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.