Thursday, 2 April 2015

Being a human first and a scientist second

Being a scientist is a strange occupation. I know that we're viewed as 'not quite the same' as other humans and bizarrely, we seem to strive toward that narrow view of ourselves. Being a scientist, particularly an academic one, is full of the pursuit of higher ideals and striving to advance human knowledge. Isn't it?

For a long time now I've had a feeling that something is wrong with this. At times in my career I've had the thought that everyone else seemed fine and that it must be me that somehow didn't fit in. It's easy to think that is because I'm a woman in a very male dominated field. But really, it's not the reason. The reason is because I'm a human first and a scientist second.

Over the years cynical scientists may realise that the upper echelons in this game are filled with egocentric academics who have stuck it out longer than anyone else, many of whom have made many personal sacrifices along the way. Late nights in the lab are de rigeur, as is having only a passing interest in ones children or simply choosing not to have any at all to get ahead. Even as junior researchers we were told we must move around the world if we wanted a good network and any chance of pursuing our 'dream' career. (One might well ask ‘whose dream, anyway?’) 

Faced with this ultimatum: "you must compromise your life to keep doing the job you love", we almost all decide to make sacrifices. In many cases it is a life affirming and enriching experience. But just because it can be positive doesn't mean we should sacrifice our happiness or career if moving is not right for us. But those who can't, by and large, leave to go do something else. I have seen this play out over and over again with the peers that I studied with.

In an often unfamiliar place and culture we come into work each day and effectively go into battle. We might be competing for favour with the Professor, competing for grants, or good students, or teaching ratings, or first author on a paper, publicity or book sales but make no mistake we are forced to compete. So rather than genuinely supporting one another we in fact each try to call one another out for being wrong. We justify this animosity by affirming our belief that what's important is doing things 'right'. (In reality this is usually competitiveness masquerading as pedantry). 

Surely all those years of training should be put to good use and we should act 'like scientists'? That means being or at least trying to be totally objective. It means sucking it up when Professor Big Shot totally slates the work of a research student who was only presenting it because their own supervisor, Professor Big Ego told them to. 

This process can and often does turn nasty. I can't tell you the number of heated arguments I've personally witnessed which came down to attacks on personal character. I won't relate the multitude of stories I've heard about the horrible way that people have treated each other 'in the name of science'. Those who can't hack it leave to go do something else.

I'm no longer surprised when people call time on this career. A person is quite sane when they call into question whether its the right decision to leave behind family and friends (their key support network) to have a job on the other side of the world, if it later turns into a battleground laced with an undercurrent of fear of inadequacy and being an impostor. Even if the higher ideal of contributing to knowledge is still there, it can be hard to hold onto that single positive straw when the rest of the structure of your life has been broken.

So scientists, do you value yourself first or your science? All your training, all the stories of the heroes and heroines of science, the career fairytales all force you to make one decision: science comes first. Self comes second. Those who think otherwise, they leave too.

The main problem I have identified here is that scientists on the whole view each other as scientists first and humans second. Fundamentally, scientific workplaces and scientific training lacks empathy. It has taken me many years to realise that I was effectively forced by the education system to focus on the sciences at the age of around 15 or thereabouts, which is really very early in life. This means I have over the years been robbed of opportunities for emotional and personal growth that I may not have missed had I studied say philosophy or literature instead. 

By surrounding myself with scientists, even the most lovely and inspiring ones, I reduced my ability to learn to empathise, to be creative, to accept and to tolerate the imperfect because I had it drilled into me to be rigorous, objective, rational, logical and perfection seeking. While the rigorous parts of scientific research demand those things, I realise now that it was this focused training (which I was, unashamedly, very good at) which subsequently set me up to fail with regards to the kind of challenges I'd face after my PhD. It has been a long hard road to make up for that.

Many years ago I was asked the dreaded job interview question 'what is your greatest weakness?' to which I responded 'fear of failure'. 

