Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Just what I needed

“Three weeks in Japan!” my dentist exclaimed, “Wow I’m really jealous, have an amazing time!”

It hadn’t occurred to me that people might think I was going on some kind of holiday. I had to tell her that actually I’d be working pretty hard most of the time and that I didn’t even know if I’d get time off on the weekends. Way to kill the mood, huh?

That night I packed my suitcase but I was definitely missing the zeal of someone going on a long-awaited journey. The next morning I had to give a lecture before I eventually found myself, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport.

There I was, staring at an overly-sweet pumpkin latte mentally repeating the mantra ‘In. Out. In. Out’. Slowly letting the adrenaline I’d been running off subside with some breathing exercises I stole from my neglected yoga class.

Stretching my arms over my head, I realised I was physically and mentally exhausted. I was quite honestly looking forward to stepping onto the long haul flight to Japan for one simple reason: No one could email, tweet or phone me for at least the 16 hours I’d be in transit. After a fortnight rushed off my feet without even time to eat properly, the trip seemed like a relief.

I was going to Japan for three weeks of experimental work, two weeks at one lab and another week at a second. This trip would be the first experimental visit from my research group to either lab.  

My research group are awesome world-renowned experts in their respective sub-fields, so I felt some trepidation about them trusting me, the youngest member of the group, to go all the way to Japan. I felt I had to make a good impression, do some (hopefully) good experimental work and of course report it all back to them regularly. (No pressure, then!)

I had every imposter syndrome thought in the book; I felt underprepared, I hadn’t done any proper experimental work for a few years and I seriously wondered if this trip was even a good idea. After all, learning how to run an entire particle accelerator on the fly while simultaneously thinking about how to study the underlying physics was never going to be a walk in the park. Here I was attempting to do that somewhere I don’t even speak the language… was it madness? Maybe I was just being sent as a kind of delay tactic until the other guys in my group could visit later?

But the worst thing was that I was also struggling with an even bigger issue; I felt like I’d lost my science mojo.

I can’t pinpoint when I lost it, or even when I realised I had. But some time in the last two years I’d started really struggling to motivate myself to do bits of science that I previously enjoyed. I found myself doing seemingly never-ending simulation work and getting further and further from the kind of science I’d always liked the most; experimental work.

Fast forward to today. I’ve been here for just under than a week. We’ve worked fairly long days but that’s to be expected. I’ve left behind my house, my friends, my partner and all my creature comforts to stay in quite basic lab accommodation. (I can’t even catch up on Downton Abbey!).

To my surprise, rather than make me homesick or lonely, it turns out to be exactly what I needed. I also discovered to my relief that they don’t work weekends. Finally, some much-needed time off!

On Saturday I got up early and went for a run up the nearby mountains for an hour to bust jetlag, then met one of the students and spent the afternoon exploring a local mountain temple complex. Relaxation was creeping its way in.

Visiting a local mountain shrine complex. Aahhhh... time off!
On Sunday, something wonderful happened. It was raining and I didn’t have internet access in my room. Usually that would be pretty miserable, but I found that in my new surroundings and without the pressure of so much to do, I had a really productive day writing a talk for an upcoming conference, writing a report and editing a paper.

On Monday, feeling refreshed after the weekend, we took our first set of shiny new experimental data. At some point it occurred to me that to really understand exactly how to get from raw data to interesting science, I’d better write my own analysis code. I could have used the existing code from my collaborators but I felt like I wanted to do it myself. That way I’d be able to explain every step in the process to my group back home.

Somewhere in my brain a change was afoot… I found that I wanted to go the extra mile. Like I used to do. Like I’ve always tried to do because, at the end of the day, I like understanding things properly and doing good science.

For radiation safety reasons I can’t do any construction work on the accelerator between experiments, but I took the time to make myself useful anyway as my collaborators got their hands dirty. I eagerly flipped open my laptop and set about figuring out how to analyse the raw data from scratch.

I really got my geek on... and I don’t normally even identify with the word ‘geek’! I looked up and then implemented Gaussian smoothing functions, fourier transforms and differential peak finding algorithms. On a day trip to a workshop we were invited to yesterday I even worked on some analysis on the train home after a generous Japanese banquet.

