Sport, Sisterhood and Skates: Jo Day


Jo Day (left) writes about the sense of empowerment she feels in taking part in Roller Derby; this is a great read about inclusivity, confidence, and support.
You wouldn’t think that getting together and donning roller skates, whizzing around in small circles and hitting each other would necessarily be the base of so many strong friendships, but seriously – it works.
Roller Derby is a full contact sport on skates, and gained worldwide popularity after the 2009 film ‘Whip It’, starring Ellen Page, Drew Barrymore and Juliette Lewis. While the film naturally is a Hollywood version of the sport (no, you can’t punch people. No there’s no clothes-lining allowed. No, the uniform isn’t compulsory fishnets), it was responsible for a veritable stampede of people into the female-led sport, keen to tap into the idea of empowerment, sisterhood and *shock horror* team sport outside of the hockey sticks and netball knickers you knew from PE lessons. You may have seen the recent This Girl Can billboards or TV adverts featuring women on skates… we’re really starting to get around!
What strikes most people about the roller derby community is that word – it really is a ‘community’. We’re women with a goal, linked across cities, countries and the world. If I travelled to the other side of the world, I’d find a group of ladies willing to let me drop into their practice, skate and party with them and most likely crash on their sofa (I’ve done this all the way across the Atlantic). Most people come to the sport with their very own issues, insecurities, and experiences, and very often find solace and acceptance.
This Girl Can! Credit – Zero G Photography
Roller Derby is felt to be so empowering for women for many reasons:
  • It’s a sport that wholeheartedly encourages a positive body image – there’s a place and role for every body shape (big and strong, small and agile; fast nippy skaters and sturdier defensive players who grind down an opponent’s morale!)
  • It can allow women to show their powerful, aggressive side in a constructive, applauded way (killing it on the track with a crowd cheering: what a rush!)
  • Roller Derby is dominated by women all over the world – it had been a women’s only sport for many years before men started playing too, and is certainly played, coached, managed and administrated by more women than men (rare for a sport where men and women play).
  • Both international governing bodies, WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association) and MRDA (Men’s Roller Derby Association) have clear inclusivity policies, allowing people to skate with whatever teams and genders they feel most comfortable with and identifying as (including gender-expansive participants who may feel other sports have no place for them in the locker room).

    Credit – Kodak Kojak
Team sports are all too often something that falls out of women’s realm once they leave school. The drop-off in physical activity when girls leave compulsory education has always been a big problem in this country, and many of the women in Newcastle Roller Girls hadn’t done any sport since school (which for most of us is over a decade ago!), so it could be seen as a team sport for non-sporty people… who end up athletes without even realising it. How did this crazy roller skating game take me from the girl who insisted the gym was “boring” and beyond her willpower, to a woman who attends 3 times a week and can leg press three times her body weight? Because I want to play better, I want my team to win, I want the women around me to be able to rely on my skills… and all of a sudden it’s a means to an end, necessary and not such a chore after all. I think there is a lot to be said for finding your best incentive to do the hard work of getting fit, and what could work better than a game? It is a game at the end of the day, but to most of us, it’s truly more than that: it’s a way of life.
Credit – Dave Moore
If you’re keen to find out more about what the sport is, there’s plenty of helpful YouTube videos (links at the bottom of this article), or you can come along to one of our home games!
  • 25-26th March – EuroClash (2 day European Tournament)
  • 8th April – women’s C team game
  • 22nd April – Women’s B team games
  • 13th May – Women’s A & C team games
  • Men’s games also available through Tyne and Fear Roller Derby.

We run a beginner’s intake a couple of times a year and our home is the Walker Dome. Check out our website (or ask Jo in the Student’s Union) for details!