Yet, I am imperfect. When I fail - and it is a when not an if - I want to learn from it, not feel compelled to hide it away in a box called 'unpublished work'. Personally, failure has taught me my strengths and weaknesses as a scientist. I am still learning to accept it, but I am doing a lot better than I used to. 

I count it as a very good thing that many of my best friends are musicians, humanities graduates and scientists who have much broader interests, they have taught me a lot. It's also a good thing that I've spent so many years ignoring the well-intentioned advice of some of those more senior to me. 

Over time, I have been developing a list of guidelines that I would ask members of my imaginary future research group to follow. Perhaps you can help me add a few more?
  1. Members of this group will treat each other as human beings first, and scientists second. People are the first priority in this lab (not publications or citations or h-index or anything else...)
  2. Empathy is encouraged.
  3. You are encouraged to dare greatly but to take responsibility for your daring.
  4. Creativity is at the heart of all we do.
  5. Failure is to be embraced, not hidden.
  6. Feedback will be constructive. 
  7. Honesty is required, as is tact.
I recognise in all of this that I'm one of the lucky ones. I've generally had very positive environments to work in and amazingly supportive colleagues who have, on a number of occasions, had my back when I needed them to. I've also been very lucky to have a number of 'sponsors' or supporters both male and female to offer me advice, mentorship, contacts and other countless small steps up when I needed them. Many people don't have this, but I want to support them and let them know that it can be better. It really can. 

We should all remember that we are human first and scientist second. No matter how hard we try, this will always be the case. We just need to learn to embrace it.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Ada Lovelace Day: Identifying my female role models

In the past I’ve repeatedly said that most of my mentors and role models in science have been men. It wasn’t something I’d ever really thought much about. Being in a male-dominated field I thought it was natural that my role models should be men. A while ago the idea dawned on me that perhaps my own subconscious bias means I just think of the men first. So I thought I’d make an effort to write down my female role models as well.

As I sat encased in a large metal tube in the sky over the Atlantic ocean while returning from a recent conference, my thoughts first landed on my high school maths teacher back in Australia – Carla Whiting. I did 'specialist’ maths which was widely regarded as the most difficult subject you could do in the whole of your school career in Australia at the time. Mrs. Whiting taught it in such a way that made it not just come alive, but made any grappling with difficult concepts seem worth the effort. She made me want to work hard to really understand things properly. 

The feature I admired most about her was the way she really used her brain and how she seemed to gain great satisfaction from thinking hard and solving a problem. She made me realise that I have a pretty decent brain and I owe it to myself to use it to the best of my ability.

At the end of the second year of my undergraduate degree I spent a summer working with Mahananda Dasgupta at the Australian National University. Nanda showed me what it was like to spend my days as a physicist. She was fantastic and knowledgeable both theoretically and experimentally. Over time I’ve come to realise she is also great at identifying questions in her field that need answering, and I recently learned she has been elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences, which has raised headlines for its lack of female Fellows in the past. 

She taught me that it is important to keep asking questions, to question accepted results, including your own. This is a key part of doing science and I am privileged to have learned this lesson at such an early stage in my career.

My next role model was a lecturer at my university, Rachel Webster. Rachel is a prominent astrophysicist who taught me several undergraduate courses. She particularly inspired me toward the end of my degree when I learned that she'd gone to Cambridge for her PhD. Speaking to her about this, it became clear to me that she had a dream of what she wanted for her career and she pursued it, never giving up. Of course, she made a (great!) success of it. Her ambition made it clear to me that as a woman in science it's OK to show ambition. 

Sure, not everyone will like you for it but its OK to put your heart and soul into what you do. Also, you have to come to terms with the idea that not everyone will like you. As women we seem to be socially conditioned to draw back in fear at the thought of someone disliking us. Sometimes we can be disliked simply for being successful. Odd, isn't it?

