Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Ada Lovelace Day Live!

Last night I was honoured to have the opportunity to speak at a fab event called Ada Lovelace Day Live. The event was a celebration of women in science and featured a whole host of inspirational female speakers and 'performers', from broadcaster Gia Milinovich to electronic music, theremin and robot extraordinaire Sarah Angliss.

I'd been invited along by the amazing comedy-geek-songstress Helen Arney to kick off the evening with some science demonstrations. I decided to pull together the work of some inspirational women in science and my own research (somehow!?) into a demo-packed journey through my view of some of the joys of science.

In preparation for the event the BBC paid a visit to my lab (STFC Rutherford Appleton Lab) to ask me a bit about being a woman in accelerator physics. They also interviewed three of the other speakers - you can see the video and associated article on the BBC website here.

Since I had to fit my talk into ten minutes I actually had to write it out (this is quite an unusual occurrence for me), but it does mean I have a nice record of what I said (or meant to say!) - so I thought I'd share it with you all here. I've edited it somewhat so it works better as a 'written' rather than 'spoken' piece. Enjoy!

Presenting the first diffraction pattern using a human hair. Photo: Andrew Steele (2012)

Thursday, 20 September 2012

As it happened - HB2012 Conference in Beijing - Day 4

Today I am really tired. I had to take two naps today just to get through. 

It was the last day of talks for the conference and I woke up at 4.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I went to the gym, had breakfast and attended the morning session. Then I had to skip a few talks to finish editing a long paper I had to get done by Friday, and managed a quick lunch before I decided to have the first nap for half an hour. That kept me going until about 4pm until nap number two during a gap until the final discussion session. I’ve never before been so thankful that the conference is in the same hotel as the accommodation!

It was a good day, with some new interesting ideas and questions passed around. The discussion session at the end of the day went on for over two hours (it was scheduled for one), with a few experts dominating the conversation. It was an interesting experience and despite the ‘main players’ taking over it was very valuable – most conferences are so busy you don’t get to have a proper discussion of the new and interesting issues that have been presented. It’s not practical for every conference but for a ‘workshop’ like this of maybe 150 people split into five topical groups, it is very useful.
The final discussion session for my working group. 

I’m too tired to say much more, so instead I’ll tell a story my colleague Chip (of cricket-eating fame) told us at dinner tonight:

At KEK laboratory in Japan the accelerator operators hear an alarm when there is a problem with the accelerator that needs attention. The alarm is there just in case the operators are asleep or don’t notice a flashing signal on the screen. They wanted a way to be able to tell immediately which area of the machine had a problem, so they allocated an animal noise to each section. So one section makes a monkey sound, another a lion, another a snake hiss and so on. He says “on a bad day, it’s like a zoo in the control room!”.

Tomorrow I've been naughty and instead of attending the final summary talks I’ve organised a very exciting day out! But you will have to come and read about it tomorrow…

For now, I will leave you with the lovely latte art of a cat face (we think) from a cafĂ©/restaurant called Lovever Coffee near our hotel. I’m only sad I won’t have time to go back and see what else they can do! 

Coffee from Lovever - great coffee, pricey at £3.20 but good!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

As it happened - HB2012 conference in Beijing - Day 3

It is actually now the morning of Day 4, at 5am. Jet-lag has woken me up an hour earlier than my alarm, so what better way to use it than to write about yesterday? Photos at the bottom!

Day 3 is always the day of the conference that my enthusiasm starts to be challenged a little. We're all in a state of over-tiredness coping with jetlag, long days and going out socialising every night. Seriously, I'm tired! But, the show must go on.

There were some interesting talks today, one of which I missed but at least 3 people told me was very interesting. Darn! It's always bound to happen that I miss something I wish I'd seen, but the best thing is not to be disappointed, read the paper and get on with life!

It got me thinking about how I approach conferences so I thought for today's blog I'd share a few thoughts and tips on how to approach conferences for people new to them or perhaps for people who don't feel they get a lot out of them. So, in no particular order:

  1. Firstly and most importantly, while in the conference venue WEAR the conference badge. If it's not a lanyard one around your neck, make sure you pin it high up on your lapel so when you meet people they can learn your name. It is SO important for people to know who you are. (Yes, just a few years ago I thought they were uncool too and either left it off or wore it at my hip. I have learned my lesson. People don't want to have to visually scan your entire body to find your wayward badge.)
  2. People have different approaches to science. Some love nothing more than a heated argument about the intricacies of mathematics, others (often more senior scientists) can be very stuck-in-their-way with their "views" on certain topics. Don't be personally offended if someone comes up and calls your conclusions crap - it is just their way of doing science & initiating scientific debate. (OK if they are really forceful and you can't cope just politely tell them you respect their opinion and find a diversion!)
  3. Conferences are as much about cultural exchange as about scientific exchange. Try not to get stuck in the conference centre the whole time - or at least try to see some of the place you are in at night time and on weekends. It is important in the international world of science to have a cultural understanding of the people you work with. It can make all the difference to a working relationship.
  4. It's OK not to go to every session!! This is something a lot of new PhD students don't get. They sit through hours of talks they don't understand because they feel they have to. It's healthy to watch some talks on other topics than your own, but sometimes you need some time to assimilate information, look up a paper on a topic you found interesting, catch up on work you absolutely must do from home, sleep or whatever.
  5. Be enthusiastic! Meet people. Take business cards. Make your own business cards if your uni/work won't give you them. Take copies of your proceedings paper or poster to hand out. Tell people about your work. But mostly, be enthusiastic! I thought this went without saying but I have learned it's not true. If you're naturally shy you will have to put on a brave face or ask someone you know well to introduce you to people - this, my friends, is where having social skills in the world of science comes in handy!
  6. Some of the presentations will be awful. As a science communicator & scientist this one is hard for me to cope with. The AV won't work properly, you won't be able to see the bottom of the slide where the speaker has put their main point. The speaker will face the slides instead of the audience and in doing so turn away from the microphone so you can't hear and for some reason no-one will let the speaker know and it will go on for 20 minutes like that. People from other countries will talk through the whole thing (in China it is normal to have a conversation in an opera or ballet, so why not in a talk?). That talk you were really looking forward to will be incomprehensible because the speaker isn't very good at explaining things. At least one speaker will be so nervous they will struggle to talk at all and wave the laser pointer around in such a way that makes you glad for the rules about Class II lasers. There will be people talking outside the room so loudly it makes it hard to hear the talk in the room. All of these things have happened here and if you go to conferences regularly you realise they will happen a lot. Good organisation can only help so much. It always makes me a little bit angry! Try to accept it. Anger will get us nowhere.
  7. Finally, don't overdo it! OK this is me giving myself advice here - I tend to be on the go from about 6am (running, gym) to midnight (socialising) and sometimes you need a night off! (Given I've woken up so early I think tonight will be an early one for me).
Ben, Stephen and Rob enjoying the banquet
Last night was the conference banquet - in a nice restaurant just down the road from our hotel. The food was plentiful and very good and the entertainment was amazing! We experienced what I can only assume is the whole gamut of Chinese entertainment - from a musical trio, a theatrical mask performance, a singer, kung-fu demonstrations, a magician (with a real dove!), acrobatics... I have to congratulate the HB2012 conference organisers - it was amazing how much they had arranged!

The first performance - a chinese musical trio
Well it's now almost time for me to be awake to go for a run. Let's see what Day 4, the last day of talks, has in store.

Bit hard to see - acrobat twirling a big pot!?


As it happened - HB2012 conference in Beijing - Day 2

Warning: if you’re squeamish about eating strange foods, you probably don’t want to read to the end of today’s post…

Where are floors 4, 13 and 14?
One thing I learned today is that the number 4 is unlucky in China. It seems so is the number (Edit: Matt pointed out 3 is there, duh!), 13 and 14 in our hotel as there are a bunch of floors that don't exist in the lift! 

Today the more detailed talks began. This workshop is divided into five different ‘working groups’ which each cover a specific sub-topic. For example the group that my work falls into is ‘beam dynamics in circular accelerators’, as opposed to the group focusing in linear accelerators. They really are quite different!

Laurette Ponce from CERN
There were actually only four short (20-minute) talks in my working group today, but of course I have interests in other areas too – so attended all kinds of talks, some of which I understood and some of which were a little hard to understand as I wasn’t a specialist in them.

Some interesting accelerator facts I learned today:
  • It's very hard to either predict or measure where beam is being lost in an accelerator, but it's super-important to avoid loss as much as possible!
  • The Large Hadron Collider has 4000 beam loss monitors. These are ionisation chambers that detect when some of the beam has been lost to the walls of the accelerator. If ONE of the detects beam, the whole beam is dumped and they have to start again! 
  • In the LHC if the position of the orbit of the beam shifts by the width of a human hair, (50 microns) it can cause beam loss which will trigger this dump system! 
  • Even though the Tevatron has shut down at FermiLab, the demand for protons for their other programs has only increased. They have a 'proton improvement plan' to cope with it.
Me (far left) and colleagues with the portrait of Chairman Mao
The later section of the afternoon was dedicated to working group discussions. This is what separates this 'workshop' from a 'conference' - there is much more interaction and discussion (which, after all, is why we come to these meetings!). 

However, today wasn't my working group so a bunch of colleagues and I decided we'd head into central Beijing to Tiananmen square (yes, there is a second 'n' in the name, who knew?) and do some exploring. Sorry I wasn't looking at the camera when the photo was taken... silly me.

I borrowed a guide book from one of my colleagues earlier in the day and discovered that there was a street called 'Xiaochi Jie Food Street' which sounded intriguing... thankfully the others were keen so after a bit of searching we found it...

From back to front, L to R:
lizards, cocoons, unknown?,
snake, tarantula, large scorpion,
seahorse, small scorpion. 
It was AMAZING! There were all sorts of smells, sights and weird and wonderful foods. There were also hardly any foreigners there and the stall vendors weren't touty or pushy - so it was a great experience.