For the first time in a long time I feel like getting into the nuts and bolts of data analysis isn’t a drag, it isn’t a chore, it’s been… strangely thrilling. I’ve got that ‘real data’ excitement that I haven’t had for years. It feels like something I want to do because I’m interested in it, rather than something I do because it’s my job.

At the end of today after we finished an experiment, I quickly ran my code on our new data then pulled my collaborators over to take a look. Being able to show them my fully analysed data only a short while after we’d taken it was, if I might say so myself, pretty awesome. 

Seeing a new result emerge for the very first time is like no other feeling you’ll ever experience. Even if it’s a relatively unimportant one like my result today! It's a rush. It keeps us coming back for more and working our way through tough equations, battling with computing problems and scratching our heads over experiments.

I felt great. I felt like I wanted to punch the air and shout “yeah baby!” like one of my office-mates used to do when I was a student. Finally, I felt like a physicist again.

There’s a fire in my belly and a switch has flipped in my brain. I’m interested again. I got my science mojo back.

Now excuse me, I’m going to go have a cup of tea and a biscuit to celebrate while I analyse some more of this data.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Mini Pumpkin Collider

Today my partner brought home a pumpkin to carve for halloween. Since I've never carved a pumpkin before (I know! How sad!) he left the decision of what to carve up to me.

Pretty cool. But not my pumpkin.
Last year he kindly carved a rather ordinary face, so I wanted to do something different. At first I was very tempted to go with some of these amazing designs, although I realised pumpkin carving skill was a missing factor.

So I did what every sensible person does and asked on twitter what I should carve, which revealed this design of DNA. Cool, huh?

But that's biology. I'm a physicist. But it got me thinking... this years most welcome news in my field was the recent awarding of the Nobel Prize to Higgs and Englert. Well, there was only one thing I could carve.

I asked my partner for help but he declared I was simply too much of a geek (which I took as a compliment in this instance) and that I was on my own.

Dear readers, I present you with my very own Mini Pumpkin Collider:

The mini pumpkin collider.

For those of you in the know, that is a representation of a Higgs decay in the CMS event display. A little bit like this one.
I've borrowed this image from CMS, sorry guys).
Protons collide in the CMS detector at 8 TeV, forming Z bosons which decay into electrons (green lines) and muons (red). Such an event is compatible with the decay of a Standard Model Higgs boson (Image: CMS)
My pumpkin-friendly version of the event display.
You're welcome to steal it as a template but I'm sure your own would be better!

Carved and waiting to be lit up to recreate the big bang!

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Your conference needs an anti-harassment policy

Update 16/5/2014: To follow up the actions I took at the end of this post, I am pleased to say that one major conference in my field now has an anti-harassment policy

Your conference needs an anti-harassment policy. This might not seem obvious at first and many people will probably backlash to that initial statement with something like "I know what is and isn't appropriate behaviour at a conference, why patronise me by spelling it out?" The likelihood is this policy doesn't exist because of you. But your personal experience does not exclude the possibility that there are people out there who are less savvy and socially capable than your good self. Crucially, it also doesn't mean that harassment doesn't happen. 

Sometimes it can be hard for people to realise that harassment is happening, even when it is literally happening right in front of their eyes. Let me tell you a story…

One beautiful summer evening in Bruges I stood on the outdoor terrace of the fine art gallery as contrails swept across the blue sky overhead. The sun was starting to go down casting a photogenic light on an already beautiful city. As I delved into conversation with another attendee about proton therapy and particle accelerators, I nabbed a glass of champagne and sampled some of the goodies from the trays of gorgeous canap├ęs as they whizzed by. Next thing I knew, I felt someone behind me softly but quite perceptibly touch my bum.

Mid-conversation my head turned quickly to see who had bumped into me, only to see a conference attendee shuffling slowly past, hands by his sides. He did not react to me suddenly turning around to look right at him and seemingly hadn't noticed he'd bumped or brushed against me. In the blink of an eye I was back to the discussion. It was a crowded reception and accidents happen.