After that I ended up following my own dream to study for my PhD at Oxford and lo and behold things have so far worked out alright for me too. Without someone like Rachel to prove to me that it could be done, I'm not at all sure I would have even applied. 

During my PhD at Oxford I was pleasantly surprised that there were a number of women in my cohort. But I remember distinctly the first external meeting that I attended, where about 30 people were threshing out some of the details of designing ‘EMMA’, a world first in the field of particle accelerators. Not including myself there were roughly 30 people there but just one other woman.

I remember her distinctly, an American lady named Carol Johnstone who was heavily involved in the discussions. I soon discovered that Carol was the one who had actually suggested the whole idea of this type of accelerator. She invented it! Over time I’ve been privileged to get to know Carol and have realised what an absolute powerhouse of new and innovative ideas she is. She gets so excited in the design stages of accelerators and has so many new ideas that sometimes its hard to keep up! 

She taught me how valuable it is to have different types of people working together. You need the working bees as much as you need the innovators. You need the quiet ones as much as you need the vocal ones. 

I’m going to add this one to the mix too: you need the women as much as you need the men.

Toward the end of my PhD I also got to meet and chat to someone who is pretty high up many people's lists of female role models in physics: Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell. She probably doesn't realise it but she left a big impression on me (thanks Jocelyn, if you happen to read this!) She taught me the importance of humility and perspective. She instilled in me (whether intentionally or not!) the idea that while the topics we work on as scientists may be lofty, in order to be successful we need to stay well and truly grounded. We need to focus on what is important and (to an extent) ignore the rest.

She re-instilled in me something that I feel has been slipping away from me over the years. Sometimes the system is wrong or you want to do something that you truly believe in but people stand in your way; just go ahead and do it anyway. No-one ever remembers a woman who spends her life toeing the line, after all.

When I think as a whole about the reasons why these women inspired me it is because they are all incredibly intelligent, groundbreaking in their own way and passionate about what they do. Yes, they are hardworking and often trail-blazing. But the absolute best thing for me is that knowing them personally I also know that as well as being brilliant scientists they are all real women, with all the quirks and imperfections that entails. They aren't superhuman. Most importantly what they have achieved is attainable. 


I’m proud to have identified my female role models, mentors and influencers and the lessons they have taught me. If like me your default answer about your role models is “they are all men” I implore you to stop and think today on Ada Lovelace Day and see if you can rewrite your own mental history book.

Friday, 16 May 2014

How to use a negative experience of harassment to make a positive change

Over the years I have experienced my fair share of harassment, particularly at conferences. I wrote about this some time ago when I was thinking about conference anti-harassment policies and discovered a bunch of great resources online.

This process gave me the chance to think about how these experiences have affected me and other women I know in my field, in terms of how we think about our careers, how we approach networking and our levels of interaction at conferences. I heard stories of women avoiding conferences altogether, or having their careers damaged thanks to improper handling of cases of harassment.

I wanted to use my own negative experiences to affect real, positive change.

The issue of how to implement such a policy is to an extent a 'solved problem' so I wanted to implement the solution in my own field, in order to prevent others in my field experiencing the levels of harassment that I have. I also wanted this to happen so that they know what action to take if they do experience harassment, and what they can expect the outcome to be for the perpetrator.

Today I discovered that the major conference in my field, whose chair I contacted about this issue, subsequently took action. I did chase it up a little over the last six months, but I more-or-less left it in their hands to discuss and see if they agreed that a policy was a good idea.

In discussions with other colleagues I realised that for some people the prevalence of harassment would simply not be believed unless I shared some of my experiences. Some people will be surprised by this, but simply telling a person who has never experienced harassment that it "happens all the time" will not change their view about it one iota. So after seeking out the support and encouragement of my twitter network of amazing women in science, I did share some of my experiences in order to get my point across. As hard as it was to speak up about this, I believed it was important in order to make change happen.

