Getting on my soapbox

At 12 noon exactly I stepped onto my soapbox and surveyed the vast expanse of unpopulated concrete between me and the River Thames. 3 boxes to my right, another female scientist had already pulled in an audience with her flagella balloons. With a deep breath I lifted my empty water bottle high and started “Who can tell me what’s in this bottle?” Some people drifted in my direction, and I was off on my SoapboxScience adventure.

SoapboxScience involves 12 female scientists taking shifts on soap boxes on public thoroughfares talking about their research and their love of science. Sort of science street theatre. WITH NO POWERPOINT. In fact no power either. The project aims to raise the profile of science and female scientists amongst the general public via the style of public debate and discussion. For the past 4 years there has been an event in London, but this year there were also sister events in Swansea, Dublin and Bristol.


My event was Sunday June 29th 2014. Our soapboxes were set up at Gabriel’s Wharf near the Southbank Centre in London. It was a beautiful sunny day, at least to start with! Sharing the first hour slot with me were experts on cheetahs, evolutionary biology and Mars exploration. My job was to spread excitement about particles in the atmosphere and their effects on weather and climate. We’d been told to prepare 10-15 minutes of “stand-up” material, with props if we wanted, and to expect people to stay listening to us for anywhere between 2 and 20 minutes. These are a few of the things I learnt from the experience:

  • Your opening pitch is really important to draw people to you.. asking a question that seems to have a simple answer but doesn’t worked well. As did a giant picture of jam donuts as a metaphor for coated soot particles (Thanks to @willtmorgan and his European Geophysical Union blog )
  • The prop that was the most useful was the one that I thought I would only use in an emergency – a set of 4 scanning electron microscope images of different aerosol particles. I got people to “pick a card” and asked the group to guess what it was. Then I spent 3 mins talking about that type of aerosol, making sure I included the main points (aerosols scatter sunlight and aerosols make clouds) in every case. However, this also meant people stayed to see all 4 pictures which meant the “dwell time” was at least 10 minutes.
  • Don’t make audience participation too contrived. I tried making an aerosol chains and balls out of humans to demonstrate the aging and coating process but it didn’t work so I dropped it after one attempt. I have an idea how to improve it for the future though so watch this space.
  • People will ask questions of all levels of sophistication – be prepared to tailor your answer appropriately
  • I prepared props that would work in the rain, but not in the wind – without my dedicated soapbox volunteer I’d have been in trouble

The scariest part was trying to stop people just walking past without stopping, but I think I talked to around 80 people in the hour I was on the box and there weren’t too many awkward gaps. The first time I looked at my watch was 45 minutes into my hour long slot, and then it was over way too soon. I’d do it again tomorrow if I could.


Sponsored in the past by L’Oreal UNESCO For Women in Science and ZSL, the two dedicated research biologists women who started it, Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli have been successful in securing government funding for Soapbox for the next few years, and plan to put on events in other cities. Possibly even Reading…

Breadth vs depth

I am feeling envious. Envious of those researchers, or research leaders, who have found a particular niche area, and who are able to spend the majority of their time there. I am at a project meeting for one of the 4 projects I am involved in at the moment. It so happens that the work my group does at the moment concerns 3 distinct geographical regions: the Sahara, the Brazilian rainforest and the South Asian monsoon. In each case, my interest is in the role that aerosol could play in driving regional weather and climate, but in each case the background is very different. On days like today, I am having to catch up with the basics of biomass burning and all the previous literature before I am even on the same page as those who are working more continuously on one area.

It ultimately comes down to the old breadth versus depth argument. Ever since I started winning research funds I have always had quite a few different strands of research on the go at any one time. This is interesting and exciting, but can be exhausting to keep up with. At one point I had people or myself working on 7 different topics. I felt like I was constantly behind on all fronts, although all projects were interesting. In the end, I breathed a sigh of relief when one or two of the projects ended. For me, breadth has worked so far, but at moments of low self-confidence I sometimes wonder whether the broad approach that I sort of fell into (possibly related to inability to say no?) was the right decision.

