Monday, 29 November 2010

The Real Deal

Over the next few weeks I'm hoping to build up an idea of the "real deal" of what it is like to work as a female research scientist. I'm looking for women from all levels of career - whether a PhD student or professor - and from lots of different research areas. The only pre-requisite is that you are passionate about your subject and have an interesting story to tell!

If you or someone you know fits this category - please leave me a comment. I'll be conducting short interviews via email.

To give you a taster, a couple of questions you might get asked include:

- Why did you become a scientist?
- What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?
- What is the best/worst thing about your job?
- What do you enjoy other than science?

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Physics and music: what is the connection?

Reading a few popular science books when I was younger, I remember learning that Richard Feynman played the bongo and Albert Einstein played the violin. Since then I’ve discovered many more examples of brilliant physicists who were also musicians. So is there something about the skills, mindset or attitude of physicists that make them good musicians?
Today I discovered that a group of people at CERN who work on the ATLAS experiment have recorded an album called Resonance. Even though I used to work on ATLAS, just for the record, I’m not involved the album! That said, I’m still going to give it a blatant plug – so go and buy it, proceeds go to charity.
Resonance - click the image for their website.

Most of my friends and colleagues who I’ve studied or worked with in physics are musical. I know so many singers, guitarists and pianists that it’s somewhat surprising I hadn’t really noticed it before. My only excuse for not noticing is that maybe other common themes - like the high proportion of men or the tendency for many physicists to ignore the entire fashion industry (their own peril) – were more noticeable to me at the time.
Perhaps I haven’t noticed because I am musical myself so I’ve been used to having lots of musical friends. Whatever the reason, I suppose I should have realised the trend when I found out that the physics department at Oxford have their own choir. The choir only rehearses and performs at Christmas for the departmental carol service, but I think its existence says something about the tendency for physicists to be musical. But why is that the case?
If we wanted to be pragmatic we would hold off the question “why?” until a proper study is done of the statistical significance of physicists who are musical. If you know of such a study – leave me a comment!
For the sake of argument though, if such a study revealed the trend that physicists are, indeed, more musical than the general population, then the “why?” question becomes more important.
In many ways, being a physicist is like being a musician. It requires a lot of patience, a willingness to get things wrong and to learn from mistakes. Research itself is often quite a creative process. In a similar way to music it requires its own language and way of expressing itself.
On the other hand, when I sing or when I hear my friends play I’m sure they aren’t thinking about the fractional relationships between frequencies or the exact subdivisions of rhythms. Most of them are probably using music as a bit of a release from their everyday activities. In this sense, being a physicist is completely different from being a musician.
My opinion? Many physicists will tell you that there is something beautiful and elegant about the workings of the universe, even if we don’t fully understand it. Perhaps it is the similarity between this and the beauty of good music that draws us in? It can be hard to admit it, but maybe we physicists are just a little bit romantic.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Could I use my mobile phone as a particle accelerator?

We all know the sound well. All is peaceful, driving along in the car or sitting in a room listening to a speaker… and all the sudden “blip bzzzzz blaaaaar bzzzzzz”. Something starts buzzing. We all know why; there’s a mobile phone nearby. This noise has somehow become a part of our everyday lives but why does it happen?
If you were an early mobile phone user you might have noticed that they didn’t have the same effect – so it has to do with the GSM phones that we (mostly) use now. There are three things which need to happen together the cause the buzzing:
1.     A pulsing radio transmitter
To connect to the tower and your network, your mobile phone sends out little bursts or pulses of information around 200 times per second (200 Hz). Each of the pulses have a frequency in the radio range, so the signals themselves oscillate millions of times per second – in the MHz range. So this is a ‘pulsing radio transmitter’.
2.     Relatively strong power
Compared to original analog phones, newer mobile phones give out a stronger signal strength as they don’t give it out continuously – as I said above it is ‘pulsed’. For most GSM networks the peak power of the pulses is about 8 times the average power. So we have a relatively strong power source.
3.     Close to a particular type of electronic element
The particular element in the circuit of a speaker which picks up the signal can vary, but it’s usually some solid state device like a diode or a transistor. When the strong pulsed radio signal is near it, the circuit element can detect the pulses and amplify, then send them to the speaker so we can hear the pulsed signal.
The pulses which are amplified come at 200 Hz, and since Middle C on the piano is 261.63 Hz, it is no surprise that we can hear it!
By now you’re probably wondering, given the title of this post: “Could I use my mobile phone as a particle accelerator??”
Particle accelerators use RF (radio frequency) waves to accelerate particles – similar to the ones that are used by your mobile phone. To give a particle some energy, you need a cavity – which is basically a hollow metal box.
When a wave of the right number of oscillations per second enters the cavity, it bounces back and forth within the cavity, with low loss. In physics we call this a standing wave. As more wave energy enters the cavity, it adds to the standing wave, creating a ‘resonance’.
What happens when we put a particle through the cavity? If we time it just right, the particle will always see a ‘peak’ of the wave and will gain a little bit of energy from it. If we didn’t time it right, the particle would lose energy to the wave and slow down. Fortunately, we’re very good at timing these things precisely!
An LHC RF cavity which works at 400 MHz. Photo courtesy of CERN.
The particle only gains a little bit of energy each time, so it’s useful if we have a circular accelerator where the particles go through the cavity again and again, gaining more energy each time. This is what happens in accelerators like the Diamond Light Source (using electrons) or ISIS (using protons), and even in the LHC. We can also use more than one cavity, the one in the picture has (I think) four cavities in one, and we can place them end-to-end. It’s a game of weighing up the cost of more cavities with how long your particles will take to accelerate.
So is it possible to just connect up a mobile phone to the cavity and accelerate particles? It would be great (and make my life as an accelerator physicist a lot easier!) but unfortunately it’s a question of power.
A mobile phone handset has a peak output power of about 2 Watts. The LHC cavities require a power of around 300 kW per cavity – so you would need the same power as 150,000 mobile phones!
So unfortunately, it looks like it isn’t going to happen any time soon. But in the meantime, I find it fascinating that the LHC and my mobile phone are, at least in some way, based on the same technology.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The end of an amazing journey