What is roller derby? Find out here
Newcastle Roller Girls YouTube video and Facebook page
Tyne & Fear Men’s Roller Derby YouTube video


Women’s Empowerment in STEM (and Saudi Arabia): Dr Jolanta Weaver

dr-jolanta-weaver-01Dr Jolanta Weaver is a Consultant Endocrinologist working at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead. She is a Senior Lecturer in Diabetes Medicine at Newcastle University UK and a Visiting Professor at King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, KSA. In her ‘Empowering Women’ blog she tells her story of the power of offering help to others to make life more fulfilling.



Sherin’s story shows us that impossible is nothing and highlights the power of seeking meaningful mentoring to unlock your potential.

Sherin is my ex-PhD student living in a country where women’s privileges are not as generous as in the United Kingdom, yet her aspirations are universal. She is a prime example of a woman who, if given the right mentoring and environment, will flourish.

She is a mother of three living in Saudi Arabia. Her university education started in Egypt where she hoped to qualify as a doctor, but when her mother died prematurely she had to stop studying medicine to look after her siblings. Sherin had the support of her father who recognised that she was more than able to climb a “big mountain” when the time was right. After finally graduating with a degree in Biochemistry, Sherin had just one chance to complete an MRes degree in North Africa. However, she made a conscious decision to abandon it as it was not providing her with enough of a challenge. She ended up completing an MRes in the UK but had to return to Saudi Arabia to join her husband and start a family. A few years later, when her children were old enough, her (female) supervisor suggested she should come to Newcastle University to seek female supervision to mentor her towards a PhD.

It was then that I decided to take on the role of her supervisor as I felt there was a challenge in supporting a female scientist who was clearly keen to do well and needed support. It was also exciting to learn about women’s lives in other countries.

My visits to Saudi Arabia revealed the huge challenges she was facing as a woman in higher education. Nevertheless, her University made it possible for a married woman with children to complete a PhD between two very distinct countries; she took part in a joint supervision scheme between King Abdul Aziz University and Newcastle University, performing experiments in both countries. The advantage of this scheme was that Sherin was not removed from her own environment but was instead improving it from within. We were both creating the building blocks for her PhD but we were also paving the way for other women scientists. But we knew this would not be easy…

Credit: Dr Jolanta Weaver

I figured out that in a society and institution where women had fewer rights, nor were they as valued or supported as men, the only way to help Sherin was through excellence in clinically relevant research. Her intellectual recognition and respect for exemplar scientific conduct would ultimately allow her to be treated on a par with men.

During Sherin’s research there were probably initially more downs then ups. In taking this role I recognised we could not take any shortcuts as we both wanted this to be relevant to the scientific community and my patients. There were many sleepless nights for both Sherin and myself. We were on uncharted territory, performing experiments that had never been tried before with equipment that did not always work (like many PhDs). Her endeavour was not just about getting significant p values but about solving problems and getting up quickly after a fall. Sherin not only completed a commended PhD thesis but she managed to publish a manuscript in peer review journals higher than she anticipated.

This story is not only about scientific achievement but also about how to achieve this in a balanced and fulfilling way. By now I was more than a supervisor, I was Sherin’s friend. I could advise Sherin on how to cope with the daily demands of teenagers! Sherin and her children are now undertaking very active sports on a regular basis so that her family bonds become even stronger.

Credit: Dr Jolanta Weaver

So, what was the secret of Sherin’s success? Several words to describe her come to mind: resilient, single-minded, determined, courageous, hard-working. These words may be socially accepted as more masculine attributes, but for Sherin they also came with love for her children and family. Of course, these are certainly not mutually exclusive, but they have to be applied at the right moment. When offered mentoring she worked very hard to reap the benefits from it, although she did not immediately see the advantages of the long-term investment. Over the course of our collaboration, I saw Sherin grow stronger, more assertive and more focused. She learnt to be selective in her research and could decline projects which were lacking in scientific rigor. It was apparent that her knowledge of how to recognise meaningful research was increasing on a daily basis.