I'll never know how the discussion evolved, but there was a positive outcome. I'm very pleased to say that there is now a public anti-harassment policy on the conference website.

This is a small step in the right direction, but I think it is a significant one. Going onto the GeekFeminism Wiki about anti-harassment and being able to add the name of this conference to the list of those which have adopted a policy felt fantastic.

Making the field of research a better, more welcoming and happier place for all the people working in it is hugely important to me. This is my small success story. By documenting it here on this blog I hope it will serve as a positive example to others.

In the words of one (male) supporter who has been involved in this "let's keep this going!"


Thursday, 8 May 2014

Women in scientific careers - the Government response

This is a guest post by Dr. Jo Barstow
You can continue the conversation on twitter (@drjovian)

The Science and Technology Select Committee published a report back in February, detailing the problems of retaining women in scientific careers. A disproportionate number of women who embark on a career in science choose to leave, and the Select Committee report provides a good summary of possible causes. The committee also came up with a series of sound recommendations for how this problem might be tackled, and yesterday the government published their response.

It’s clear that the findings of the report have been considered and taken seriously, but I struggled to find many instances of planned action on the government’s part beyond measures that are already in place. Without wishing to detract from those (extremely positive) measures, such as investment in Athena SWAN, there seemed to be a lack of willingness to take things further outside existing frameworks. This was especially noticeable in the response to Recommendation 16 from the select committee, which reads:
“Balancing the benefits of short term contracts with the needs of Post-Doctoral Researchers was examined by our predecessor committee in 2002. We are disappointed at the lack of progress in the last decade. The system of short term employment contracts for post-docs results in job insecurity and discontinuity of employment rights that is difficult for any researcher, but disproportionally deters women from continuing with science careers. It also has implications for workforce productivity.”
Disappointingly, whilst the government accepts that short term contracts are “challenging to individuals”, they claim that the burden of changing this rests entirely with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Because HEIs are autonomous employers, the government argues, they set the length of a contract and provided they conform to legislation the government’s hands are tied. This view misses out a crucial fact: many postdocs are government funded, either through a personal fellowship or through research council money won by their HEI, and the duration of that fellowship or grant is set by the research council.

HEIs are often unable to extend individual short-term contracts beyond the term of the funding, so in effect the length of a postdoc contract is dictated by the research council’s funding structure. This is something that the government needs to recognize, and RCUK has to take responsibility for.

My second concern is with the statistics provided in Appendix A, showing a steady decrease in the percentage of full-time research-only staff on fixed-term contracts between 2004 and 2013. One thing that really stands out is the focus on research-only staff. The majority of early career staff are research-only, whereas most senior staff also have teaching commitments; therefore, one would expect scientists to move out of the research-only category as part of their natural career progression. It is therefore difficult to tell whether this statistic really reflects an increase in permanent jobs for academic staff, or whether it instead reflects a shift away from combined research/teaching to more research-only tenured posts.

Despite problems with some of the government’s responses, I still think the committee report has had really positive outcomes for women in science, and it’s reassuring to see it being taken seriously at the highest levels in the UK. Whilst there are many changes that we still want to see, it’s worth acknowledging the encouraging signs that are already there: the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships and Daphne Jackson Trust fellowships, designed to help those who require flexible working or who are returning from a career break; the fact that “family constraints” are an acceptable reason to apply to a particular host institution for the STFC Ernest Rutherford fellowship; the large number of HEIs who have signed up to Athena SWAN and Project Juno. I hope the recommendations from the report will be attended to carefully over the next few years.

- Dr. Jo Barstow

Thursday, 3 April 2014

London Marathon for ScienceGrrl

I just wanted to point you to this post on the ScienceGrrl blog. They have kindly featured me as the 'ScienceGrrl of the month' for April, so I've written a post about aspirations, my job as an accelerator physicist and the fact that in 10 days time I'll be running the London Marathon. Oh, and a mention of high heels gets chucked in there too for good measure.
If you want a quick link to pop over to my fundraising site for the marathon, click this link to my ZEQUS page.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Getting excited for a BIG "Big Bang Fair"

The blog has been a bit quiet lately because my schedule has been stuffed full of some rather exciting things! Since all that hard work is hopefully about to start paying off, here's a quick update.