We tried to ask what everything was and figured out most of it. I'd promised my colleagues we'd find "sparrow on a stick" and to my surprise, we did!

We walked all through the market taking photos and telling each other we'd better just try something safe like steamed buns. But curiosity got the better of me!

My colleague Chip was joking about buying some scorpions so he was mighty surprised when I actually bought some to eat! I'd tried tarantula when I went to Cambodia and had been told scorpions tasted like chicken (!?). 

Sparrow on a stick!
Actually, they tasted more like chicken skin. They were deep fried (fresh) for us and then sprinkled with a little salt. They were mostly just like chips (french fries) - if you ever get the chance, try some! We also had crickets which were also nice, but the wings can get stuck in your teeth a bit. Mmmmm.... nice thought, I know.

Chip really eating some crickets!
Chip pretending he might eat some..
After that we went to the Santlitun area (which we discovered is where all the foreigners hang out, which was a bit disappointing) and had dinner and discovered a local beer called Beijing Beer which was a really nice lager.

The funniest part of the whole of Day 2 was our taxi ride home. At 200 yuan (£20) we knew the price was about double what it should have been,  and I tried to bargain the driver down. But he was so funny in the defence of his price that we just ended up in fits of laughter and went with him. I can't describe how hilarious he was and do him justice, so let's just say he had an opinion on every country that involved squealing loudly and waving his arms around and he liked to pretend he was Michael Schumacher when he drove.

What a day!

Monday, 17 September 2012

As it happened - HB2012 Conference in Beijing - Day 1

People sometimes ask me 'what goes on at a scientific conference?'. I thought I'd take this chance to blog my first trip to China for a workshop* on high brightness and high intensity hadron beams. 

I arrived in Beijing early Sunday morning after a long flight with a rude man sitting next to me taking up way too much elbow room. I couldn't sleep because of him, so it wasn't a good start.

The taxi drive to our hotel was... interesting. The good news? There were seat belts! The bad news? The bit the seatbelt clicks into was missing entirely.

The driver didn't speak any English (which we kind-of expected) and seemingly couldn't understand our specially printed instructions in chinese for which hotel we wanted and where. Eventually he phoned the hotel and we got on our way. He drove the car (which only seemed to have two functional gears) mostly in the middle of two lanes! Thankfully it wasn't too busy, but he didn't seem to understand the concept of driving in one lane. 

It's all part of the experience. 

A quick nap later and my colleagues and I spent the afternoon visiting the Temple of Heaven, some hutongs and Tianamen square. We walked between them and were on our feet for about 6 hours! I was so exhausted by the time we got back to the hotel I only just had the energy to register for the conference and quickly attend the welcome drinks to say hi to a few people. 

Watching a plenary talk
But... this post is about "Day 1" which means Monday! The first day of the conference and we're all fresh with optimism and happy to catch up with old colleagues and acquaintances and excited to find out what's new and happening in our field. 
Old steam boat on canal, Beijing
One of my work friends that I run with (Ben) is also here & we're both recovering from injuries so we went out for a short run early in the morning. Not many people run in China, so many of the walkers and people doing Tai-Chi watched us as we ran past. We found a nice canal near our hotel to run along and even found this old shell of a paddle-boat with some fisherman nearby.

Today was all invited plenary talks - from 8.45am to 4pm. Some of them were very interesting. I decided to tweet some of the key points while it was happening, so below is my twitter review of the talks today!

From 4.30pm-6pm was the poster session, which is where I was presenting my work. I normally don't like poster sessions because in the past they've been at big conferences where many people aren't familiar with the work I'm doing, so I find myself explaining the very basics loads of times over without it being of any use to me!

Today was a different experience though - I actually enjoyed & got a lot out of presenting my poster.

I had long conversations with a number of people, most of whom I already knew but some that I didn't. It was actually very helpful. I have at least one new simulation to try and I now understand my own results better than I did before. I've also built connections with some existing acquaintances (I'd prefer to call them friends, really, but let's be professional!) and I'm feeling encouraged that I will now have more people to discuss ideas with in the future - which will make a big difference.

Tonight I went for dinner in the fancier of the two hotel restaurants with one of my colleagues together with a colleague/expert/guru/pioneer-in-our-field from Japan and two guys we also know who did their PhDs in his research group. My group are hoping to collaborate with this research group on some experiments early next year. We tried all sorts of delicacies from pigs ear (yum!) to jellyfish (not very tasty) and chinese rice wine.

I've had a lovely evening - but now it's 11pm and I've been up since 6am, so better get some rest for tomorrow!
Ben presenting his poster (he was next to me)

Highlights of today (from my twitter feed @suziesheehy) from the Large Hadron Collider beam energy in terms of chocolate to my joy at seeing real experimental data:

*a workshop is meant to be more interactive than a conference). 

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Conference season is upon me!