Breadth versus depth is an age-old discussion at all levels of education, in all fields. To me it seems necessary to have some degree of flexibility in terms of research area since the very process of doing research opens up new questions, and more pragmatically, sometimes funding is easier to come by in some areas than others.  Again, opinions amongst colleagues are divided between those who “chase” funding, and those who stick to a narrow area even if it means research grants are hard to come by (not all institutions will be totally happy about this given the way research funding is used as a metric). Most of us are somewhere in between. This variation regarding the importance of breadth vs depth has unfortunately reared its heard in discussions of potential academic hires –  in one case that I was witness to a long time ago, the breadth appeared to be valued differently depending on whether the candidate was male or female – in the case of the male, breadth was viewed as positive and creative – in the case of the female it was discussed as “lack of focus” etc. Not our finest hour…

It’s a question that I get asked by postdocs and more junior academics very frequently, not just in terms of research area, but also the balance between research, teaching experience and other academic activities. It’s also something that varies between graduate programmes in different countries , as discussed in this article by Robert A. Segal for Times Higher Education. My usual response is to say that it varies and point to examples from within our department of those who are incredibly narrowly focused, and those with a broader portfolio. There is success in both cases (but then everyone’s definition of success is different too!).

When I was a junior lecturer, my line manager at the time Prof Alan Thorpe, now Director of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, asked me to draw a map linking my various current research projects together and to identify 2 to 3 common science questions or themes. Then, each time a new opportunity presented itself, I was to use this to consider whether it was either central to one of my themes, or developing a new theme that I had in mind to expand at the expense of something else. At the time it was useful in clarifying that there were some universal themes across all 7 projects. For a few years it was helpful in giving me a reason to say “no” to some requests. I periodically review and revise this map of my strategy and still find it a useful process. I don’t think its giving too much away to show the version as at 2012 with the projects that were running then. I still have lots of things going on, but can see that at that point there was more emphasis on modelling than work with observations – perhaps a reflection of being a parent and not wanting to go away on fieldwork quite so much. Looking back at earlier versions its interesting to see how some things have evolved (the balance of modelling vs fieldwork whilst other aspects have remained more constant (the use of idealised experiments to understand processes). I wonder what future versions will look like?



Communicating with the Communciators

Did you know that eating 135g of brazil nuts gives you the same dose of radiation as one dental x-ray?  Nope, me neither. Clearly this is an example of good science communication because it has stuck with me long after I heard it in a conference session this morning.

I have spent the day at the Science Communication Conference 2014 of the British Science Association. It’s my first time at this meeting, and I’m really enjoying thinking about this aspect of my role. The key note presentation by Mat Lock (@matlock) of  described the world of digital attention, and discussed the importance of trying to relax about transgression – the lack of control that you have when and how other people share your tweets or blog posts. He emphasised that in fact, we need transgression to get our stories told to a wide audience, and that what we need to do is to develop new skill akin to comedians dealing with hecklers. Relevant to my aspirations concerning science writing, he also emphasised that the only way to be successful in the digital world is to put lots of things out there.

The importance of getting on and doing it was also emphasised in the science writing workshop by Jon Tennant (@protohedgehog), who pointed out that the only way to learn is to write, and to see what feedback you get. In that workshop we got to consider which stories might be most attractive to different audiences, and to practice converting an article abstract to a summary for the general public. We also then critiqued someone else’s attempt and got feedback on our efforts. The session on “communicating risk” was full of examples directly relevant to my research – climate change, floods and even black carbon made an appearance.  I was reminded of the importance of understanding when framing is being used to present numbers ( the difference between saying “it could be as high as” compared to “it is very unlikely to be more than”. The difference between relative and absolute risk was brought home by Gerry Thomas in the context of radiation exposure. David Speigelhalter (@d_spiegel)  introduced me to the idea of using frequency trees to express risk and demonstrated the importance of using metaphors and analogies to relate outcomes to things people understand – normalising the risk. I finished the day hearing about Zombies and robot safaris and participating in a hive mind experiment where tens of us” independently worked together” to stabilise a tightrope walker being pelted by tomatoes via hand-held clicker devices. Although I don’t plan to be organising one myself anytime soon, I now know a lot more about science festivals, as well as psychology!

It’s also been an interesting experience to attend a conference where I know no-one. Most of the attendees are professional science communicators working on a variety of outreach  or engagement projects. There are only a few academic research scientists here (question: what is the difference between a researcher and a scientist? Answer: A scientist is a researcher with added importance). This has felt like a far more interactive experience than the usual conferences I go to. I think this is probably down to three things: 1) it’s a communication conference so people communicate for the love of communicating, 2) there is a “do it” strand of workshops including the science writing one I went to and a speed-networking event; 3) there is no comfort blanket of known collaborators to wrap myself up in. I have been motivated to talk to new people, and indeed been actively encouraged (i.e. forced)  to do so.  Not usually the most confident networker, I’ve felt curiously at ease here. Perhaps it is because I have nothing to lose – there are no expectations of me and my research reputation is not on the line. Tomorrow brings sessions on representing women, informal science education and working as a freelance science communicator. And maybe more about nuts – who knows!

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