Why I do a leadership role


  I recently attended a “women in leadership” discussion at my University. One of the questions that we discussed was “What motivates people to take on leadership roles?” Incidentally, I much prefer the term “performing a leadership role” rather than “being a leader”. To me, being a leader sounds too much like dragging people along after you, which is definitely not the style of leadership I aspire to! The many suggestions from our group fell into two broad categories: “incentives” and “support”.

Since I often get asked on a more informal basis why I agreed to be a Head of Department (and even why I like it – a lot of the time), I thought sharing my list on this blog would be appropriate. The process of reflecting on this clarified a few things in my own mind – which is always useful. So, this is what motivates me to do my current leadership role:

  1. I have a genuine interest in bringing success to the department and organisation (bear in mind there are lots of different definitions of success of course!)
  2. There is a clear opportunity to contribute using my skills or those I can develop whilst in the role
  3. I have a desire to see the job done well – probably my slight(?) “control freak” tendencies come in here too
  4. The role is aligned with, or at least not in contradiction of, my core values and beliefs (e.g. empowering people, self-development, authenticity, transparency, equality of opportunity, collegiality, the importance of communication, integrity, involved and shared parenting )
  5. I do have a strong sense of duty to a Department that has been very good to me.

And what would motivate me to take on a different leadership role (in addition to the above which would all still be necessary)?

  • The role must be achievable part-time and viewed as such by other senior management colleagues (This is because being full-time would compromise some of my values in 4 above. It’s fine in my current role, but there are no part-time or job sharing Heads of School in my institution at the moment)
  • I have to be able to see myself working successfully with and being valued by the other people at the same level (again this is fine in my current role, and increasingly so at the most immediate next level, but less clear that it would be the case higher up)
  • There would need to be concern for a career development pathway for me – I want to be “Ellie doing a leadership role”, not “a leader”
  • I would need to feel confident of being able to access a support network, e.g. regular “Ellie-centred” reviews, easy access to coaching services – I have had some success in getting this by simply keeping asking for it (clearly in the right places) and I know the University is looking at developing this network over the next few years, but it’s still a long way from being something you can rely on to be there.

But perhaps the greatest motivation is feeling that sometimes I make a contribution, however small, to someone great getting the recognition or the opportunity they deserve, or to the group, Department, School or University being a little bit of a better place to work in after I’ve been involved. Those are certainly the occasions that have me bouncing around in my office with a huge smile on my face (yes, literally on at least one occasion), and make it possible to work through some of the less intrinsically motivating tasks that come with the role.


Tales of the unexpected

This post was originally an article written for the online Newsletter of theWeather Club  of the Royal Meteorological Society and is reproduced here with their permission)

I spend a lot of time reading scientific papers. They are one of the main ways in which science is communicated within the academic discipline, and also one of the ways in which academics productivity is measured. Away from work therefore, I generally find it hard to summon enthusiasm for reading anything vaguely science related. However, for Christmas this year I asked for 3 of the books on the shortlist for the Royal Society’s Winton Prize for Science Books prize. I looked forward to reading these initially because of my interest in science writing, but somewhat to my surprise I quickly found myself intrigued by the science within the first one.


“Bird Sense” by Tim Birkhead discusses the evidence that birds use each of seven senses; seeing, hearing, touch, taste, smell, magnetic sense, and emotion. It is hard to say why such a topic captured my imagination but its considerable distance from my own research area certainly contributed. Imagine my surprise then to find the familiar topic of dimethyl sulphide (DMS) and even a familiar name within such a book.


DMS is a gas that is most well known as a component of the smell produced when cooking cabbage or beetroot. It is also produced at sea when phytoplankton are eaten by zooplankton (e.g. krill), the gas being first dissolved in seawater and then released to the atmosphere. Once oxidised in the marine atmosphere it is a major natural source of sulphate aerosol in the marine atmosphere and may go on to affect clouds and have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate (therein lies the link to my research area). Oceanic DMS emissions account for something like 15% of the global sulphur emissions to the atmosphere and are a significant fraction of the sulphur emissions particularly in the southern hemisphere mid-latitudes. These emissions are a major player in the supposed CLAW feedback loop between atmosphere and ocean whereby climate change leads to changes in DMS emissions which then alter climate themselves, although the magnitude and even the sign of this feedback is the subject of much debate.