Over the past few weeks I've been working hard preparing a paper and poster for an upcoming workshop (a small conference) in Beijing. The workshop has a hilariously long name, it's called "The 52nd ICFA Advanced Beam Dynamics Workshop in High-Intensity and High-Brightness Hadron Beams"- but those of us in the know just call it "HB" or "HB2012" for this years one. It happens every two years and is the place to discuss accelerators that deal with every intense proton beams - which is really relevant to my current research.

With the hard prep work almost done, I can't wait to visit China for the first time! I'm all ready to go with my flights, visa, and my Wallpaper city guide to the best funky spots to eat and cool places to go. I'm slightly worried I won't have any time to see major sights though - as I'm really flying-in and flying-out, I don't have a spare day at all! I'm hoping to sneak in an afternoon to visit the Great Wall and maybe see some other sights in the evenings.

For the first time on this trip I'm going to try something new - I'm going to write up each day of the conference as I experience it here on my blog - from interesting new developments, people I meet and if you're lucky some of the crazy food we get to eat.

I'm hoping it might serve as a glimpse into the world of "what scientists do" as well as a place for me to keep track of interesting new research directions in the field. If it goes well, I'll blog my trip to Japan in November as well.

I arrive in China on Sunday - so watch this space!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On a personal note... the voice in my head

There’s a little voice that sometimes creeps into the back of my head. It’s the anti-academic-career voice. Perhaps it’s common to lots of people embarking on research careers, or maybe it’s just me.

Either way, I thought I’d share with you all some of the things that niggling little voice says to me and how I battle with these thoughts every day.

Most days the voice says: “Why do you spend every day feeling like you’re getting nowhere?” which then resorts to “Why are you struggling with this career?”

On a bad day when things aren’t going well it sometimes creeps up and whispers You’re so dumb, everyone else around you thinks so and thinks your research is rubbish and they could do it in about a week if they tried.”

Which leaves me having the occasional breakdown and my partner having to pick up the pieces and pep me up and tell me that I am interested, I do want to do this research, I will get there, eventually…

I sometimes come across articles about women in science, about the leaky pipeline of academia, about ‘impostor syndrome’, and about how no-one really knows why some women leave science.

Some of these articles are really uplifting… but it only makes a momentary difference. Then the voice in my head says “You don’t have impostor syndrome, you really are an impostor, there’s a difference!

Why don’t you quit and do something else, something easy…"

You’re smart, you could make loads of money doing just about anything else… Why not have a look online for a different job?

You want to have children, your partner earns a decent salary, your career will probably falter when you have kids so why bother waiting until it all crumbles, why not just give up now? You’ve done well. You can pat yourself on the back. If you time it right people might just think it’s because you had kids and chose a different path…

I know why they leave. It’s the voice in the back of their heads. I battle with it every day.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Frustrated: I have no way to make my data open access!

Open access in science publishing is a big deal nowdays. I recently discovered a new RCUK policy which says that I must make my data publically accessible, or freely accessible on request. The only problem is; I can't.

If I told you exactly where I work, it should lead you to being able to find out all sorts of things about me, my research, my colleagues and my published papers. But it won't let you find any of my data or experiments that those papers are based on.

I recently enquired about this. First it involved me informing people of the RCUK policy above, as they weren't aware. I've asked for personal webspace where I might be able to setup a URL for each paper I publish that contains the data used in the paper. Or where I can put some talks that are too big to email. The outcome? I was told I can't have personal webspace, or at least I couldn't have any webspace which I had any kind of control over.

On digging deeper and explaining the issue I was told I could have access to an FTP server in a different department to my own. But when I said 'OK' it went no further. I still don't have credentials.

My workplace has to comply with all kinds of government guidelines, which includes encrypting laptops and so on. This seems to mean that the computing is run perfectly for administrators, but far-from-perfect for scientists like myself. It means that the IT group don't support me if I choose to use Linux or Mac systems, although I don't know of many scientists who use Windows for anything other that documents and spreadsheets. This means my computing is almost entirely unsupported. It also means that when it comes to things like data sharing, there are seemingly impassable boundaries.

In fact I'm not even sure the 'administrators' have any idea what kind of 'data' I'm talking about.

Here are the provisions I'm told are in place for me to share my data:
Now, unless my data is in the form of a Microsoft document it isn't going to work on Sharepoint, and my guess is it's probably not accessible to 'outsiders' anyway.
  • Upload it to my website profile as a link. 
For this to work the current system requires it to be in PDF or jpeg format and it has to be checked at a number of different levels to make sure it meets the 'style guide'. Trust me, it's not going to meet your damn 'style guide'.
  • There 'used to be' an ftp server. 
...No-one quite knows what happened to it though. It doesn't seem to exist anymore.

That's it. Those are the only ways I've discovered that I could share my data. Not to beat around the bush here, but that's f*ing useless to me. I can't even share the slides I give at a conference with the world because they are too big to email and again, I can't upload them anywhere. This is simply not acceptable and I'm not sure how I can be expected to function efficiently as a scientist under these conditions.