Five minutes later, another brush on the bum. Another head check. The same guy. 

I'd already recognised the perpetrator as someone who had harassed me at a conference earlier in the year, but this was starting to seem a little odd. He again didn't react and wasn't even looking at me so I put it down to chance.

About two minutes later, as he circled round the reception, it happened a third time.

I waited until he was out of earshot then I interrupted the conversation I was having with this really quite interesting cluster of people to do something I've never done before. I spoke out.

"Oh my god that guy has just touched me on the butt for the third time in a row!"

Cough. Splutter. A group of eyes on me. "What?"

I said it again. They were, needless to say, shocked. The other woman in the conversation later told me the same person had harassed her in the past too. This guy was a serial offender. 

The men in the conversation knew who he was but had absolutely no idea that he had been harassing their female colleagues. The other woman said she would tell the conference organiser.

So the informal female network sprung into action and I am aware that at least two other women were actively warned about his behaviour in order to avoid it. It became the in-joke among the small group who were there to have a laugh about my "dear friend". It was a joke and I went along with it, but I felt slightly uncomfortable when it was brought up repeatedly as I didn't want to be seen to be making a big deal or a spectacle of being harassed.

As far as I am aware, that was the end of it. I'm not sure if it was even reported in the end. To be honest I didn't know who to report it to exactly, or what the outcome of reporting it would be. It didn't really faze me. I can't believe I am writing this but I am used to this kind of behaviour.

One of the reasons for my reluctance to act or report it was because just like most scientific conferences, this conference didn't have an anti-harassment policy. Even if I had reported it, what would have been the outcome? Aside from embarrassment for me and probably an unnecessary and ill-judged fuss.

But I am writing this post now because I want things to change. (Better late than never.)

Recent events in the online science community have made me want to take action. First, a female scientist was called a whore for declining a request to write a blog post  after establishing that the work would be unpaid. Then a high profile member of the science blogging community was named and called out for sexual harassment. The wonderful outcome of the furore that has followed is that people have started openly discussing sexual harassment and sharing their experiences through blogs, twitter and of course in person.

There has been a huge upsurge of support and it felt like a huge relief to hear that I am not alone in having had many experiences of sexual harassment. While individual workplaces and employers usually have anti-harassment policies, for me conferences really stand out as one place where harassment is more common than usual*. While at work I would know who to go to and what action would be taken if I was being harassed, at a conference it is far less clear cut.

I realise that over the years I've built up mechanisms and techniques for dealing with this. I've even written blog posts about how to deal with it. But one of the outcomes of reading, sharing and discussing these issues was that I realised that rather than learning to 'deal' with sexual harassment, it actually shouldn't be happening at all.

It might seem obvious to you, but this was quite a realisation for me.

So rather than delving into the countless experiences that women (and men) have of sexual harassment at conferences, I want to propose something positive that can be done to improve the situation. If you are an event or conference organiser, you should implement and enforce a public and visible anti-harassment policy.

You don't need an anti-harassment policy because you expect harassment to happen, rather you need it because you don't expect it to happen. But if and when it does happen, it is better to know about it and have a pre-determined course of action and a policy in place. If there had been a policy at the conference I was attending I would have known what action to take.

What's more, anti-harassment policies do work. The result in the open source community has been a record percentage of female attendees and speakers. It can take a few years of concentrated work to get to the point where there are specific and enforced anti-harassment policies, but making conferences a safer, more friendly place for everyone is really important and it is more than worth the effort.  

On the back of this realisation I announced on twitter that I was going to contact the employer of the man I discussed above. The support was unanimous and overwhelming. Thankyou! 

Unfortunately his position seems to have been a visiting one and I am unable to track down his present employer. But I have contacted the organiser of the conference I described above. I have also contacted the chairman for the next major conference in my field to raise the implementation of an anti-harassment policy as a suggestion. I am eagerly awaiting their response and hopefully, the beginnings of change. 