It’s drizzly outside and I have a headache but make no mistake; today is a very good day! Yesterday, for three hours I somehow managed to defend my thesis against the onslaught of questions from my examiners and emerge at the other end. OK so I emerged slightly shaken, mostly from my own nerves, but still alive. It wasn’t so bad, after all.

It would have been nice if there was a clear moment when you’re told “you’ve passed, it’s over”, but the official decision is the University’s, not the examiners, so instead you get the rather long mouthful of “we are convinced that you have fulfilled the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and we will be making a positive recommendation that you take leave to supplicate for the degree.” It’s a big mouthful of words but for most purposes, it means the same thing.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the rush of emotion brought on by those slightly archaic but necessary words. It hadn’t dawned on me that I had moved 17,000 kilometers from home and spent three years working toward that moment. With hindsight I can see why it had that effect, but at the time the sudden feeling that I was going to burst into tears came as a bit of a shock!

The champagne followed, naturally, which is why today I find myself in a slightly headachy state. Despite that and the drizzle, I am really happy to have finally finished. I know many PhD students get to the end and struggle to say they enjoyed it but I really did. I’ve had some amazing opportunities, been to incredible places and met many of the top people in my field.

It’s been an amazing journey and I have so many people to thank for making it the unforgettable three years that it’s been. Here’s hoping that the next three will be just as good.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Onsen and Okonomiyaki

The things that challenge research scientists are sometimes nothing to do with the lab. This week I've had the privilege of being in Japan (near Osaka) for the week to attend a small conference - or workshop - with experts in my specific field.

I'd have to say I love the opportunities to travel that come with being part of an international research field - in fact, this is my second trip to Japan this year. But it's not all fun and games. In Japan, manners and etiquette are crucial, especially for women. Of course, most of us are aware of this before we arrive but can sometimes be presented with situations which are a kind of clash-of-cultures.

Just going for lunch brings us the dilemma of how to choose a table. Around this area the restaurants are mostly the front room of a persons house. Do we sit cross-legged at a Japanese style table or on stools or chairs at the bar? For me this week I've had no choice, I managed to ruin my knee on the flight over so physically can't sit on the floor. Unfortunately this has lead to a lot of hand-waving explanations as to why I have to sit on a chair. Then of course we have to find a Japanese colleague to explain the menu options to us. Lunch takes about an hour or more, but of course the food is fabulous. I particularly enjoyed the local speciality of Okonomiyaki. I'm told it's a Japanese version of pizza but really its like a very flavoursome pancake or omlette with ingredients of your choice and lots of sauces with it.

Okonomiyaki - or 'japanese pizza'. A speciality around Osaka.

Other things to remember (often not easy while completely jet-lagged) are when it is appropriate to wear shoes and when to wear slippers. When to take off the slippers. Not blowing your nose in front of other people, covering your mouth when laughing (mostly for women), bringing a gift for the host, not pointing your chopsticks or leaving them upright in your meal (this means death), not pouring your own drink and then (for women, again) pouring it using both hands... the list is quite long, trust me!