Perhaps there is a fear that I shouldn't share my data without someone 'checking it' because that might lead me to missing out on a piece of 'Intellectual Property' which could have been packaged up and sold to someone. I did point out to them that as an independently funded research fellow [at the time of this post] they actually have no right to my IP. Never mind the fact that the work is already published so simply providing the background data doesn't change anything. Based on the facts, I think I can ignore this point for now.

This has turned into rather a big rant, but this seems ludicrous to me. I'll happily be corrected if my assumptions are wrong, or if the answers I've repeated to questions I've asked above are wrong. I've simply written this because I want the situation to be improved and I have no way of improving it within the organisation. 

By the way, I don't want to be told to use Dropbox or Google Docs or any other number of filesharing web apps which I'm already using. I want the organisation who are meant to provision this facility as part of agreeing to host my research to actually do it. That is the only outcome I will be happy with. 

It looks like only 1 in 10 people who publish in open access journals actually make their data accessible anyway. With barriers like the one I've come up against, I'm hardly surprised!

Does your workplace have a policy that you must be able to share data, but give you no way to do it?
Do you think the provisions I've been given are acceptable?

UPDATE 6/9/2012:
Today I met with a member of the Scientific Computing department who picked up on this post, thought they could help us and set up a meeting to discuss. I'm pleased to report that I think we're going to move forward and try to implement something for our group which will rectify this issue and hopefully provide a better data management and sharing system going into the future. I'm very grateful to them for their response and quick action to try to help with this situation, and kind-of glad I wrote this post after all! Next steps are to discuss with my group exactly what we need and how it should function, and we should see some progress and hopefully implementation after that. Win for the blogosphere!

UPDATE 10/12/2013:
This post has been slightly edited from it's original format. While we still don't have a solution in place, at least this post has led to some discussion and offers from a number of quarters to help solve it. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Working in a male-dominated field: learning to see the positives

I’m a woman and I’m a scientist. I don’t identify with the words ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ because I think they have negative connotations of social awkwardness. I am feminine. I might not wear pink, but I read InStyle magazine, watch Great British Bake Off and paint my toenails. But this post isn’t about reclaiming words like ‘geek’ or removing negative connotations though, far from it. It’s about everyday life as a ‘feminine’ woman in a very male-dominated area of science.

In my research group I’m the only woman. I’ve been to workshops and conferences where I’m the only female scientist attending. I’ve been mistaken for a secretary and asked whose wife/girlfriend I was at social events more times than I care to remember. But I enjoy smashing the stereotype when I point out that I’m a scientist. They always apologise profusely. I understand why they’d assume I wasn’t one, as statistically speaking it’s quite a likely hypothesis.

Sometimes though, people do say inappropriate things. At a recent event one attendee actually used the words “You don’t see many women like you around here, I mean, with such perfect eyelashes and a dress”. Umm… what? I felt so uncomfortable. Up until that point we’d been talking about physics and entrepreneurship. I was wearing a striped Breton knit dress from Jaeger which had ¾ length sleeves and went past the knee – with a very low heel. I don’t expect to have my looks commented on in a professional situation. I made him uncomfortable by staring at him for a second or two. He realized he’d said something inappropriate, started to make apologetic noises, then I let him off the hook and made a joke about it. After all, I can take a complement.

Anyone who knows me can tell you I have no problem holding my own. I usually just give them some feisty banter or a joke straight back. They don’t intimidate me and I don’t sweat the small stuff**. I don’t even notice any more if there aren’t any other women around. I do try to feel flattered if someone complements me on my looks, but there have been situations where I’ve been prevented from effective networking by virtue of being the only ‘skirt’ in the room.

Naturally, I’ve developed techniques to extricate myself from boring men at conference drinks whose only reason for approaching me is that they’ve had a few. Here are a few pointers for the less experienced.
  • Technique 1 (if you respect the guy and think you ought to stay in his good books): shrug off any compliments and talk about science. If it becomes obvious that you have nothing to talk about, mention that you had to meet so-and-so as you’re interested in collaborating on an experiment/paper whatever. If you can, use him for networking – basically, turn the situation to your advantage.
  • Technique 2 (if you just want to get away): say you need to use the bathroom. It’s not like he can follow you. Whatever you do don’t say you need another drink – as he’ll likely get you one and then you’ll be beholden to him for the rest of the evening. (Yeah, I learned that one first hand).

Ladies, we do what we can to get by - I’m sure that men in very female-dominated work environments could tell you of similar experiences. It can be tiring and frustrating and perhaps one day when there are more women in my field it will become less of an issue.

But sometimes we have to see the positives in these situations. For example, as one of the only women in my field just about everyone knows who I am and what I’m working on – it actually does wonders to raise my profile without me even trying.

I know that not everyone has such a ‘thick skin’ as I do, but I’ve learned to enjoy the company of the (often socially awkward) men with whom I share my chosen career. I’ve made peace with being different from them because of my gender. I’ve learned to embrace the differences and celebrate the fact that I approach a research problem differently. In the long run, ‘standing out’ in a good way can only serve to help both my research and my career.