The accolades for her hard work grew steadily. Sherin became an Assistant Professor much quicker than others in her institution.  She was allowed to become PhD co-supervisor of my next PhD student from King Abdul Aziz University much earlier than anticipated. Her achievements became recognised by her institution who selected her to apply for a Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) fellowship at short notice. She was not selected this time, but we will try again next year and make it a stronger application. Indeed, if Sherin were awarded an MIT fellowship on the first attempt while this would be fantastic, it would also mean that there’s no further mountain to climb.

So, what is the bottom line message? Believe in yourself that doing the right thing will be recognised. Seek and benefit from help when it is offered. Offer your help to others to make your life journey more fulfilling. Grab opportunities and run with them. Go for it… as Ellen McArthur’s poster says on my wall.

Helen Berry on ‘Finding your Voice’

helen-berryThe prospect of public speaking is one which may strike fear in the hearts of many of us. As women, it is common to face additional setbacks such as lack of confidence and feeling anxious of criticism. All is not lost, however! Helen Berry, Professor of History and HaSS Dean of Postgraduate Studies, held an excellent session for the NU Women based around finding our voices within the public sphere. Helen has extensive experience in public speaking, be that in the lecture theatre or further afield in contributing to discussions on the radio or appearing on TV.

Below we discuss some of the most common challenges we might face in speaking within the public sphere. Taking heed of the tips that follow might help those butterflies disappear.

“What if my mind goes blank?”

There are several strategies out there to help us with keeping our talks on track, it’s a case of choosing the right method for you. Index cards or PowerPoint presentations with keywords on them are a good start in helping us to keep focused and improve our fluency. Don’t forget to slow down, too, to give yourself time to think – slowing down your speaking speed to about half of what you think is normal means you’re more likely to hit the optimum listening speed.

“What are others thinking of me?”

The truth is, they don’t care. They came to hear you speak, not to judge. Often we are our own worst critics! Find a friendly face in the audience and keep calm.

“What if I can’t make myself heard?”

Don’t be afraid to interrupt. Speak deeper and louder. Most importantly, don’t apologise. Cut out the I’m sorry buts and the I may be wrongs from your vocabulary and be confident that what you’re saying is a useful contribution to the discussion.

“I’ve never done this before”

This is a valid worry and one that almost everyone will have experienced, but don’t admit it! Audiences want to feel comfortable and seeing that you are too will help them to relax. Keep a journal for future reference and note down what works and what doesn’t. Remember that you’re in charge of the situation, so make sure you project an aura of control even if you don’t feel it.

“I don’t like audiences, large or small!”

You know about the subject (the audience is there because of it) and you have something valuable to say, so give yourself permission to speak. Take a look at Michelle Obama and Julia Gillard’s excellent speeches and note how they speak to their audiences.


Some final points…

Be resilient, be positive and build yourself a support team of family and friends to give you feedback… Practice makes perfect! Most importantly though, remember what you’re passionate about and why you’re doing it. This is what will get you through.

For further reading, Helen recommends Patsy Rodenburg’s book Presence as a practical guide to improving presentation skills. She is a former voice coach with the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can also catch her talking about the ‘three circles’ concept from the book on YouTube.

Helen will be doing another session in May 2017 that will be open to the whole NU Women’s network. Registration for this event will be shared closer to the time.


Developing Your Personal Resilience

Jo Geary, Head of Business & Management Services at Newcastle University Library discusses personal resilience.

This blog can otherwise be known as: How to avoid being a (squashed) bunny caught in the ‘to-do list headlamps’.

My to-do list was paralysing me. I needed a lesson in how to respond better in the face of an overwhelming workload. Luckily, Mandi Sherlock-Storey and my network of NU Women colleagues turned up to help me develop some personal resilience!

Mandi started her Personal Resilience Workshop by asking us what we would look like at our absolute best, at our peak in terms of resilience. She defined resilience as “successfully adapting to adversity and bouncing back as an even better, more capable person”. Resilient individuals have a bag of tools to help them become more flexible to life’s changing demands.

Continue reading “Developing Your Personal Resilience”