Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

I’ve Moved!

Posted by Athene Donald on December 12, 2010

I’ve been happy here for the past few months, but have now moved to join Occam’s Typewriter.   Please visit me at my new site


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Committees and Reverse Discrimination

Posted by Athene Donald on December 7, 2010

Recently I was discussing a new working group that was being set up within the University, and realised that all the members that I had heard named were female.  I queried this and was told that that did indeed seem to be the case. This is just as unacceptable as an all male committee. OK, so the working group was going to be looking at a gender-related issue, but the idea that gender equates to female, and is therefore rightfully discussed only by women is wrong on so many counts I simply don’t want to go there.  Needless to say, I pointed out the problem that was apparently being created and, I hope by the time the working group is actually convened, it will have an appropriately diverse membership.  This is not the first time I have encountered this problem – the last time was when I was invited to join the interview panel for the Equality and Diversity Officer within the university a couple of years ago: again only female names were being proposed until I pointed out how inappropriate this was (and it was indeed rectified).

The whole point about gender equality is it is about equality, and can’t just be seen as ‘women’s issues’ which can be dealt with by women alone.  I hope that in my role as University Gender Equality Champion I will be listening to men and women – and where appropriate dealing with issues for those in the LGBT groups too. Nevertheless it is likely to be the case that issues simply relating to women, who after all represent about half of both the student and staff population, may be the most glaringly obvious, and also the ones where there are easiest ‘wins’ to be made quickly.

One of the blogs I read is that of the US FemaleSciencePofessor.  Reading her blog indicates much that differs between the US and the UK, so that some of the posts she writes don’t necessarily resonate here. But I was struck by a comment she made recently

‘Sometimes it seems like I could write a blog post about how much I like pistachio ice cream, and I would get comments like “Why do you hate men so much? Why are you always writing about sexism? Why do you always twist things to be about gender?”.’

I hope that is not what goes through readers’ minds when they read my blog – or indeed that of my colleagues within the University when they see me in action as a Champion.  Misandry – hatred of men –  is not a word that is heard as often as misogyny, but it has the potential to be just as dangerous. And also, I believe that any actions smacking of it are going to be purely counterproductive.  Some years ago Sir David Wallace (now Master of Churchill College, at the time Treasurer of the  Royal Society and VC of Loughborough University) remarked to me how illuminating he had found it when he had attended some meeting – I suspect about women in science but can no longer remember – and realized he was the only man amidst a large group of women.  He said he had suddenly realized the oddness of the sensation to be in that position, and it had made him appreciate what women in science go through much more clearly. So the slightly more mischievous side of me thinks that putting men on committees within my university where they find themselves in a significant minority, may have unexpected upsides!

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Inspirational Gentlemen

Posted by Athene Donald on December 3, 2010

This week I have taken on a new role as Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee. School education (like so much in the UK)  is an area of much flux and I can imagine an increasing role for this position talking to civil servants and possibly ministers.  The Royal Society ‘s Education Section is a wonderful group of people, but there are times when wheeling out an FRS is probably advantageous, and I’m sure they will be judicious in their choice of when to play the Committee Chair card.  Thinking about this, reminded me of comments one of my mentors, Professor Sir Sam Edwards, made about dealing with the Civil Service: you always had to approach someone at the same level as yourself if you wanted anything to happen. To paraphrase crudely, aim too high (they wouldn’t acknowledge your existence) or too low (it was more than their job’s worth to respond) and you would get nowhere. I will discover if this advice still applies – his experience dates back to when he was Chair of the EPSRC’s predecessor (the SRC) back in the 70’s.

And thinking about Sam, I thought I would continue on one of my previous themes of what it takes to inspire, tied in with this idea of hierarchy.  As I say, Sam was a mentor of mine although I think I only ever published a single paper with him. A grammar school boy from Wales (a fact of which he was very proud) he had an extremely distinguished career as a theoretical physicist, working on topics such as spin glasses, granular matter (most recently) and, at the time I first knew him (when he was Cavendish Professor in Cambridge), polymer physics. One of his most enduring contributions was work he did with Masao Doi in the late 70’s,  during a spell when Doi was a visitor in Cambridge, on the motion of polymer chains via a process known as reptation. The Doi-Edwards theory is still a key approach to understanding this field, although there have been some refinements to deal with additional detail.