Thankfully I'm familiar with most of these and it comes fairly naturally to me now, but I've certainly seen colleagues or friends make more than a few blunders. Even people who have been here many times can lapse back to their 'normal' etiquette without thinking about it.

Which brings me to the question of when it is appropriate to get naked with your colleagues. It'd be a fair bet that in most countries the answer is "never". So it was quite a challenge to western sensibilities to have our banquet last night at a venue with an Onsen - or hot spring. This one was particularly nice as it was outdoors in the mountains, though thankfully men and women were separated. There were only a small handful of women at this workshop and I think all of us (apart from one) went in - although only two of us were not Japanese. I only wish we were less prudish in the 'west' as it was a lovely kind-of 'back to nature' experience being outdoor in the night bathing in water from a naturally hot spring. My only warning to people with pale skin is that you will come out looking decidedly similar to a lobster. All part of the fun.

The rest of the evening was an absolute blast, with a huge multi-course feast including abalone and some very expensive mushrooms. The beer and sake flowed freely and I think we all enjoyed ourselves. This morning (yes, it's Sunday) we're back to the workshop for concluding remarks and summaries and then we're off back home. Or in my case - shopping for a day, then home.

View of a temple rock garden in Kouyasan (taken in black and white with red highlight).

Thursday, 21 October 2010

I thought I was an optimist

I thought I was an optimist, but it seems that for the most part, yesterday's CSR is being welcomed by scientists. Once again the question remains of how STFC will fare from this, but it seems that my usual optimism had a little trip up yesterday. I'd have to say it didn't trip without a good reason. In fact, if I were more skeptical than I am, I might even think - as a friend suggested to me yesterday - that we'd been expectation managed. Our outcome seems "less bad" because we were told to "prepare for the worst". Just a thought.

Anyway, I'm back to trying to study for my DPhil viva, writing a lecture for the graduate accelerator physics course and writing a plenary talk for a workshop in Japan next week. Looking forward to some great Japanese food - not looking forward to the long haul flight. I just hope I recover in time to face my viva shortly after I get back!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The science doghouse

Today, scientists in the UK and particularly those in the financially strained Science and Technology Facilites Council are awaiting the toll of the death bell. Well, near enough anyway, as George Osborne is about to announce the spending review. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this government’s actions are anticipated to bring swinging cuts to both higher education and scientific research budgets.

For higher education the outlook is bleak with expected cuts of about £3bn for teaching and £1bn for research. It seems to me that the strength of the top UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge is their ability to provide first class teaching – especially one to one tutorials. They already struggle to afford this financially. Their other strength of course is their world-leading (and world-beating) research, which is also in trouble as they rely on public funds for much of it.

But the government tries to cheer us up by telling us that the education budget for schools has been ring-fenced. All this tells me is that we’re giving those students who make it through their A-levels a chance to enter universities which are most definitely on the way down in terms of teaching and research.

I’m an optimist but I’m still envisioning UK universities sliding down the ranking tables, being less attractive to international and fee-paying students, a loss of income from these students and basically: a downward spiral. Don’t even get me started on the uncapped fee structure – at this point I’ve concede we’re going to need it to survive.

So now to the science budget, which according to the news is not all doom and gloom. The BBC this morning have announced that science cuts will be ‘less than feared’. In general this is a good thing. But anything other than a real terms increase in cash for the STFC at this stage sends us further into the depression that we’ve entered since its creation.

STFC scientists have been offered what I can only call “carrots” - funding dangled in front of our noses in the vain hope that we'll keep trotting along. I put pledged funding for Diamond light source in this category. Equally though, there have been a number of scare rumours going around about “shutting down an existing facility such as ISIS” – which scares me, as there goes my partner’s job! To most of us, pledged funding in one area just means that its becoming more likely that our area is going to be decimated. No hard feelings to the Diamond team though…

All my fellow PhD students in particle physics and accelerator physics are going to be looking for jobs in the next year or two and I fear that there just won’t be any. Most labs (such as RAL) already have hiring freezes. New post-docs in universities aren’t being created because no new projects are being funded right now. The only option seems to be moving abroad to countries with governments who have some understanding of the economic worth of science.

But what worth is that to the UK? Our taxes pay to put these people through undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and then there are no jobs for them when they finish. It’s cost us the price of a house (or more) to educate them – and we’re just going to let them leave to our competitors!? It seems not just sad to me, it seems downright stupid.