In the meantime I encourage other conference organisers and attendees to think about implementing or asking for the implementation of anti-harassment policies. Thankfully this path has been navigated before and there is even an example policy, as well as a thorough discussion of the reasoning for these policies which emerged from the open source and computing community. There is also a good list of suggestions for actions individuals can take in support of the adoption of a conference anti-harassment policy. 

I look forward to updating you on progress in the future.

*I don't have the numbers to back that feeling up, but if you do, let me know. 

UPDATE 24/10/2013:
After emailing the chairman of a big upcoming conference, I received this quick reply. It both confirms my growing suspicion that many men in our field (including those in positions of power) are simply unaware of the level of harassment that women encounter at conferences, and happily, promises to at least start some action on it.

Dear Suzie,
Many thanks for your email regarding an anti-harassment policy.  I have
to admit that this is not something that has been raised before, to my
knowledge; nor have I previously heard of any incidents.  However, I'm
aware that cases of harassment often go unreported for many reasons, and
while it saddens me to think that it may be necessary to introduce a
policy concerning the issue, it is of course something that must be
taken very seriously.
Thank you for the link to the sample policy - this is very helpful. I
will raise the issue with the [big international organising committee], and we will look at adopting
an appropriate form of policy for the conference.  I can raise this also
at the Co-ordinating Committee for conferences in the [conference] series (which
brings together representatives from Europe, Asia, and North America),
where the possibility of introducing a "standard" policy for future
conferences could be considered.
Thank you again for bringing this to my attention.
Best regards,
[Conference chair]

UPDATE 16/5/2014
The anti-harassment policy of this conference has now been implemented. A small step in the right direction in a very male-dominated field. I hope that my efforts will mean that fewer women in my field in future will have to experience the harassment that I have experienced.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Real Deal: Suzi Gage, Epidemiologist

Here at High Heels in the Lab we know lots of physicists, so please welcome our first non-physicist of the ‘Real Deal’ series (there are other non-physicists lined up too, we promise). Suzi Gage is an epidemiologist (yes, we had to look that up too, don’t worry), She’s also an avid foodie, runner, musician and blogger. Let’s find out more about her…

What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?

I'm a PhD epidemiologist at the University of Bristol. I use a large dataset of Bristolian children who have been followed since birth to look at relationships between cannabis and tobacco use, and psychosis and depression.

How did I get here: passion, hard work, luck (maybe not in that order)

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?

I really wanted to be an astronaut, but given I was once seasick on a pedalo, this was unlikely to be a goer. I never considered science as a career, but I was always interested in how things worked. I wrote to Jim'll Fix It because I wanted to learn how neon lights worked, but he didn't write back (maybe a lucky escape looking back). As a teenager I wanted to be a musician, and I have played in bands since I was a teenager (still do), so I sort-of managed that. I also wanted to be a journalist, and so my science blog helped me to fulfil that dream too. Apart from the astronaut thing I've done quite well.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?

I love the work I do, I have great colleagues, inspirational supervisors and fantastic mentors. Some days I do nothing but clean data, but I still know I'm lucky to love my work, and having done some years in the wilderness where I had temping jobs, I value that a lot.

What is the one thing you'd love to achieve in your research?

Only one thing?! I'd like to be proud of all the work I do. Of course, I'd love to discover some finding that can really help people, but I know research well enough to know this is as much luck as hard work.

What is the best/worst thing about your job?

The best thing is the flexibility, and the chance to go to conferences all over the world, and my colleagues, and...oh there are lots of best things, it seems.

The worst thing are the occasional monotonous days where a piece of code just won't work, or when you leave something running overnight to discover it crashed and you have to start again. Or that there just aren't enough hours in the day to do all the stuff I want to do.

What do you enjoy other than science?

Playing and listening to music, writing about science (does that count?), running and swimming, watching films, cooking (and eating), crafty stuff...

What would be your ideal holiday?

Somewhere near water I can swim in, where I can read a book, go for nice runs, and eat good food. Cornwall is pretty good for those things. Though I recently went to California and completely fell in love with the State, and could tick off all those things there too.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise?)