The term reptation was actually introduced by (the late) Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, the Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1991. De Gennes and Sir Sam were good friends, if probably also friendly competitors, and de Gennes frequently passed through Cambridge, both before and after the award of the Nobel Prize.  It is not my intention here to give a thorough description of the science either of these gentlemen did – their works are amply accessible on the web.  What I want to do is talk about their characters as exactly that, gentlemen.  Both of them to my mind exactly illustrate what I understand by the word, and are just the kind of people I would have longed for as a mentor, if I hadn’t  had the luck actually to have them in that role. (As a personal aside, I should remark that when I heard de Gennes had won the Nobel Prize, I was so excited that whilst standing at the school gate waiting for my children, I said breathlessly to a fellow mum that I was over the moon because a friend of mine had just won a Nobel; she looked at me very strangely, and with hindsight it was a bit presumptuous of me to describe him as my friend, or to expect anyone else to care much.)

One of the key qualities I identify with both these individuals is the fact that they absolutely did not adhere to the advice Sam gave about dealing with civil servants. They both were just as delighted to talk to a graduate student as to a visiting dignitary. Sam by now is very frail (de Gennes died several years ago), but right up to the time he stopped coming regularly into the department he would attend all our seminars, and always invite the postgraduate students to stop by and discuss their research. The problem was much more that some were too nervous to do so, rather than that he put them off. He used to complain that people didn’t come and talk to him as much as he would like.

De Gennes had a very similar character, as far as I could judge from his various visits to Cambridge.  I had a number of opportunities to test this. On one occasion, when I barely knew him and was a very junior lecturer, I had been sent a paper of his to referee (this was back in the days when I worked on glassy polymers and the paper was a theoretical approach to the phenomenon of crazing, a mode of failure peculiar to glassy polymers and which I had extensively studied as a postdoc).  I didn’t agree with him, not least because I had unpublished experimental data to contradict his conclusions, but I had written my referee’s report before I knew he was visiting. So when he turned up in my office wanting to discuss his ideas I had to make a quick decision. Did I admit I had just written a critical referee’s report or simply stall, cover up and not have to defend my position in conversation when dealing with this heavyweight. I chose the former strategy and he was generous and delightful as we thrashed it out. In reality, the fact that I had experimental data I could share with him was a clincher, as I should have known it would be in advance.

De Gennes spent a large part of the period following the award of the Nobel Prize visiting schools in France. He was a passionate advocate for science, and used the additional clout the Nobel Prize afforded him to push his views on the importance of science on policy-makers within France. His influence was immense and his legacy lives on. He cared passionately about education, and also about the need for academic scientists to engage with industry.  Although that is not so unusual in the UK, or indeed the US, within France – with its (as far as I can judge) rather élitist academic attitude, it was not the norm. As Director of ESPCI – which as I have written about before does have a strong industrial tie-in – he was able to be a vocal proponent for this, but because of his status in France he was able to push this concept out much further into the community.

Both Sir Sam and de Gennes had charisma and charm, both were very approachable – and wanted to be seen as such – though both could equally be formidable if crossed or when trying to push an argument.  They were gentle with juniors, but ferocious when needed to be with more senior scientists, civil servants and the like. I always found both of them immensely encouraging as I moved into more interdisciplinary areas (such as starch and food physics more generally), areas which some members of my department had trouble getting their head around.  Sam’s phrase was ‘physics is what physicists do’ – in other words quit worrying and get on with it. They were not interested in setting out to prove they were better than those around them (though quite obviously as scientists they towered over most) or scoring points. They were not, if I can put it this way, interested in demonstrating they were alpha males, although quite clearly they were. An amazing pair to have known, and people whom it was impossible not to look up to.  As role models and mentors one could not look for better (and that they were male and I am not is, in my view, irrelevant).    They were truly inspirational and, in my book, true gentlemen.

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Physicists, Algae and Sustainability

Posted by Athene Donald on November 28, 2010

A couple of weeks ago my university was able to announce a large new initiative, £20M to set up The Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability, funded by David Harding, the founder, chairman and head of research of Winton Capital Management and an alumnus of my department.  The details of this enterprise, which will be led by Professor Sir Richard Friend, are still to be worked up, but I think it is reasonable to assume that a significant amount of the effort will be directed towards novel and improved methods for energy production, applying physics to meet the growing demand on our natural resources.

However it is easy for physicists to think in purely ‘synthetic’ terms when dealing with problems such as these. By this I mean a natural area to concentrate effort on would be organic photovoltaic devices of the kind to which Friend has already made such a significant contribution.  He has recently a third spinout to his name in conjunction with the Carbon Trust; Eight19,  a new solar energy company – spun out from Carbon Trust’s Cambridge University-TTP Advanced Photovoltaic Research Accelerator – which will be focusing on developing and manufacturing high-performance, low-cost plastic solar cells for high-growth volume markets.  In my own very small way I am involved with a different project aimed at exploring optimization of devices composed of blends of semiconducting polymers by getting a better grip on the underlying polymer physics of the morphology development during device processing. This project is a collaboration involving Sheffield University, Diamond and Cardiff University.  Sheffield University has its own substantial effort directed at sustainability, Project Sunshine, which has three themes: food, energy and global change. Their description of the energy section identifies two different strands to utilize solar energy: photovoltaic devices such as those studied in the EPSRC project I am involved with or relevant to Eight19, and microalgae as the basis of biofuel production.