Thus DMS is an important component of the marine atmosphere, but what does it have to do with bird senses? Seabirds in particular travel over very long distances to search for food, but many unerringly navigate safely back to their breeding grounds. Well, it could be that DMS is in fact providing a smell map by which seabirds can find their way home. Even more fascinating is the fact that this link was made via a chance encounter of biologist Gaby Nevitt with an atmospheric scientist, Tim Bates. Following an injury on a research cruise, Nevitt stayed on the ship whilst it was being prepared for a DMS transect cruise and saw the measurements of DMS across the ocean by Tim’s group. Subsequently, Nevitt and colleagues measured elevated heartbeats in birds exposed to air containing DMS and noted that the flight patterns of albatrosses were consistent with birds attempting to locate a breeding ground by smell, i.e. zigzagging across a plume rather than flying in a straight line (which would be more consistent with navigating by sight). So, far from escaping from work, I found aerosols deep in the depths of a book about bird behaviour, and a story of two science worlds colliding to produce a step change in understanding. I wonder what I will find in the other two books?

ImageImage and more information from the Nevitt Lab

Bird Sense What it’s like to be a bird by Tim Birkhead, Bloomsbury Press 2013
Bonadonna et al (2006) Journal of Experimental Biology, 209, 2165-9

Do as I say… inconsistency alert! (taking sick leave)

I’m off sick. Last week I had a conversation with a member of my staff about prioritising their health over work since in the long term this is the most important thing. I also stuck up a cartoon in our office; a flow chart telling sick graduate students to go home rather than come in. When I say or do these things to people I really believe what I am telling them. So why, when I have been kyboshed by a very bad cold which has attacked my sinuses leaving me dizzy, weak and partially deaf, was it so hard for me to phone in sick this morning? It took a fairly forceful statement from my other half along the lines of “you can’t bang on about work-life balance and be too scared to take a day’s sick leave”. He has a point. But why is it so hard for me (and probably many other academics) to take sick leave?

Obviously others may have their own reasons, but here are mine:

  1. I know that when I’m off sick, I am getting behind on my endless to-do lists, including 4 major projects that I’m really keen on developing and have deadlines in May and.June. I’ll have to find the time from somewhere else… I don’t know where… .
  2. As Head of Academic Staff, I also tend to know when others are overworked or overwhelmed, and last week I said I would cover for two such individuals temporarily but now I can’t
  3. It’s hard to stop thinking about work, and for me that tends to be thinking about the negative and worrying parts rather than anything more constructive
  4. If I have meetings arranged, I don’t like letting people down and there will be a knock on effect later in the week/month
  5. Admitting I’m sick is admitting I cannot control everything… (loads in that one….)
  6. Our family life is generally so finely balanced, that someone being ill can throw everything out
  7. If I’m sick, then there is a chance that one of the small people will get sick too… which will mean more time off… (go to 1 above)

Of course if I was looking at this list presented to me by other people, I would be saying that:

  • The worst thing that can happen for you, work and your family is for you to get properly sick because you have pushed it too far. Get better now, and you’ll achieve more in the long run
  • No-one will thank you for being in and spreading germs around the office, especially in those meetings!
  • Nothing disastrous is likely to happen in the course of 2 days, and if it does, there are people who will cover for you because that is what this department is like.
  • If you absolutely must, you can read email from home to reassure yourself that nothing disastrous is happening (this probably would only be said to people with leadership roles who I know would recover better for 30 mins spent dealing with emails compared to fretting about stuff)
  • Everyone gets sick at some point – we are all human. Yes. Even you. We like humans.
  • Perhaps you’ve got too much on your plate at the moment… is there something that can be put on the shelf for the time being so that you can give yourself some recovery time?

This year I even identified the need for building in some resilience into all areas of my life. 3 months in to “Project Resilience” I think I still have a way to go to accepting and achieving this at least in terms of my working life and style. (And yes, I know that writing this while off sick is a bit questionable too…)

World Book Day – My women in science bookshelf

In honour of World Book Day and International Women’s Day both occurring this week, here is the list of books that I have either about women scientists or written by women about science, scientists or academia (or any combination of the above). This is not to say I don’t have many excellent books written by men or about male scientists (well actually I don’t have too many of the latter type to be honest but I’m sure they exist).

About Female Scientists

“Dorothy Hodgkin A Life” by Georgina Ferry (I have read and reread this one)

“Mary Somerville, Science, Illumination and the Female Mind” by Kathyrn A. Neeley

“Pythagoras’ Trousers (God, Physics, and the Gender Wars)” by Margaret Werthem

“Rosalind Franklin and DNA” by Anne Sayre

“The Bride of Science (Romance, Reason and Byron’s Daughter)” by Benjamin Woolley

“Nobel Prize Women in Science (Their lives, struggles and momentous discoveries)” by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

“Rosalyn Yalow Her Life and Work in Medicine” by Eugene Straus, M.D.

