that women in such classes are less desirable than others, and we cannot forget Tim Hunt’s controversial claims that when women are present in the lab, “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”.

Do we need to even it out?

Is it a problem that things aren’t 50:50 when it comes to gender in the world of STEM? We need to question whether anything would be better if more women were engaged with STEM.

Women in STEM have changed the world we live in and have been doing so for a long time. Lovelace and Curie are names synonymous with the computer programming and the fight against cancer respectively. As for the present day, lists like this, this and this illustrate how women in STEM are contributing to work on HIV treatments, testing DNA for mutations, distributing technology worldwide, and understanding the human brain.

The film Hidden Figures has brought attention to black women’s major contributions to space exploration; reminding us that there are yet more inequalities where gender and race intersect. Women have contributed an incredible amount to our world through STEM and therefore we need them to keep doing so.

Employers are struggling to fill STEM roles: 32% of companies struggle to recruit experienced STEM staff; and 64% of engineering firms say a shortage of engineers threatens their business. Annually there is a shortfall of tens of thousands with STEM skills. We need to increase the STEM capability of the UK workforce, and discovering the potential of our women and girls would greatly assist this.

Not forgetting, STEM careers are great for women! 84% of women in engineering were happy or extremely happy with their career choice, and STEM careers offer benefits such as great salaries, work in interesting and innovative fields, travel opportunities, and a wide variety of roles.

What is being done to fix it?

Sadly, there is no simple solution, but there are a huge number initiatives to encourage more women and girls into STEM, on every scale.

The University of Sheffield supports women in STEM initiatives in a number of inspiring ways – the Wall of Women showcases the work of our female engineers and allows them to act as role models for younger generations, and the Women in Engineering Society has seen students write a children’s book to act as inspiration to young girls.

Staff in the Faculty of Engineering, such as Dr Rachael Rothman, speak out about the issue using prominent public platforms, and Professor Elena Rodriguez-Falcon’s advocacy encompasses the additional issues affecting LGBTQ engineers. A variety of open days, workshops and events are held at the university to encourage girls into STEM, along with outreach work where students and staff visit local schools.

Many bodies in the UK provide inspiration and resources to encourage girls into STEM, and the UK government is supportive of these. Lots of companies now have comprehensive diversity policies and foster inclusive workplaces, proudly supporting and showcasing their female STEM staff. However, alongside inspiration and encouragement, changes to stereotypes are also being pursued.

Toys are a major player in this game. Lego’s female NASA mini-figures have recently been announced, but Barbie’s STEM attempts have attracted criticism. They include a kit focussed on repairing washing machines, and an “I Can Be a Computer Engineer” story where Barbie relies on men for computer programming.

There is still a long way to go before we reach gender equity in STEM, but the almost unanimous enthusiasm to get more girls into the fields is surely a positive sign. When combined with attempts to change stereotypes alongside direct methods such as events in schools and the provision of prominent female role models, things will hopefully move in the right direction.

Here is something that everyone can make a difference in – we all have the responsibility to challenge those who suggest that STEM is for men, and to provide positive role models, we need to be positive role models!