On the importance of supportive parents

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On graduating from Nottingham University with my first degree – with my Mum and Dad

The preface of my PhD thesis features two quotes from eminent physicists who have inspired me with their childlike wonder and delight in discovering the world through science:

“Three great challenges

remain for modern physics:

the big, the very small, and the complex.”

Sir Martin Rees

Astronomer Royal, tea drinker and dog lover

“In summary,

the idea is to give all of the information

to help others judge the value of your contribution;

not just the information that leads to judgement

in one particular direction

or another,”

Professor Richard Feynmann

Nobel Laureate, lock picker and bongo player

I expect many of you have heard of them. I certainly expect you’ve heard this quote, with which I opened my two-page list of acknowledgements:

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Sir Isaac Newton

Great quotes, from great men. But that’s just it. When I look at my heroes in science, that’s what I see: men. Lots of them. White, middle-aged (or older) men. Several have crazy hair, occasionally they also have a beard to match. It’s not hard to see where the children’s stereotype of ‘scientist’ comes from.

It’s never been an issue for me, as my parents always encouraged and supported my scientific ambitions. My Dad worked as a Packaging Technologist and would spend hours on Sunday afternoons building and making things with me; that was probably where my skills as an experimental physicist began to develop. I do wonder though, what would have happened if my parents held a different view: that physical science wasn’t for girls, that I should concentrate on looking pretty rather than working with my hands, and I would be better off investing my intellect in something that made serious money and avoided contact with machinery and hard sums.

I have rarely met parents who express these views explicitly, but I have had several conversations at careers fairs over years of being a STEM ambassador that have made me realise these preconceptions are often bubbling under the surface. They leak out in a thousand subtle and not-so-subtle cues which add up to convince many girls that science, and certainly physics, isn’t for someone like them. That’s before you add in unhelpful messages from their peers and wider culture, often based on the same preconceptions, and patchy access to accurate information on the range of satisfying careers open to those with science qualifications.

Alongside working as a Senior Medical Physicist in the NHS, I now direct ScienceGrrl, a network celebrating and promoting women in science. We began by producing a 2013 calendar, showcasing the work of diverse mix of female scientists from a wide variety of fields, alongside their male colleagues. In the process, we have  gathered a host of women (and not a few men) who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and maths to the next generation. We’re in the process of working out how best to connect with school children to convince them that science is for everyone, by introducing them to a host of friendly role models in STEM careers – aswell as making female scientists more visible in wider culture, and several other things! To find out more, please visit us at www.sciencegrrl.co.uk or follow us on Twitter, @Science_Grrl.

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Physics and motherhood

girls in lab coats

photo courtesy of blogher

It’s been an interesting few weeks to be a professional physicist and a mother. At least it has for me.

First of all, Cherie Blair decided to have a go at stay-at-home mothers (SAHMs), criticising them for financial dependence on their partners and discouraging independence in their children. This provoked the inevitable backlash in defence of SAHMs. Unfortunately, it seems that many people find it impossible, when participating in such debates, to state their position without being extremely critical of those who chose otherwise.

I made the mistake of wading into a debate on facebook about this, started by a SAHM friend. I outlined the reasons for my own choices (working part-time since my boys were 6 months old) but stressed that each family had to choose what is best for them – including Mum – and for most of us it is a case of working towards a compromise that optimises happiness rather than attaining some mythical ideal. Others (not the aforementioned friend!) called working mothers selfish for only benefitting themselves, rejecting the ‘highest calling’ of motherhood and putting their children’s wellbeing at risk by placing them in the care of childminders and nurseries. When I challenged these views as offensive, I was met with protests that the individuals ‘didn’t mean to cause offence’ as if there was some other way to react to those remarks. I’m still having to hold myself back from sounding off about it now.

Shortly after that, to add proverbial insult to injury, the European Commission launched a campaign to promote science careers to girls, called ‘Science : it’s a girl thing’. The actual campaign is ok, and there’s some good stuff on their website, but they chose to launch the campaign with this appropriately-titled ‘teaser video’, featuring young models strutting in full makeup, high heels and short skirts in front of a ludicrously handsome male ‘scientist’ in glasses and labcoat. Twitter went nuclear; male and female scientists alike were enraged. The EC had the good sense to pull the video on the same day (which now lives on courtesy of youtube) and collate a list of real women scientists on Twitter. Later, more thoughtful blogs emerged, highlighting the variety of people in science, the need to show women scientists as feminine and attractive rather than dysfunctual geeks (a feature of the video that won praise from some teens), and how science isn’t a girl thing but at its best belongs to us all.

In the banter of that heated day on Twitter, another idea began to condense. A couple of the women I’m in touch with joked that we should do a calendar of Sexy Women Scientists for the good of the field…and something in that idea made sense to me. I realised that what had angered me most about that video was not the stereotypical depiction of feminine beauty, but that no science was being done. Women scientists are a diverse bunch, we are a mix of the glamourous and the plain, and those like me who are usually unremarkable but glam up when the situation demands. But science itself is fascinating, captivating, wonderful… Science is sexy. Why not promote science to women using pictures of women scientists having a great time doing amazing science?