Have you ever had similar experiences? How did you react? 
Do you think my approach works? What do you think I could do differently?

**Of course, you should never, ever let someone’s sexist or inappropriate behaviour go unreported if it’s a problem for you

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Why do women undermine themselves? (The invisible bike helmet video)

So you might have seen this video about the "Invisible Bicycle Helmet" current doing the rounds.

Don't get me wrong, I think the invention is great even if a few issues such as landing on your face aren't quite sorted out. What I want to discuss is the video. I was enjoying it until they started saying things like 'no-one expected girls to be able to do this'. Total face-palm. Way to promote the stereotype. 

But there is a broader issue here. Being female has nothing to do with it and they are unknowingly reinforcing the idea that a woman has to be somehow 'special' to achieve something like this. The message definitely got confused for me, especially when they started showing images of the shoes they were wearing. I mean... what!?

I'd like to know who these mysterious people are who think women can't do things... because as far as I can tell they don't exist. As far as I can tell it's only ever women who say 'no-one expected us to do this because we're women'. This is my whole problem with a lot of 'women in science/engineering' stuff. By making out like there's something special about your achievements because of your gender, you're undermining the whole achievement. 

This attitude of 'well obviously, if I were a man this would have been easy, but because I'm a woman, it was hard' is not OK in situations where gender makes no difference - like doing technical work, designing new products, running a business etc... 

Making out like this is gender-related also belittles discussions about things which really do make a difference to careers that really are different for men and women. Things like having to bear children in your womb, for instance.

A decent idea... with strange marketing.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Laughter, tears and still buzzing... is this really physics?

The first time I watched a ‘proper’ physicist give a ‘proper’ seminar it was with a frown on my face. I was confused, but at the same time impressed. I could hardly understand any of it, but they were passionate, interested and above all, dedicated to what it was they were studying.

Today, over a decade later, a huge global audience tuned in online* to watch what was, for the most part, an incomprehensible physics talk. Trust me, I know how they felt! But they all tuned in to find out one thing – have we discovered the Higgs boson?

As you probably know by now, the answer, to paraphrase CERN Director General Rolf Dieter-Heuer is: “we have a discovery”. Both ATLAS and CMS have found something consistent with the Higgs at a 99.9999% confidence level. (Someone correct me if I’ve gotten the number of 9’s wrong there…). Now there’s a lot more work to do to be able to tell “what kind” of Higgs-like boson it might be. But that isn’t what this post is about. I want to write about how it felt to watch that announcement.

When I was at school I’d never heard of the Higgs boson. I’d never heard of quarks or things like quantum mechanics. Over a decade later and in that time, I have more-or-less dedicated my life to physics. I haven’t spent a lifetime waiting for this result like some people I know. But as someone who has done more than just ‘dabble’ in particle physics I’d like to share some of the emotions I went through this morning.

The announcement was made a lot more personal for me because of the big role that my colleagues in Melbourne played. They are currently hosting the biggest particle physics conference of the year, ICHEP2012. It actually tugged at my heartstrings to learn that my Honours-year supervisor Prof. Geoff Taylor introduced things and to see Prof. Ray Volkas chairing the session via the CERN webcast. Ray is one of the most inspiring lecturers I’ve ever met and someone I became friends with during my studies. I’m getting emotional just thinking about all the amazing colleagues – people I consider friends - who I left behind when I moved to the UK. I’m so proud that they got to celebrate this momentous achievement and I was a little sad not to be there to celebrate it with them.

But that’s the amazing thing. In this international world of particle physics I was there to celebrate with them. At least virtually. The whole world was there with us too.

As we all watched the CERN webcast the complicated plots gave me heart-palpitation-inducing flashbacks of sitting in my office in Melbourne in searing heat trying to figure out some way of extracting more ‘signal’ than ‘noise’ in my data analysis. I flashed back to lectures introducing the Higgs mechanism and long nights spent at work trying to solve quantum field theory problems (thanks to Ray for those). I remembered putting myself through grueling 12 or 15-hour days - we all did in our fourth year - just so that we knew we really understood the physics, because we were all in competition for PhD scholarships.

But when those results came up… wow! I can only liken it to the rush of a runner’s high. I’m so immensely proud and in awe of the thousands of people who have done much more than I have in order to get to where we are today. I may have only made a tiny contribution and it still seems a bit of a miracle that these incredibly complex experiments work at all. That just shows how much hard work and dedication has been put into them.

We can all look back over our careers and wonder if we chose to do the ‘right’ thing. I don’t miss the painstaking data analysis of particle physics and I enjoy my more application-driven research. But at least I can look back and know that I’ve dedicated my life to something more important than, say, getting people to spend money on something they don’t need. Along with many thousands of others I’ve dedicated my life to trying to push back the boundaries of knowledge.

We’ve all played our role like ants in a colossal anthill. Often our work is unacknowledged, underfunded and underappreciated. Understandably many of us don’t stick with the one thing for our whole careers, but we all do our bit. Today we saw the first of the really exciting results that will drive us on in our quest for understanding.