Moving here from Australia back in 2007, I didn’t envision that within the scope of my PhD the UK would move from science powerhouse to science doghouse. It’s a sad day all round for Britain. I think I’m too depressed to work.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

The pleasure of finding things out

I am in the privileged position of being about to embark on three exciting years of research of my own devising. I say the ‘privileged position’ because it’s not very often that a researcher is able to do this straight after finishing a PhD. Most scientists, if they want to continue in research, have their work cut out for them – so to speak – by the research group or grant holder who have hired them as a ‘post-doc’ - a postdoctoral researcher. Of course, this may be exactly what the scientist wanted to work on and in any case is probably very interesting, but it’s quite different from my new job. 

In the UK a small number of fellowship schemes exists where an early career scientist can be paid to do research based on their own proposal. Even then, many of them require at least a few years of postdoctoral research before letting you loose with your own ideas. My fellowship comes from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 – that is, it will come from them, assuming that I pass my PhD viva! (Not long to go now…)

It is a great honor to be given one of these fellowships, but not surprisingly, it is a daunting prospect. I hope that my years of training as a scientist will mean that I’m prepared to take on the challenge. Nevertheless, it is a bit like standing on the end of a huge diving board when you’ve pleaded and cajoled your way into being the one allowed to do the dive. It’s exciting, but scary at the same time. What if I’m approaching the topic in the wrong way? What if I’m not ‘smart’ enough? At this stage, naturally, I have a lot more questions than answers…

In preparation for the research topic I’ll be working on, I realised a number of months ago that there was a biennial workshop being held which I thought would be a great way to get a handle on the current status of the field and what other people are working on. You never know, I thought, it might even give me an idea of where to start. 

As I’m kind of in limbo between PhD and post-doc, I applied to the organisers for funding to attend the workshop and was lucky enough to get it. So in a final push I managed to get my PhD thesis in on the Thursday before the workshop and flew to Zurich on the Sunday to get to Morschach, Switzerland for the ICFA Advanced Beam Dynamics Workshop on High-Intensity and High-Brightness Hadron Beams. Yes, that sounds exciting to me. Just so you know.

Naturally, all I wanted to do after handing in my thesis was to have a holiday. But no such luck – as it was an intensive workshop with talks from 8am to 6pm most days. In fact, on at least one day I watched 18 different speakers! There was quite a lot to get my head around but thankfully I came away having learned a lot and with two definite things that I can look at when I start.

But I have to share with you the highlight of the workshop. For me, this was a particular talk which literally gave me goosebumps. Not because it was cold (we were half way up a mountain, after all), but genuinely because I had the experience of really finding out about something new. It was a talk which took everything I knew about designing particle accelerators and almost turned it on its head.

The talk, if you’re interested, was based on this paper. The basic idea they were talking about is not necessarily new, but what was exciting was that for the first time, they seem to have come up with a way of taking what seemed a purely theoretical idea and putting it into practice. What they were talking about is a completely different way of designing particle accelerators and one that until the talk, I’d never heard of or thought about before. 

It opened my eyes to a whole new idea, which – even if it doesn’t work in the end – was an experience that I won’t forget for a while. For that half hour, I suddenly remembered why it is that I do science. It’s not just so that I can help people through the applications of my work, it certainly isn’t to make money! When it comes down to why I get up every day, it is (to take a famous quote and make it my own) the pure pleasure of finding things out.

So with that as inspiration, I am now revising for my PhD viva and really looking forward to embarking on the next few years of research. It will be hard, exhausting and sometimes frustrating but at the end of the day I will have contributed to human knowledge through my own curiosity. To me, there couldn’t be a better job than that.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The faithful lab book - time for a makeover?

My black n' red lab book
What does your lab book look like? For the last three years mine have been the good old "black n' red" variety. Not that there is anything wrong with them, they are very practical... but practicality isn't everything. Wouldn't it be nice to have a lab book that reflects your personality?

I've been on the hunt recently for lovely looking A4 hard bound notebooks to replace my army of stores-issued drab lab books. Actually, what I wanted was a cream coloured notebook. Or even just a nice patterned one that wasn't too girly and childish and could be used in the lab. My requirements were than it had to be hard bound, not spiral bound, as anyone will tell you that the spiral bound ones will get ruined the first time you try to slip them into your bag. It had to be a nice(-ish) colour and it definitely had to be A4 size, large enough to stick in plots.

I have to say, it was much harder than I imagined. I didn't come up with much, particularly because I wanted one in A4 size, but here's what I did find:

If you'd just like a plain coloured hard bound notebook in black, purple, red or blue you can find them at WH Smith for less than £5.