I'm very much inspired by Jean Golding, the woman who set up the Children of the 90s birth cohort that I conduct my research on. I've been really lucky and had some excellent female role models throughout my undergrad, research assistant and PhD time. Gabriella Vigliocco, Celia Heyes, Debbie Lawlor and Angela Attwood particularly stand out. Marcus Munafo too (but he's not a lady, obviously).

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?

Be nice, be helpful, be grateful. Have fun (you will).

Monday, 7 October 2013

The Real Deal: Helen Czerski, Physicist

Today we welcome the amazing Dr. Helen Czerski to the blog, who took time out of her busy schedule to tell us her story, or more accurately, her adventure! Helen is a physicist, TV presenter and a self-described rebel. But don’t just take our word for it…

Catch up with Helen on twitter: @helenczerski

What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?
I study bubbles underneath breaking waves in the ocean.
Three words: Enthusiasm, Stubbornness, Adventurous

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?
I didn't think about it. I hated it when I was asked. When people asked me "what are you going to do when you grow up", I just said "I'm not going to grow up", and I think I'm probably doing ok on that one. I just wanted to do interesting things, and I saw no reason why I needed to plan years ahead. I knew I'd do something related to science and physics, but I didn't mind what.

What is the one thing you'd love to achieve in your research?
To find something off to the side of my main topic which turns out to be important and was entirely unexpected. You can't plan to do that, but if you do science well, those little unexpected things can be the most valuable and rewarding bits.

What is the best and/or worst thing about your job?
The best thing is the freedom to work out how best to do my job, which is just to find out interesting and useful things about how the world works. The worst thing is that there's so much of it to do, and you never get to relax with a feeling of a job that's finished, because there's always more that you should be getting on with.

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?
Don't be afraid to walk up to people and just talk to them.  I was very very shy as a kid, and I wish I'd got over that sooner.  I did a lot of stuff on my own - especially travelling - and it was great but it would have been more fun if I'd done more of it with other people.

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?
I care about science being done well, and I enjoy the challenges along the way. Mostly, I enjoy the variety - I do hands-on practical work, I write, I get to piece together scientific jigsaw pieces, to teach, to think. It's the variety that keeps me happy.

What do you enjoy other than science?
Sport: badminton, swimming, running and anything else active that I can get involved with.
Books.  I love books and words and playing with words.
New things.  I am a glutton for things I haven't done before.
Making stuff. I get a real kick out of making physical things - experiments, cakes, lego contraptions, anything.

What would be your idea holiday?
Something like hiking over the Alps or walking a segment of the coast of Britain - something outdoorsy and active. Maybe a trip to Iceland - I've always wanted to go but I've never been.

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise?)
Scientific inspiration: the mentor I had in California, who is a fabulous scientist with great integrity but very human with it. He is honest and open about how he makes decisions, not afraid to admit he's failed, and he's always up for a challenge.  It was an enormous privilege to work with him.

In general:  probably my parents. My mum isn't afraid to challenge authority about things that could be done better, and she's very practical. My dad has a very open attitude to the world - his default reaction to a question is "well, let's go and find out". Both them supported whatever I wanted to do, and weren't pushy.  I really appreciate that - I'm a bit of a rebel by nature, and I don't respond well to being bossed about without understanding why I'm being asked to do whatever it is.

Anything else you'd like to add?
I never had the idea that I would have a "career" and I still haven't. I'm not particularly interested in thinking more than a year ahead – who knows what will happen next week? It would be utterly dull to live out a pre-planned career path. I've always been happy to take opportunities, just because I like the adventure, and I work hard at what interests me.  So far, it's always led me on to other things that interest me.
Most of the good things that have happened have come as a result of something that I "wasn't supposed to be doing", according to conventional career lore. I care about integrity in the work I do, and I care about working on things that contribute to society. Past that, I'm open to pretty much anything.

Monday, 30 September 2013

The Real Deal: Renee Hlozek, Cosmologist

Today High Heels in the Lab meets Dr. Renee Hlozek, who is living her dream job as a cosmologist. Her fun-loving nature sure shines through and we love the fact that she is constantly inspired by those around her. She’s inspired us too! 