In January I was invited to co-present one of the headline shows at this years Big Bang Fair. A fantastic opportunity to reach a great (very large!) audience. At first glance the Big Bang seemed to overlap with some exciting experiments for my research in Japan, when I'd be out of the country. Cue disappointment and sobbing.

But thankfully within a few days the pieces fell miraculously into place, my experiments needed to be a week later than originally planned and I managed to move heaven and Earth to fit this gig in my schedule.

Of course, now my schedule is even more crammed than usual! (Did I mention I'm training for the London Marathon at the same time? Well at least running is a stress release...)

So it happened that over the past two months I've been spending a fair bit of time thinking about how to squeeze the topics of particle physics and food together. Thankfully I've had some expert help with this mammoth task from the main show presenter and food writer Stefan Gates (@stefangates), and his assistant Chris Clarke (@CrcClarke).

The show is called Gastronaut Extreme, but you'll have to wait for my next update about the Big Bang itself to see how we combined the two topics (I'm not giving all our tricks away!).

Tonight I head to Birmingham to the NEC to start bumping in. I haven't used the term 'bump in' since I did amateur musical theatre many years ago in Australia! It's very exciting to be part of such a big show and it has been a fantastic learning experience for me so far.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I've learned along the way:

  • No matter how long you've been doing science presenting and demonstrations, there are always new ideas out there and new ways of presenting them.
  • Scaling demonstrations up to very large (1000+) audiences is a challenge in itself and many demonstrations simply can't scale up to this size, even if they are nice demos for a 50-100 person audience. Also, the number of pages of your risk assessment will scale up too!
  • Having a good network of fellow science communicators who really know their stuff is invaluable. I couldn't have pulled all my new demos together for this show in such a short time without their advice, supplier lists, safety advice, staging advice etc. 
  • It seems that having experience presenting demonstrations to large audiences isn't a particularly common skill among scientists. I think I'm slowly starting to appreciate that I may have a fairly unique skill set for a research scientist... and that I should continue to develop that skill set and see where it leads me.
  • BUT my main job is being a scientist so I shouldn't expect to be able to spend the same time or have the same level of training or experience as someone who does this stuff professionally. I still feel like an amateur at this sometimes despite having a decade of experience. I have to accept that I can only do as much as I can fit in my schedule. As it happens that's a pretty full schedule already.
  • There are some awesome, clever, lovely, friendly, kind people who work in science communication. I really enjoy working with them and I consider it a real privilege whenever a chance like this comes my way. It helps balance out the days when I'm bashing my head against the wall trying to compile code or get my head around a badly defined equation. 
  • Doing science communication and outreach constantly reminds me that science is an awe inspiring, world-changing, exciting, dynamic and amazing field to work in. It makes me happy to be a scientist.
What could I be planning with this safety gear??
Hope to see some of you at the Big Bang Fair! Follow me on @suziesheehy or @BigBangFair to get all the news.


Monday, 27 January 2014

The Real Deal: Dr. Katie Mack, Cosmologist

Today we have the immense honour of meeting a cosmologist who is currently working in Melbourne, Australia. She quite literally spends her time thinking and talking about how the universe works in all its glory. What's more amazing is that she knew she wanted to be a cosmologist from the age of just 10! 

Her busy lifestyle and ability to work anywhere make her quite hard to pin down, so we're very pleased to have managed to nab her attention for a few minutes. Ladies and gentleman, we're very pleased to introduce Dr. Katie Mack.