There seemed to be quite an appetite amongst women scientists to get this image of ourselves in the public eye. Discussion moved to e-mail and we talked through many suggestions of how we could use the images before returning to the idea of a calendar. We also decided to involve some scienceboyz, to highlight that science itself isn’t gendered and to show women working alongside men as equals. We wrestled with how to represent diversity, when there was no way we could do this properly with a maximum of 14 pictures. And volunteers kept signing up.

So far, I have Tamsin Edwards, Lindsay Lee, Lia Han, Suzi Gage, Sujata Kundu, Liz Bonnin, Helen Czerski, Tilly Blyth, Karen Fuller, Alison Auld, Helen Keen, Helen Arney, Nancy Rothwell, Michelle Oyen, Fran Scott, Ellie Cosgrave, Liza Brooks, Sheila Kanani, Julie Gould, Ceri Brenner, Thorrun Govind, Jen Gupta, Dallas Campbell, James Logan, Kevin Fong, Jay Neale, Adam Rutherford, Mark Miodownik and Richard Tol (sorry I haven’t linked to the relevant corners of cyberspace for each of them, but in the interests of having a life, I refer you to Google!). Quite a stellar cast. I’m hoping we’ll also get Brian Cox.

The strangest thing about all this is that it doesn’t feel strange. The wonderful thing about Twitter is that you can message these people and they will get back to you if they’re interested, there’s no trying to wrestle your idea through tedious official channels. I saw a friend today who said I was ‘moving in high circles’ but it really doesn’t feel that way. People are just people at the end of the day, and respond positively to those who are enthusiastic and nice with it.

Also, Louise Crane signed up to be our Producer. She was behind the sell-out Geek Calendar 2011 which raised £16000 for the Libel Reform campaign, and has all the contacts and knowledge needed to make this happen and it really wouldn’t do without her. She has appointed me Director as I seemed keenest to take ownership, and I am learning fast how to manage a project like this, how to balance a working relationship that has already become a close friendship, and how to push the project forward without putting too much pressure on either of us – this is our second job, after all; it’s fun but it doesn’t pay the bills. I haven’t even spoken to her yet, as we do all our communication via e-mail and Google Chat.

The plan is to produce ScienceGrrl 2013, a calendar brimming with beautiful photographs of real women scientists from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines doing fascinating science, accompanied by short biographies giving a brief introduction their work, its value, what drew them to it, and a little about their lives outside of work. We also intend to include women who aren’t working in STEM, but have been inspired by science in their current careers, to highlight the range of opportunities available to women trained in STEM disciplines – and to showcase a diverse range of backgrounds, disciplines and career paths.

Three weeks in, we have that wonderful cast, printers, photographers, a designer and a budget, shot list, Twitter feed, a bit of money and some of the shot locations confirmed. Science Grrl 2013 is coming together and happening for real. Sure, it’s nowhere near as exciting as discovering the Higgs Boson, but it has certainly put bounce and purpose in my stride that wasn’t there before.

We still have an awful lot to do before the launch party (black tie!) in November and I’ve committed to being in London once a month to help see it through. All alongside working 4 days a week, applying for a clinical senior lectureship that would see me split my time 50:50 between NHS and University, getting my youngest settled into primary school, living in the middle of a building site whilst our home is extended, and all the stuff I do to look after the family. Gosh.

It’s been an interesting few weeks to be a professional physicist and a mother. It’s about to get a whole lot more interesting.

Venus in transit

Last night, Venus crawled its way across the sun for the last time until 2117. This what it looked like, in case you missed it.

A lot of people missed it. In the UK, all but half-an-hour of the transit happened overnight, and that which should have been visible was shrouded in heavy cloud – at least it was above my house. There were some good views in the USA, but many of the stargazers gathered in New York for an evening’s entertainment had to battle with rain clouds too.

The internet is alive today with beautiful images of our nearest star with that little black dot creeping across it, but the prize for ‘best photos of the transit’ goes to NASA. The one above is the most beautiful thing I have seen in a long time, and it can be downloaded as computer wallpaper – a nice touch. This one, taken from the ISS by astronaut Soichi Noguchi, is pretty excellent – but his fellow astronaut Don Pettit has upped the ante here. Enjoy.

The joy of Jem (Stansfield)

Every locker needs a pin-up. Mine is Jem Stansfield. The man is a genius, and a very handsome one at that.

He’s barely 40, but he has the brain to work out how to build the most incredible machines and the skill in his hands to do it himself. He’s also a natural communicator, with a boyish charm (aided by slightly dishevelled hair and twinkling blue eyes) and an energetic frame which can accurately be described as 6ft-something of pure muscle. I met him in green room during the Bang roadshow in Manchester, and struggled to string words together – I’m a 34 year-old Dr of Physics, but he reduced me to a gibbering idiot. Pathetic. An engineer has never had that effect on me before, or since.

I’ve seen him scale a wall using his vacuum gloves and suck willing volunteers up a vacuum elevator. I’ve wondered at his coffee-powered car and 360° rocket-powered swing. The weekend before last at the Bang roadshow in Sheffield, he beat Dallas in the hamster-wheel-colleague-lifting challenge, set off some spectacular explosions, and jokingly explained the scientific principles behind it all like he was regaling some tale or other down the pub. Last Friday, I watched episode 7 of the current Bang series and literally cheered him on as he took his pedal-powered aeroplane onto the runway… and gasped as he took flight.

If you’ve still not had enough, here he is chatting to Planet Science and the Open University.

Oh, Jem. What’s not to like?