Want to know more? Renee is on twitter: @reneehlozek

What do you do and give 3 words that describe how you got there?
I am a cosmologist at Princeton.
Hard work (almost one word!), passion and funding got me here.

What career did you think you would have when you were younger?
I actually hoped to have the career I do have when I was younger!

What is it that makes you want to come to work each day?
I love solving problems, and asking questions about how the universe works. And the people I work with inspire me.

What is the one thing you'd love to achieve in your research?
I'd love to build a research group which all works together to solve these problems, and to also work with artists on science-art collaborations!

What is the best/worst thing about your job?
It is very hard to switch off from work (she says checking mail on a supposed holiday), so creating work-life balance is really important.

What do you enjoy other than science?
I love singing, art and making cocktails!

What would be your ideal holiday?
I'd love to go on a holiday that combines sight seeing with relaxing on the beach. Enter: Zanzibar, which is on my bucket list!

Who or what is your greatest inspiration (science or otherwise?)
I think people who have achieved in spite of difficult circumstances really inspire me. An example of this would be the women who weren't allowed to have research careers but continued without salary or recognition anyway.

If you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be?
Relax and just be yourself. People who try to change you away from the 'fun-loving-caring' direction don't count. And it is ok to wear nail polish to work!

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Exploring the universe at Green Man Festival

On Monday I returned from the Green Man Festival in Brecon National Park in Wales, where I spent three days talking to festival goers about the 'Big Questions' in the Universe. I don't think I've ever been more exhausted after three days, but I'm really happy with how it went and enthused by the experience. I was there with a great team of science communicators as part of a national project called 'Explore your Universe'

In case you haven't heard of it, 'Explore your Universe' was developed by the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) in partnership with STFC to put together a set of core equipment and distribute it to 10 ASDC member centres. They have also trained science centre staff and STFC researchers to encourage further links and engagement. 

I've been connected with the project since its early days advising on accelerator and particle physics communication, so I happily agreed to do some more hands-on engagement at a music festival this summer.
What's that? It's a comet we just made!
It's fair to say I'm used to presenting public lectures in a safe, organised and most importantly dry lecture theatre or school. The challenge of taking science communication to a music festival in unpredictable British weather was not lost on me. Anyone who has ever worked with a Van de Graaff generator will tell you they are temperamental at the best of times, let alone in 90% humidity in a field!

Thankfully the organisation was expertly handled by project manager Michaela Livingstone and all I needed to do was show up, pitch my tent and get interacting with the public.

I'm not sure I've ever spoken to such a varied audience about such a broad range of science. Each day we were focusing our activities on a new "Big Question" from "is there life out there?" to "what makes us, the galaxies and everything?". The stand was really popular and we had everyone from little kids with their parents, teenagers who were just about to start university through to retired physics teachers come to visit and explore.

Showing some kids the 'memory metal'
I went from talking about static electricity while kneeling on the grass with some wide eyed kids to postulating about the existence of life elsewhere in the universe with teenagers whose faces were covered in glitter. At one point I found myself giving a crash course in quantum field theory to a man who would easily qualify as the most-interested-non-scientist ever. One thing was for sure; the stand was always busy and people were incredibly interested!

As the resident accelerator expert I also did a lot of talking about particle accelerators from the Large Hadron Collider through to some of the smaller more application-based accelerators for cancer treatment and security applications. That was in between helping to make dry ice comets and on one particularly rainy and humid day wiping the condensation from the front of a cloud chamber as people stared in wonder at invisible particles suddenly made visible.

Humidity is not great for operating cloud chambers... (Photo credit: Phill Day)
I found that being at a music festival was also a great development experience for me as a communicator. I was in awe as I watched the professionals from the ASDC science centres expertly draw in and engage all ages and I was even more impressed by their hugely wide-reaching scientific knowledge. These guys could answer everything from the biology of a tardigrade to the chemical composition of comets and meteorites. I was seriously impressed.

The team (mostly!): Michaela, Phill, Sophie, me & Josh with some kit
They were also loads of fun to work with. I haven't had such a great geeky weekend in a long time! By the way, this is what happened back at camp when we found we had some leftover glowsticks. Awesome? Yep. 