(You can catch up with Katie on twitter @astrokatie or via her blog)



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

I’m a theoretical astrophysicist – specifically a cosmologist. I study the early universe, the evolution of the Universe, and generally all the weird stuff like dark matter and exotic physics. My work is theoretical in the sense that I do calculations instead of dealing directly with observations or data, but I don’t usually come up with new theories, really. My focus is on connecting existing theories of the cosmos and the early universe to ongoing or future cosmological observations. It means I have to have a good understanding of both the observational and theoretical side of cosmology, and it means I get to be really creative. Coming up with new ideas for testing theories – trying to think about the Universe in a new way – is one of the best things about my job.

Three words: passion, perseverance, focus.

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

I think there was a brief time when I was very young when I thought about maybe doing electrical engineering (I enjoyed taking electronic things apart and putting them back together) but by the time I was about 10 years old I knew for sure that I wanted to be a cosmologist.

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

There are two really great things about my job that make me excited to come to work. One is being able to discover new things about the Universe that no one has discovered before. It is an immense thrill to be able to (as a theorist) use just math and inference from observational data to learn something new about, say, the way galaxies form and evolve, or the physical conditions in the very early universe. The other thing is talking about physics with my colleagues and discovering new things that way (or helping them discover new things). I love that chatting about the Universe is just part of my everyday job. Having a productive conversation about a physics problem always puts me on a bit of a high. Right now I’m in a department where there are a lot of people working on things that are related to what I do, and so having conversations like that is often a simple matter of walking down the hall. It’s great.

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

I suppose the dream is to discover something Really Important, and make a big impact on future research and the direction of cosmology for years to come. Second choice would be just to do good work and make a positive contribution to the field I work in by producing research results that people find helpful and insightful and which they can draw upon to advance the field in the future. I’d also like to have an impact as a communicator, both inside and outside academia, because I think good communication can help researchers to find the necessary perspective and connections to make progress, and can also improve access to the field for future researchers.

What is the best/worst thing about your job?

The best thing is being able to spend my time talking and thinking about and discovering the Universe. The worst thing is that this stage of academia (the postdoc stage) can be very uprooting. The way the academic career is structured in my field, it’s often necessary to move to different institutions and in many cases different countries to work on short-term (few year) contracts before moving on to a permanent job. Competition for permanent jobs is fierce, so there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get one, even if you’re very very good. The uncertainty and the unsettledness can be quite hard.

What do you enjoy other than science?

My biggest passion aside from science is writing (and communication in general). I particularly love using writing to share science and academic culture with people who might not otherwise have much access to it. I have a blog where I write about cosmology occasionally, and I also do some science writing for other blogs or publications on a freelance basis. Lately I’ve been doing some other kinds of outreach/communication, such as a YouTube series and various public events. It’s great to be able to share my passion with the public whenever possible.

I also play a lot of sports (pretty much any sport, whenever the opportunity arises) and I go out dancing whenever I can convince people to join me.

What would be your ideal holiday?

Um. I don’t know. I travel constantly (for work) and rarely take holidays. The best holiday I’ve had in recent years was a 10-day road trip across New Zealand. So, probably something like that. It’s really rare for me to be able to take a reasonable amount of time away from work. Science continues; there are always things that need doing. Balance is a difficult thing. So is taking breaks.

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

My grandfather was always an inspiration to me. I wrote an article about him and his influence on me for a blog a while back. When I was a kid, I was inspired by Stephen Hawking (mainly in the sense that I wanted to be doing his job). These days I’m particularly inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is an incredible science communicator and who very effectively expresses and inspires passion for astronomy.

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

I’d advise myself to study more math – earlier, and more diligently. More math is always better in physics, and practice is what makes you good at it.

Anything else you'd like to add?


One of the best ways to connect with working scientists is by getting on Twitter. I’ve been using Twitter for a couple of years to talk with other scientists and to chat generally with people about science and science culture. (I tweet as @AstroKatie.) There’s a great community of scientists and science communicators, and being part of it (or even just following people in it) gives you some great insight into what doing science as a career is really like.