For me, I’ve spent so much time and energy in this field, I’ve moved across the world and in doing so had to start my life over from scratch. I’ve spent countless hours trying to communicate what this is all about and what it means. I’ve lived and breathed physics for over a decade. If it didn’t bring a tear to my eye and a slight palpitation to my heart… I wouldn’t be human.

*I’ll probably write another post soon to discuss why they had seemingly written very complex talks with no consideration for their audience. As a science communicator and scientist I always find it really hard to watch people do this. Audience, audience, audience!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Too busy to blog

Anyone who keeps a blog knows there are times when writing just has to be neglected. Well, yeah, I'm going through one of those times.

We recently bought a house and have been spending most (read: all) of our waking hours outside of work redecorating - which has turned out to be a bigger job than you might think. Now I'm not going to turn this into a decorating blog (don't worry), but just to prove it, here is one of the rooms we're currently doing. It will (eventually) be my dressing room - how luxurious! The alcoves either side of the fireplace will be filled with shoes. I'll make sure to post the finished product, complete with the shoe collection that inspired the name of my blog.

Until then I might not be blogging for a while, but rest assured I'll be back when time permits!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Getting to Samantha Brick's Point

Can we all stop hating Samantha Brick already? (If you're unaware of her, read this article first)

Firstly let me say that yes it was a vacuous, self-absorbed article and I was shocked as much as you were. But I don't hate Samantha Brick - in fact I think she had a point.

Personally I think most of us are probably entirely unaware if another woman dislikes us because they feel threatened or jealous - and it might not be down to the way we look but could be down to any number of factors - popularity, social status, financial status, fashion sense etc... but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.

After reading her article you probably now dislike her because she made you aware of your own subconscious bias against particular types of women (you can't be smart, successful and beautiful, right?). I admit my first reaction to the article was "she's not good looking enough to send champagne to!" Yes, I admit - I judged her based purely on her looks. I have also been guilty of seeing attractive women in my field of work and perhaps judging them a bit too. Not consciously, you understand - I had to catch my subconscious at it... But I believe people are often biased against good looking women, including myself. It's a bias which I would like to not have but I do have it nonetheless.

This doesn't apply to men. If I meet an attractive man in my field I am indifferent because I always immediately assume than a man is far more intelligent than me regardless of whether he is good looking or not. WHY??? But with women we judge in relation to ourselves. Is she better looking than me? Yes. Well in that case I'm going to assume she must be less intelligent than me. WHY DO WE DO THAT!?!?

I'm telling you - I don't understand the way my own mind works here. Why does it do this? Leave a comment if you can tell me! I am totally aware of how bad this is, and yet I have to consciously remind myself not to think like that. Was it my upbringing? My school? Our culture? What?? I don't think I'm alone in this, but I do think I'm one of the few who will admit to it and actively aim to quash it.

Samantha Brick made the poor decision to speak out about it in a not particularly intelligent way in a not particularly good choice of medium (the Daily Fail). She might not be the right example but when you wade through the crap she has a small but not insignificant point - women should learn to pay each other a complement once in a while.

Subconscious bias based on to judgements of others because of their looks or other factors can affect both personal and professional relationships. I personally have experienced a (far more senior) woman who seemed to hate me for reasons I couldn't fathom - to the point of spreading malicious rumours about me. I thought it was strange and uncalled for, but I thought it was just a personality clash or something until a good friend suggested that it may have been jealousy. Jealousy over what? I don't know! She had nothing to be jealous of as she was basically living the career that I one day hope to have (still!), but before my friend mentioned jealousy I hadn't even considered it. To this day I don't know if it was true but if it was jealousy then the blame lies with that woman, her own self-esteem issues and her own ability to form relationships with other people - and most certainly not with me. I did nothing wrong and didn't deserve to be treated that way.

So to some extent I feel sorry for Samantha Brick - but not because her friends won't invite her to be bridesmaid (they could always put her in an ugly dress). She might be deluded about her own looks (personally if I looked that good at her age I'd be all right with it!) but what she's not deluded about are the women who are just plain nasty to each other - often based on superficial judgements. I actively try not to judge people without knowing them. I know what it's like to have someone hate me for no reason and I never want to experience it again.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Fulfilling a dream - presenting in the Ri Faraday Theatre

It's probably an understatement to say I was a latecomer to knowing about the Royal Institution. I watched my first Christmas Lectures on TV at the ripe old age of 24 - by which point I was already thoroughly engaged with the process of science communication myself (not to mention that I'd moved across the world to do a PhD in science at the time).

Unlike many people who have come to take this amazing science spectacle for granted, I was truly amazed by what I saw. Science being presented on TV and people loving it. Not just people who are scientists themselves but loads of people will gather around the TV over Christmas and watch at least one of these lectures. The Christmas Lectures aren't just a small thing that happens each year - they are a huge thing, they are something of a British institution and I've met many scientists who attribute their interest in science to watching these lectures with their families when they were young.