“Rosalind Franklin The Dark Lady of DNA” by Brenda Maddox

“Out of the Shadows; Contributions of twentieth century women to physics” Edited by Nina Byers and Gary Williams

“Lisa Meitner A life in physics” by Ruth Lewin Sime

Women writing about science, scientists and explorers (see also some of the above!)

“The Secret Life of Dust” by Hannah Holmes (the book I wish I’d written)

“The Northern Lights” by Lucy Jago

“Galileos’s Daughter A drama of science, faith and love” by Dava Sobel (also wrote “Longitude”)

“Ice Bound One woman’s incredible battle for survival at the South Pole” by Jerri Nielsen

“Mrs P’s Journey” by Sarah Hartley

“The Coldest March” by Susan Solomon

Women in academia

“Negotiating the Glass Ceiling. Careers of Senior Women in the Academic World” Edited by Miriam David and Diana Woodward

“Surviving the academy Feminist Perspectives” Edited by Danusia Malina and Sian Maslin-Prothero

World Book Day Fest

International Women's Day


How (not) to manage my time.

Time management has been a long term challenge for me. I am a classic multi-tasker, love “to do” lists but can procrastinate for England. The challenge increased when I took on the Head of Department role, as the number of meetings and “interruptions” multiplied. Last year I found it really hard to carve out any lengthy period of time in order to focus on any one task. So in October, I resolved to try some time management techniques (again) to see what I could achieve. The basic plan was to ring-fence two 3 hour periods each week, protecting them from meetings and telling my PA that only in exceptional circumstances was I available. I originally had the idea that these would be designated “research time” and I would actually get some hands-on analysis or coding time. The reality is that although many parts of my role have benefited from a focussed period, e.g. designing the work-load model, reviewing a paper, planning a lecture, preparing a proposal or writing a blog, hands-on analysis time is still lacking. But there are many ways to “do” research, and in reality there are plenty of people better at the hands-on stuff than me these days. Last term this seemed to work fairly well. Most weeks I managed to keep at least one of these periods free and spend a blissful 3 hours immersed in one of my “important, not urgent” tasks.

Last week however, this aim led to a spectacular own goal. The flip-side of ring-fencing time is that the myriad of meetings ends up crammed into the remaining days. For some years I’ve tried to put all my research meetings on one morning or afternoon. I still like to touch base with all my postdocs and PhD students weekly whenever I can so when I succeed in lining them up, it can mean 4 or 5 hours of successive meetings on related but quite different topics. Although I am usually tired at the end of them, it is exhilarating to be thinking about so many interesting questions, and I get to talk to lots of enthusiastic people (most of the time). Last week however, I thought I was being “efficient” in lining up 5 hours plus of administration related meetings back-to-back on both Thursday and Friday. On Thursday I went from Head of Department meeting to budget meeting to staff meeting to Royal Meteorological Society committee meeting. On Friday it was 2 research meetings, a staff review and the school steering committee. As a result, by Friday night it felt like all I had done for two days was collect action items, and no space between meetings meant I couldn’t tackle even the smallest of these. I went home feeling panicky and dissatisfied about the working week and woke at 5 am stressing about my work “to-do” list – something that usually only happens in the 3 weeks leading to a field campaign.

Reflecting on this from a little distance I can now see my mistake. Whilst back to back research meetings work on the whole, back to back admin meetings don’t. Firstly, with the best will in the world, I don’t tend to pick up any concrete action items from meetings with my postdocs and PhD students (wise on their part). It is entirely appropriate that I pick up actions from the leadership and administrative meetings that I had at the end of last week. But I was surprised how quickly the list became lengthy and how overwhelming it felt to have no opportunity to do anything about them. Secondly, my research supervision meetings tend to take place in my own office or at least nearby. The admin meetings of last week took place in other buildings and rooms, with no escape to my pictures and my coffee mug. So, although I continue to ring-fence “no-interruptions” time, and would recommend this, I also have to be vigilant that by doing so I am not storing up trouble and stress for the rest of the week. Some weeks, it may just have to not happen. Finally, if I do have to stack up these meetings, it might be better to stack them at the start of the week so that the weekend isn’t destroyed by worrying.

It’s probably also a good idea to end this reflection by identifying the time management successes. I find the Important/Urgent matrix (See an explanation here ) very useful, although invariably end up with too much in the “important AND urgent box”, and find it hard to put time in on the  “important but not urgent” tasks. I also find that turning off my email for most of the day (or even just minimising the window) limits distractions, and I no longer have my twitter account open on my desktop. If I want to spend time brainstorming about something, then moving to one of the campus cafes is the best way to do it. It frees me from the feeling that I should be ticking off things on the urgent list, and the buzz of being surrounded by students somehow both grounds and energises me.