The latter may look as if it is far removed from physics – the project, part of a large consortium and also funded by the Carbon Trust – requires optimizing both the strain of algae used and the efficiency of lipid production as well as developing refining methodologies to produce the requisite biofuel.  But as with biofuels produced on land (which have recently come in for much opprobrium because they take land away from food production and their net effect on carbon emissions is unclear), there is much more scope for biological physicists to make a contribution than is perhaps immediately obvious.

Why do I say this? Some years ago I was involved with an unsuccessful bid to BP for their Biofuels Institute, a bid won by the University of California, Berkeley after significant commitments from their Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The Institute may now be something of a poisoned chalice on many fronts; I have no information that tells me this is so but given the  image of BP in the US and the financial situation of the state of California, quite aside from the fall from grace of biofuels produced from crops nicely described a couple of years ago by Richard Jones here,  one must assume this is so.) As people got together to start preparing our university’s case the obvious suspects were lined up: plant scientists, engineers and chemical engineers, social scientists and those involved with policy. But physical sciences collectively were thought not to be relevant. I objected (and was immediately co-opted onto the working group) because, if using plant mass (biological) physicists have relevant tools to study structure and how that varies between candidate species or cultivars. This knowledge can then be used to provide understanding of how the structure affects processing, rather than tackling this in an empirical way in large vats as might be done in a chemical engineering department. In other words, I would say that by providing underpinning mechanistic understanding, physicists can help to rationalize an optimized strategy even for feedstock of  biological origin.

In fact, it is exactly this same strategy of rationalization which underpins the work I am involved with on organic photovoltaics: many approaches in the literature rely on annealing appropriate polymer blends to modify the microstructure and then examining subsequent device performance, without having a robust underpinning understanding of the thermal properties of the polymers involved. In other words they don’t have a firm grip on where the glass transition temperature and other relevant thermal transitions sit to identify an appropriate processing (annealing) window.  By gaining a better understanding of the properties of the constituents, we believe we can provide better a priori insight into what thermal annealing will be best to give the desired microstructure. I believe in a similar way, with plants or algae, by understanding the structure (and not just the chemistry) of the feedstock it may be possible to identify which sources will be most easily broken down or how growth conditions affect microstructure and therefore subsequent processing strategies.  My work on starch (outlined on my blog previously) shows that a physicist can contribute surprisingly much to inform both plant breeders and industrialists utilizing the material, and I would be surprised if physicists – of either a biological or polymeric bent –  were not similarly able to contribute to research aimed at optimizing algae utilization for biofuel production.  That of course will not resolve the bigger issues of whether this route is viable commercially – though if it helps in the optimization it may help to bring costs down – let alone whether it is actually effective in reducing CO2 emissions overall, but if algal biofuel production is to succeed as a realistic option the whole spectrum of potential research inputs must be utilized. Once again the breadth of interdisciplinary science needs to be borne in mind and I hope physicists will form part of the teams and consortia set up to explore these novel routes to biofuel production.

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Do we need a Female Brian Cox? Inspiration, Role Models and the Media

Posted by Athene Donald on November 23, 2010

Last week I talked to undergraduates in Cambridge about my new role as Gender Equality Champion within the University, about the sort of activities I envisaged in my new role and how I had got to where I am in my career.  I was really pleased to get an email about 24 hours later saying how I had ‘inspired’ at least one of my audience as she had listened to me talk about my life.  As teachers – of whatever level and whatever subject – to inspire someone is an incredibly satisfying thing to do, but so rarely do we get told we’ve done it. It is indeed one of the key motivations for teaching, to be able to pass on one’s passion to at least a fraction of those listening. Teachers are so incredibly influential in determining our individual trajectories, but often do not know the impact of their actions.

A little while ago, I wrote about this from the pupil’s angle, citing my own experience at school as putting me off biology as a teenager but inspiring me to do physics. Around the same time a piece appeared in the Guardian by Alom Shaha  asking  Where’s the Female Brian Cox?, pointing out that “ Girls are crying out for a female scientific role model” . As it happens Alom Shaha is a science teacher at my old school, Camden School for Girls in London. In my day it was a girls’ grammar, now it is a comprehensive for girls with a mixed sixth form.  (By the by, this is something I had found quite disconcerting when I went back to talk to the sixth form earlier this year: same hall, differently populated, no longer white and female!) I happen to think the fact that it was an all  girls’ school was relevant to my career choice and the topic of this post – no one told me girls didn’t do physics. So, my only role model may have been my excellent Physics teacher, but I also had no one putting me off. That my choice of subject was unusual was not brought home to me until I turned up in Cambridge as a fresher.  Single sex teaching will have to be a subject for another day, however.

