Ada Lovelace Day 2015

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, created as an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). Two years ago I wrote a blog listing women in science that had inspired me, and invited colleagues to provide their female inspirations from the STEM world. You can see the original blog here .

Since then, there has been much attention on women in STEM, from government reports, the recent People Like Me campaign from WISE, and the infamous cases of “that” shirt and Tim Hunt’s remarks, about which debate still rages.

Athene Donald posted a blog yesterday encouraging us to examine our own biases and question whether we are doing our bit to supporting the next “Ada”. Interestingly, she mentions the implicit bias tests that many of us have been prompted to take, revealing a stronger association of men with science than women. I was shocked when I found a similar result for myself last year – I had a strong implicit bias for men and career vs women and home. The exact opposite of everything that I outwardly advocate and support. Since then I have been doing much exploring about bias and irrational thinking and can recommend “Irrationality: The enemy within” by Ben Goldacre (Foreword) and Stuart Sutherland (Author). There is no easy answer as to how to guard against these biases but I am starting to understand how and when they are most likely to come into play.

Undoubtedly exposure to diverse voices and personality could play a major role in challenging our biases. Over the past 2 years, Twitter has been a key part of broadening the diversity of my network and experience. I can engage in debates, discussions and everyday life with people across the world and across disciplines in a way that would have been a challenge before social media. Today then, for Ada Lovelace Day 2015, I offer you the social media version of my inspiration list. These people have opened my eyes wider, and for that, I thank them.

  • Jedidah Isler @JedidahIslerPhD Astrophysicist and 2015 TED Fellow
  • Mika McKinnon @mikamckinnon Field geophysicist and scifi consultant amongst many others
  • Sam Cristoforetti @astrosamantha    ISS astronaut
  • Nathalie Pettorelli @Petorelli     Ecologist, @SoapboxScience co-founder – Nathalie gave me the opportunity to stand on the South Bank in London and talk about aerosols, which re-ignited my love of science communication.
  • Ruth Mottram @ruth_mottram  climate scientist and glaciologist
  • Kate Marvel @DrKateMarvel climate scientist and science writer. Ex-cosmologist
  • Raychelle Burks  @DrRubidium Analytical chemist
  • Melissa Wilson Sayres @mwilsonsayres Sex chromosomes, populations and evolution. Brilliant posts on starting/running a lab
  • Jenny Martin @JennyMartin_UQ Crystallographer
  • Emma Johnston @DrEmmaLJohnston Professor of Marine Ecology and Ecotoxicology
  • Dr Heather Williams @alrightPET Senior Medical Physicist and @SCience_Grrl Director
 And if you are looking for something to do to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day 2015, why not do one of the things on the “Just one action for women in science” list, also started by Athene.

Dean for Diversity and Inclusion

In August 2015 I took up the position of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Reading. Importantly, this role is a job share, allowing me to engage in University leadership whilst remaining part-time and keeping a link to my research. For the next 5 years I, alongside my co-Dean Professor Simon Chandler-Wilde, will be working to embed diversity and inclusion consideration and appreciation across the activities at the University of Reading.

Second year blues…

Much has been written about the  dip in confidence and perhaps achievement commonly felt by PhD students during their second year . Apparently there is a now evidence for a similar problem in the second year of undergraduate degrees. An article by national teaching fellow Claire Milsom from Liverpool John Moore’s University in the Guardian Higher Education Network  reveals that many second year undergraduates experience a period of increased dissatisfaction, confusion about academic achievements and disengagement.

In 14 years as a personal tutor I have lost count of the number of times that I have provided tissues and sympathy to distressed second year tutees. I use the phrase “well, the 2nd year IS much harder than the 1st year because we spend the first year partly bringing everyone up to the same level”, but I’ve also heard colleagues say “the real work starts in the second year”, which is a slightly different way of presenting it! Whilst this offers an explanation, it doesn’t really deal with the complexity of the issue and nor does it offer constructive suggestions to the students.

Thinking back to my own second year as a physics student, and drawing upon many conversations with tutees, it is clear, as the Guardian article points out, that several things are at work. The assessment rate and frequency and complexity tend to increase. These assessments often become more discriminating (i.e. bits of them at least are harder) in order to provide more opportunity for all students to be challenged and this can mean that differing abilities within the cohort become more apparent to students as well as staff. On top of these thoughts surrounding your academic subject and progress, well meaning tutors start to ask questions like “what you want to do when you graduate?”. We do this out of concern for the future of our students, to prompt them to make the most of the university environment to develop “employment skills” (although it is also true that rates and destinations of graduates are an important metric used in league tables etc).. Finally, budgetary concerns may well be kicking in and the need to work part time in order to eat reduces “free” time. It is easy to see how this combination can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed even before you add in any social or familial issues.

I don’t like seeing my students in this state, but apart from listening and providing tissues, it’s certainly true that I haven’t done much to be more constructive. The Guardian article suggests three ways that Universities could better support second year students:

  1.  an induction week for second years
  2. market the second year appropriately particularly over the long summer break in order to enthuse students towards upcoming content
  3. Ensure consistent academic support in terms of personal tutoring throughout the second year.