(Photo credit: Phill Day)
Anyway, back to the point: if you are an STFC scientist or STFC funded researcher I encourage you to get involved in the Explore your Universe project, get in touch with your local ASDC centre and use the excellent set of equipment to engage the public with your area of science. And while you're at it, don't forget to seek the help and advice of the amazing science centre staff. Their enthusiasm is infectious and having spent a weekend in their company will keep me motivated to improve my science communication skills for a good time to come.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Why I need a little positivity

Today I was pointed to this interesting project photographing Nobel Laureates. I started flicking through the pages, thinking it was kind of a fun take on the idea and had a nice human element, discussing how lucky they felt to have been awarded the prize and so on.

Now I apologize for screenshotting it, you can go and check out the whole project, but I wanted to share this 'overview' photo because it highlights something important.

Did you notice the important thing?

...Where are the women?

There are in fact two of them (can you find them??) but in general this is pretty representative of my experience as a woman in science.

I reckon that until there are at least 10 women in that picture, you would assume it was all men at first glance.

Yesterday I met with a group of women within STFC to discuss issues of why women leave science (in particular academic science) and I wanted to share my thoughts with you on this blog.

Apologies for the rant in advance.

It is continually thrust in my face that I am unlikely to succeed in my chosen career. While I identify in many ways with the nobel laureates in the pictures (their thirst for knowledge, creative side and joy of discovery) this kind of image does nothing to bolster my confidence or persuade me that it is, in fact, possible to succeed in my career.

Meeting all the women at work yesterday did infinitely more to convince me in a positive way that what I am attempting is not impossible. I firmly believe it is VERY possible if only I would stop letting the debilitating doubts in the back of my mind [these doubts are not self-generated but I believe are caused by being constantly reminded of my supposed "chances" in this career].

So it's hardly bleeding surprising that there have been instances when I have felt like quitting science. I wondered if perhaps these things have convinced other women to leave science, so maybe I should spell out a list of things which have happened to me just in the last year which have made me want to quit:

  • When an eminent professor in another country spelled it out to me in no uncertain terms that I would always have to be better than the men I work with to get equal credit or even be taken seriously.
  • When I was harassed at a recent conference.
  • When I was sent a job advert that I could do with my current skill set at twice my current salary that was permanent, non-competitive, local and not stereotypically 'male'. (ie. I was provided an option of an 'easy way out'. Just in case I wanted to quit, you know...)
  • Whenever I consider the idea of having a family in the next 5 years and think of all the times I've been told how bleedin' hard that will be while pursuing an academic career & the post-doc circuit.
  • When I was listed as "homemaker" on our mortgage application because my independent research fellowship apparently doesn't count as having a job or an income. Where is the respect for my long-fought-for career, seriously?
  • Every time I see a woman or man who I respect and admire leaving science because they have grown tired of all the things I've listed above and more.
Most of all, I'm tired of having this thrust in my face all the time. I'm tired of thinking about it. There ARE women who have succeeded in science and those who continue to do so ALL THE TIME. I met a whole load of them yesterday!
What I really need (and I said this in the meeting yesterday) is some positive inspiration rather than all the downbeat statistics and well-intentioned 'warnings' about how hard our careers are going to be.

I know hard. I work hard. I'm OK with doing hard, scary, challenging things. I'm not doing science because it's easy. I don't run marathons because they are easy either. That said, one thing marathon running has taught me is the importance of a positive mentality.

So when it comes to a career in science I simply have to block out all the negative messages I'm being sent and repeat my mantra: I CAN do this. I WILL succeed.

Now just let me get on and do it!

Friday, 26 July 2013

The ideal scientific workplace

Many scientific workplaces are stereotypically drab places. To scientists this isn’t news, we have gotten used to cutting edge research taking place in the most uninspiring surrounds. But does it have to be this way? Would we be more effective if a little more thought and planning was put into our place of work?

Walking around my own workplace the sad edifices of austere 50’s and 60’s architecture certainly do nothing to inspire me, despite the swathe of bright posters that have recently started to appear. Science-lab-grey and beige are gender-neutral, culturally neutral and all-round inoffensive but I’m sorry they just don’t get my motor running. So what would you change about your workplace if you were in charge?

