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!