Moleskine large notebook
For something a bit more special, although black and slightly softer bound, Moleskine do beautiful books which will set you back around £15.

These weren't for me though, as I wanted something a little bit more colourful. I tried Paperchase, but to no avail - they were all too childish or too girly, not really a great look in the lab. Though I am considering picking up a few of their cloth-bound smaller notebooks for other uses.

I also found Pod, who do a beautiful array of notebooks if you are after them for home, rather than for work. They stock the Cavallini range, shown here. They aren't quite A4 but they are nice looking journals or notebooks.

At Papernation I found a gorgeous leather A4 journal, though in brown only and at a cost of around £80. (Update: Papernation seem to have disappeared since writing this)

At this point though I felt I was going a little bit off track, and hadn't yet found any suitable lab books! Then, finally I found something which might (almost) fit the bill: Roger La Borde. They are still a bit girly and are plain pages rather than lined, but at £8.50 for the A4 ones, they are reasonably priced and will brighten up your day in the lab. I could only find the A4 notebooks at Paperfly and Papernation in the UK, my local stockist had recently stopped selling them. Do let me know if you find them for sale anywhere else.

And that was it - I didn't find anything else worthy of note. If you know of any fantastic hard bound notebooks which you'd like to share with me, do leave me a comment. I'm determined to spend my days writing in something more inspiring than the standard issue lab books!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Girls in physics

Why are there fewer women than men in physics? And... is it actually a problem? 

What women want in a job and what physics can offer them can sometimes seem to be completely opposed, especially for those women with a desire to start a family. This morning I met 22 female A-level students who offered suggestions on why this might be and more importantly, what they think should be done about it.

I ran this morning’s session with Joanne Walker and Jo Barstow from Atmospheric & Planetary Physics at Oxford, for a group of 22 female A-level students. Most of the girls are studying physics but all have come to Oxford for a couple of days to learn more about Women in Science.
To kick off, we asked the girls to write down adjectives describing the job they would like to have one day. The words they came up with included “interesting, challenging, varied, social and flexible” among others. We then asked them whether or not they thought these words described a career in physics. Apart from challenging and interesting, most of the words got a tepid response from the girls when they thought about physics as a job.

Prior to the session Jo, Joanne and myself had come up with words to describe our (current or future) job. For example, mine were “creative, diverse, respected and international” to describe my (hopefully) future job as a research scientist and lecturer. Notably, many of our words overlapped with the words the girls had come up with. I was surprised this worked as well as it did - but I guess the fact that none of the girls had listed ‘lucrative’, ‘easy’ or ‘menial’ made the task much easier. I think employers underestimate the extent to which good students value the intellectual challenge of a job, rather than just settling for long and stressful working hours in some highly-paid city job.

We then went on to discuss with the girls the ‘problem’ of low numbers of women in physics, particularly at higher levels, highlighted by the fact that they could name only one female physicist (living or dead) - Marie Curie. Needless to say they could name more than 15 male physicists (they had done, in a quiz the night before).

The challenge? To get more women into physics. The solutions? Here is what the girls suggested:

“Years 7-9 in school seem to be the tipping point when students decide they don’t like physics. Chemistry is exciting with lots of explosions and colourful experiments. Biology introduces us to the human body and even if it’s gory, that will get the attention of students. So what about physics? Cars or balls rolling down inclines planes, or drawing a radiator to illustrate convection currents just doesn’t stand up to the other sciences at this level. It is as if physics simply falls by the wayside. Getting students more interested at this level might help them to see the relevance and excitement of physics.”

“News and TV programs usually seem to show men doing science. Even if there are less women doing physics, they should be equally represented in the media to provide both male and female role models. That said, Brian Cox’s ‘Wonders of the Solar System’ wouldn’t have been as popular with a female presenter - simply because there aren’t any as well known as Brian.”

“Encourage more physics graduates to teach in schools. We want teachers who are passionate about their subject and have a degree in it, even when we are in GCSE. It shows if they don’t, and it puts us off studying the subject further.”

“More should be done to make sure that women (and men) who want to have a family are able to re-enter research or do it part-time alongside bringing up young kids. Bursaries, grants and a bit of an attitude-change in research environments would really help achieve this.”

I thought the girls suggestions were insightful and right on the mark. It certainly made me think about where I should be aiming my efforts in outreach and what I should be campaigning for in terms of flexible working in the future. These girls are bringing the right kind of thinking into making decisions about their own career choices, and I hope each and every one of them achieves what they want to in their careers, and their lives.