I recently put this question to friends and colleagues and got some fascinating responses that I’d like to share with you.

One of the key points focused on the physical environment. To start with, large open plan offices would be banned as being the most unproductive invention ever to beset scientific life. The temperature would be comfortable and controllable by the office inhabitant (in general women complained it was too cold, men complained it was too hot). These suggestions aren’t silly either; the last few weeks my office has peaked at over 35 degrees in the afternoon and this has seriously affected my productivity and I am not happy about it!

Google offices, from the 'Office Design Gallery
Many suggestions centered on a better integration of modern working styles in science. Moving outside the individual or small shared offices, there would be comfortable places to sit quietly, to gather informally for discussion and somewhere to make private phone calls when necessary. There would be interaction spaces where it is possible to work either individually or together and WiFi networks which cover outdoor spaces (heck, in my workplace it would be good if they even covered the indoor ones!).

One of the best suggestions I had was “people should actually have to talk to each other to communicate”. This means the default for internal communication should be face-to-face unless absolutely necessary. Get up from your desk and away from your email, people. There should also be fewer pointless meetings held simply because they are a regular fixture, even though there is nothing to discuss.

We should acknowledge that for creative scientific insight the best route is often a period of rest and reflection. Having flexible working hours is key for this and for maintaining a good work-life balance. While having bunks or hammocks above every desk (as one person suggested) may be going too far, having a chill-out space or meditation room to clear the mind or take a quick powernap is a great idea.
Some people were lucky enough to have lunchtime yoga classes in a nicely designed space, somewhere nice to go for a short walk or run as well as good showers with lockers. These were certainly the subject of some envy to those doing without!

The next major focus was on food and drink. My own workplace is rather cut-off and the only catering is that available on site, so it’s crucial to get it right. In this area people wanted healthier food options, qualified baristas to make the coffee and better food supply out-of-hours. It seems so simple, but it’s so important.

There are other schemes that affect workers happiness, which many people are still missing out on; better disability support and flexible working hours are particularly important ones. To my surprise, one person bemoaned the lack of a recycling scheme. What workplace doesn’t have recycling nowadays? I can see how someone would be unhappy with that.

Another recurrent theme we probably all know well is the illogical rules for expense claims. We could all do with a finance department that takes less than six weeks to pay back expenses (a rare find, trust me!).

As something of a final flourish, people even went so far as to suggest an entirely different management structure. They wanted a flatter structure, where staff members have local autonomy over projects and teams or research groups change over time. This is not the same as having short-term post-doc staff who leave the institution after a year or two.

Permanent or long-term staff would join a project when necessary and then put their skills to use in a different team or on a different project of their own choosing afterward. This would not only keep working teams ‘fresh’ but also lead to a greater cross-pollination of ideas, while giving staff job security and professional development. I’m not sure how well this would work in research, but it’s a fascinating prospect.

I realised after all this discussion that not all of these things are expensive or difficult to implement. In fact, some of them would only rely on our own initiative to change the environment we work in.

One day, when I’m in a position to think about how my staff work and interact with each other I will try to make verbal communication the default and seriously contemplate the management structure before simply complying with it.

For now, there is a lot you can do right now. Instead of sending an email get up from your desk and chat to your colleagues. Rather than standing at the door or chatting across the open plan office, go out for a short walk and get some exercise while you talk. Decorate your own workplace with things that inspire you, rather than just pinning up the most recent publication on the noticeboard. Campaign for healthier food if that’s what you want. Think you’d be better off working on a different project? Talk to someone about it!

As for those old buildings we all work in? Change is happening. Take the new Francis Crick Institute as an example. It seems we are finally waking up to better use of architecture and the built environment and its potential to enhance the scientific workplace. It might take a while, but we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for the kind of environment we want to work in. After all, who wants to spend half their life in the same old beige box?

What would make your ideal scientific workplace? Is there something you could do differently to enhance your working environment? Leave a comment and let me know.