Whilst in my Department, we are still thinking about items 1 and 2, we have already made some changes to our personal tutoring system, primarily to improve effectiveness and consistency of support to all our undergraduate students. Of course every student needs a tutor, but not every academic necessarily need be a tutor. The default has been that tutees are spread out so that each academic staff member has only 1 or 2 tutees. But this year, staff were given the option of being a BSc or MSc tutor (admittedly we have very small numbers of students and so have a lot more flexibility here than many places). Those that expressed preference for tutoring undergraduates were then allocated a group of 4 or 5 students in each of year 1 and 2 and the meeting schedule changed to include both an opportunity for one to one meetings and termly group tutorial sessions facilitating peer support. Indeed these group sessions can be combined with other tutor groups.

A further opportunity to make these group sessions more meaningful has been provided by a change in the term structure at my institution this year to introduce “Enhancement Weeks” in the middle of the two long 11 week terms. The 6th week of term is now free from standard lectures and filled instead with opportunities to develop study and employment skills. On offer are activities such as: a software development course for environmental scientists, sessions on industrial placements, an entrepreneurship competition, leadership skills sessions and many others from both Departments and the University centre. Some students are obviously taking advantage of this week to develop such skills, although I have also heard much talk about recharging the batteries via sleep and catching up on assignments! Formally measuring the success of enhancement week is likely to be a non-trivial issue.

However, my most recent experience of enhancement week was positive. On a sunny Tuesday morning, our programme director and undergraduate tutor team provided a tutor facilitated session on Skills for Employment. The introduction talked about the kinds of skills that key employers in our field are looking for, and the importance of being able to provide evidence of these skills from a range of activities. The students, a mix of part 1 and part 2, then congregated with their tutors and discussed the kinds of evidence they could use in future job applications. It transpires that the current cohort of students are perhaps much more used to doing this than their lecturers were when they were students – after all personal statements on UCAS forms require much the same type of effort.  Particularly relevant to the “year 2 dip”, the group I was with discussed how even “failures” could be turned round to demonstrate positive qualities (self-development, persistence, reacting to feedback).

None of these actions are particularly profound or novel, but sometimes they don’t need to be. What made me most happy to see was the willingness of students to talk about their current and past challenges, the first year students seizing the opportunity to ask advice from the second years (how do you stop yourself getting stressed out by assignment deadlines), and the second years passing on tips to the first years (pay attention to vector calculus even if you can’t see the point – you need it next year). Building a strong community of students willing to engage in peer support, will offer another way of smoothing the lumps and bumps of student life, whether that happen in Year 2 or at any other time.

“Fika time” – taking a break

There is one thing that never fails to raise my work mood – taking a coffee or lunch break with my colleagues. Sometimes the talk is about work, and sometimes not. It usually involves laughter – which is of course a powerful mood elevator. Occasionally there is a mutual rant about something which is cathartic. After  these breaks I am often overwhelmed with gratitude for the presence of my colleagues – it’s one reason why I could never work totally from home. However, I don’t take these breaks as often as I should and whilst digging around in the files on my laptop I found something I wrote along similar lines following a work visit to Stockholm in September, but never got around to posting. Having just had a mood-enhancing coffee break, now seems like a good time.

“Fika” is a very important event in the Swedish day, and means “to take a coffee break, usually with something sweet like a cinnamon bun, with your colleagues, friends, family or date”. At my research panel meetings in Stockholm this week, we have had fika at 10am and 3 pm. My Swedish colleagues started getting twitchy around 9.45 and were noticeably watching the clock obsessively to see where to stop the discussion in order to have fika – there was no question of missing it! Our fika had small bread rolls with cheese or turkey and salad in them alongside the strong coffee. I have absolutely no idea how most of the Swedes I have met seem to be so slim and healthy looking given this fika habit, but I suspect the nature of the food has something to do with it.  The combination of protein and carbohydrate in the morning meant that I didn’t get the usual sugar rollercoaster from having sweet biscuits. Although cake was available at the afternoon “fika”, this was alongside little pots of fresh fruit salad, which were really refreshing. It was also noticeable that largely the conversations had during fika were little to do with our meeting. It seems that fika is truly a coffee “break”. I think we returned to work 15 minutes later, benefiting from having had a break from the business at hand. Swedish colleagues described it as crucial for building and maintaining relationships with their teams at work by having a short but regular opportunity to get to know what else is going on in people’s lives.

Back in the UK, our coffee area is in an open plan area next to the desks of our PhD students. When we moved over here 2 years ago (good grief), we discussed how to manage this and effectively designated “fika” times when it was acceptable to have some chat over coffee or food, giving the PhD students the freedom to object to noise outside those times. So in theory we have the opportunity to do “fika” in the same way. However, only a few people are there every day and if I’m honest I rarely make it. Perhaps this is because our time is 11am and I am usually hungry and desperate for caffeine by 10 so I have mine at my desk early and then don’t feel like stopping again until lunch time. But, after this week I am more convinced of the wider benefit of a shared and regular “fika” so I think I will try to encourage it and attend it more. Especially as we have new folks on the upper floor of our building and it would be good to get together often. Now, who can I persuade to make some tasty treats?

Clearly I haven’t yet managed to achieve a regular “fika” here, but perhaps it’s time to try again.

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!