Right, so, it’s Thursday again. It took me until last night to get back to grips with everything from the end of last week. So what does today look like? Hmm… perhaps next week will be different.

Ada Lovelace Day 2013: Which female scientists inspire us?

Ada Lovelace, 19th century British mathematici...

Ada Lovelace, 19th century British mathematician (1836). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is Ada Lovelace Day* <http://findingada.com/> which aims to raise the profile of women working in STEM
subjects across the globe.

I emailed my list of women scientists whom I have admired, or from whom I have drawn inspiration to my work colleagues, and now I’m posting it here. Each of them are admired for different qualities or acheivements, and by no means do I admire 100% of any of many of them. Also, I do draw inspriation from male scientists and engineers and from non-scientists, but I list the women here in honour of Ada Lovelace Day. I have added in purple suggestions sent by my colleagues in response to my original email. Thank you!

The fore-runners
Laura Bassi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura_Bassi
Rosalind Franklin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosalind_Franklin
Marie Curie http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/curie_marie.shtml
Dorothy Hodgkin http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1964/hodgkin-bio.html (recommend excellent biography by Georgina Ferry)
Lise Meitner http://www.atomicarchive.com/Bios/Meitner.shtml
Rosalind Yalow http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1977/yalow-bio.html
Mary Anning (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/science-of-natural-history/biographies/mary-anning/)
Beatrice Tinsley http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beatrice_Tinsley
Caroline Herschel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Herschel )
Elisabeth Mann-Borgese http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisabeth_Mann-Borgese
Marie Tharp (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Tharp)
Emmy Noether http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmy_Noether

Todays women
Athene Donald   http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athene_Donald  her blog is great
Uta Frith http://www.ucl.ac.uk/histmed/audio/neuroscience/frith
Jocelyn Bell Burnell http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jocelyn_Bell_Burnell
Georgina Mace http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgina_Mace
Ann Druyan  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Druyan

And in my/our fields:
Joanne Malkus Simpson http://blog.ametsoc.org/uncategorized/nothing-will-stop-her-from-being-a-meteorologist/
Jerri Nielsen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerri_Nielsen
Julia Slingo http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/our-scientists/senior-scientists/julia-slingo
Lesley Gray http://www2.physics.ox.ac.uk/contacts/people/grayl
Susan Solomon http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Solomon
Jo Haigh http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joanna_Haigh
Gabi Hegerl http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/geosciences/people?cw_xml=person.html&indv=1613
Ulrike Lohmann http://www.iac.ethz.ch/people/ulohmann
Dorothy  M Koch (not the one you find on wikipedia)
Liane Benning http://www.see.leeds.ac.uk/people/l.benning
Dian Seidel http://www.met.sjsu.edu/seidel.html
Karin Labitzke http://www.egu.eu/awards-medals/vilhelm-bjerknes/2011/karin-labitzke/
Helen Byrne http://www.maths.ox.ac.uk/node/16484
Sarah Waters http://people.maths.ox.ac.uk/waters/Waters/Dr_Sarah_Waters.html
Kathryn Gillow http://www.maths.ox.ac.uk/people/profiles/kathryn.gillow
Diane Maclagan. http://homepages.warwick.ac.uk/staff/D.Maclagan/

To contribute to the Guardian’s celebration of women in science, see http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2013/oct/08/ada-lovelace-day-share-your-stories-of-women-in-science-and-technology

Also, several people pointed out that Wikipedia entries for female scientists are generally a lot less extensive than those for men. Projects to remedy this such as that at
Brown University http://jezebel.com/lady-scientists-organize-mass-wikipedia-edit-to-honor-a-1443894109

try to redress the balance.

Finally, there are also voices  questioning whether historical figures should be used in this way, e.g. http://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2013/oct/15/women-science-history-ada-lovelace-day#comment-27951379

*Ada Lovelace was a leading 19th century mathematician, daughter of the poet Lord
Byron and described herself as a “poetical scientist”. She is often described as the first computer programmer, although this is a matter of debate. She has left a lasting legacy as a role model for women around the world working in
science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). And  in 2012 she was
honoured by a Google doodle

Climate poetry

In honour of National Poetry Day and inspired by the Royal Society meeting on “Next Steps in Climate” here is my rather un-sophisticated summary of the meeting in poem form.

The climate is a-changing

We observe that it is so

Surface temperatures are rising

AND there is less of ice and snow

We climate scientist are (95%) confident

That human emissions are involved

But there is still room for further study

Some puzzles remain unsolved

Aerosols and fluffy cloud

Deep ocean heat uptake too

Need more obs and better models

I accept the challenge. Do you?