So to return to Alom Shaha and his argument that celebrities can lead to aspiration, and possibly also inspiration. He says

‘There are lots of initiatives out there to promote female scientists as role models, but I suspect that having one woman scientist with Brian Cox’s level of fame would have the same impact as many of these initiatives combined. Like it or not, appearing on TV is still one of the best ways to become a role model for young people.’

I only agree with this up to a point, as I’ll explain below. Teenagers are so overwhelmed with images of celebrities – who clearly are making megabucks, something else that is hard for them not to feel aspirational about – that it is difficult for them to realise that celebrity in itself does not bring satisfaction or happiness, and that something quieter but more cerebral might have its own attractions. It is not going to be an easy message to get across. This fixation on celebrities is true whether or not one is talking about role models.  I was staggered to be told by a young woman, at this same meeting with undergraduates last week, that her housemates seemed to think wanting to do a PhD and follow an academic career was rather sad, and implied she was lacking something because she didn’t want to settle down, have a family and be a housewife.  This is 2010 and I thought that was left behind around the time of my own youth. It is hard not to see this as the WAG model of success, and I had not expected to find it in Cambridge where students undoubtedly have the wherewithal to be a great deal more than someone else’s other half.

So, there are 3 different concepts being discussed here: role models, inspiration and the charisma of a TV presenter like Brian Cox. I think they are different and will influence different people in different ways. But specifically I want to question whether role models have to be the same sex to inspire, and secondly if a single presenter really is sufficient to change girls’ worldview of science.

Alom Shaha’s implication in his article was that girls at his school needed to see a female presenter to be able to identify with science as a career  – this must be particularly directed at physical sciences and engineering, since the number of women entering university to study biology is at least equal to men. But I wonder if that needs to be true. Do they look at Brian Cox and think I would love to be able to do the exciting kind of science he does (and I must admit I haven’t watched any of his programmes myself, so have no idea how he comes across), or do they look at him and think science looks fun but it can’t be a career for me because he is male?  I would propose that for many of them – if they have any penchant for science – they are as likely to feel the first emotion pure and simple without necessarily regarding his gender as relevant. Only if the girls never come across images of female scientists then, yes, I would agree with Alom Shaha; as long as they do I am not so sure. The article that was brought to my attention after my post on stereotype threat makes clear that if pupils never see a woman scientist portrayed they can undoubtedly draw negative conclusions about their own abilities as a female scientist. But if they do, I wonder how influential a single iconic figure may be as a role model (unless specifically they are seeking a scientific media career), so that the gender of this iconic person may be less important than implied.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if there was a female Brian Cox, but he has his own mystique due to his previous existence in D.Ream. He has been able to come to the fore not only because he is articulate and passionate and the camera loves him, but also because he has had the support and knowhow behind him of a wife Gia Milinovich herself from the media, who has been able to facilitate his transformation into a TV star (at the same time, incidentally, as losing much of her own status).  So, if there were a female who happened to have a similar pedigree, it would be totally wonderful but, as the responses to the Guardian article made clear, there are a lot of women scientists who have got onto mainstream science programmes but not prospered or been taken up by the media in a substantial way, perhaps in part because their pedigree does not contain all these additional fortuitous elements.

But, for myself I am not convinced a single superstar female scientist would necessarily do as much good as a steady stream of many women scientists – both images and in the flesh – who just start turning up in many situations: textbook and publicity photographs, on TV and in podcasts, being used as ‘experts’ by the media written and visual, and dropping into schools to talk about their passion. If TV is to be used as a vehicle to encourage girls I suspect, as I said in a previous comment, actresses portraying women scientists turning up in much acclaimed serials and soaps would be substantially more effective than a single high profile female presenter. The trouble is currently that the concentration of visible women is so miserably low that the scientific profession remains looking overwhelmingly male.  So can we start a campaign for having women scientists photographed more and displayed casually in more places (incidentally I know a professional photographer who was desperately keen to create such an exhibition to take around the country, but could never raise the funds to do so – any funders out there?); for having more podcasts by women that can be played to schoolchildren of all ages; for girl’s teenage magazines to feature scientists from time to time; and – scriptwriters please note – some lab dramas featuring smart (young?) women doing exciting things in science,  or a female Dr Who. All these strands are important.  If female scientists’ (apparent) presence were as ubiquitous as male’s, maybe we wouldn’t need to worry about the gender of science presenters on TV – and then maybe we could stop having this debate.

Posted in Communicating Science, Education, Teaching, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , , | 11 Comments »