The people I was with joked at the time that maybe one day I'd be the one presenting in the famous Faraday Theatre. Naturally, I laughed -- the idea was absurd that someone like me would get that chance. Someone who'd mucked about on stage in Australia doing science shows for kids and spent 9 months working in a science museum. To someone like me it would be an absolute dream to present in one of the world's most famous venues of both science and science communication.

Well, ladies and gentleman... it appears dreams can come true. Today was a BIG day. Today I presented my public lecture called 'Accelerated Dreams' at the Royal Institution -- in the famous Faraday Theatre! And to top it off, it was a full house, even the seats in the "gods" were full! I took this sneaky photo on my phone just so I could prove it as people were still filing in!

The event was for the U3A - another wonderful organization if you haven't heard of them, and I was one of three speakers for the day. The lecture seemed to go down really really well, all of my demonstrations worked (well almost, the faraday cage was a bit dodgy but got the point across) and I got so many fantastic comments and interesting questions afterwards. I couldn't see many of the audience because the stage lights were quite bright (that's a throwback to my theatre days I didn't expect!) but the reactions afterwards were more than worth it. It was clear that people were totally excited by what I had to say, which was such a great feeling!

It just goes to show that you should never believe you can't do something - if you work hard enough you can achieve anything you want to. Which seems to be my theme at the moment as another thing I never though I could do is to run a half marathon - which I'm about to do on Sunday.

I finished my lecture today with a quick slide saying I was running a half marathon and raising money for the IoP for Africa programme and to my surprise I was inundated with donations! (I'd put the URL up but these lovely people wanted to give me cash then and there!) So I've managed to collect about another £80 or more towards my fundraising goal, which is fabulous - even if it was totally unexpected!

Thankfully today's experience isn't a one-off, as next month I'm back at the Royal Institution for another event. Next month's show will require a bit more preparation - I'll be presenting a schools show for 9-12 year olds twice in one day. So it looks like all that experience with primary school shows with the MUPPETS crew in Melbourne will come in handy! The show is called 'The Need for Speed' -- I'll write a seperate post about that once the event is over. Before my lecture today I spent the morning in the Ri prep room threshing out demos with the amazing Andy Marmery - isn't his prep room amazing!?

I'm only sorry that today I had to run off before the third speaker today because my day doesn't end here...

Oh no, when it rains it pours - I have just taken a taxi across London to my hotel to get glammed up for an evening with the Royal Commission (who provide my research fellowship) to meet HRH The Princess Royal. (I told you today was a BIG day).

For now though, I'm going to relax in my hotel room - and I'm so glad that the UK has tea-making facilities in the room - I REALLY needed a cuppa while I re-apply makeup and sort out chipped painted toenails (who said physics wasn't glamorous?) What I really need is a glass of wine to celebrate, but I can't have one because I'm running a half marathon on Sunday! But I'll still be celebrating what has been an amazing experience. It's a busy, busy time I can tell you... *crashes out*

How it happened (if you're interested):
The invite to speak at the Ri came about after I was invited to film a short piece to camera with one of my demonstrations for the DemoJam web-series for the new RiChannel. That in turn came about through connections I'd made through the IoP Communicators Group and from presenting at the Big Bang Fair in 2010. During the day of filming for DemoJam The lovely staff at the Ri popped in for a chat and that was that - they asked if I'd like to present both today and again next month.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Measuring the speed of light in 30 seconds

I finally discovered a quick and easy way to measure the speed of light - and turned it into a quick 30 second video for the British Science Association's 'Prove it' competition as I thought it fit the theme "our world in motion" quite well.

Please "like" it on by watching it on YouTube (you'll have to click through) and give it the "thumbs up" button to vote for it & maybe I'll win a camcorder!

(I obviously need a camcorder - I had to record it in my office using my iMac while trying not to disturb my colleagues in neighbouring offices, but I hope you like it anyway.)

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Proton love: a valentines day poem

This morning on twitter did appear
An equation for making a heart!
My eyes lit up and I had an idea;
What wonderful, accelerator art!

And so into a 4 MeV accelerator design
I put 629 shiny red protons
Yes, I placed my heart at a single point in time
By (cos(100*x)*sqrt(cos(x))+sqrt(abs(x))-0.7)*(4-x^2)^0.01

Now on my computer I said the words
opal --commlib mpi (romantics, that's one to learn!)
and physics was set to work
to track these lovely particles around one turn
(of a 4MeV fixed field proton accelerator)

Now my heart was relatively intact
by such a short journey through space and time
so I decided to keep going and continue my quest
around this accelerator so fine...

By fifty turns there was some distortion
But in relationships, we need to give and take
So let's go again my dear, another portion
By the way: I promise this is not fake!

After a hundred turns I'm sad to say
My heart looked a bit of a mess
But hopefully it will make your day
Seeing this little valentines jest

Happy valentines day everyone. 
Suzie xx

P.S. Thanks to @standupmaths for the equation and for the words of encouragement ("do it do it do it do it do it" - to be exact)