Athene Donald's Blog

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

An Evening Out

Posted by Athene Donald on October 1, 2010

Last night I was at the IOP Awards’ Dinner in London.  Following the recent revamp of all the IOP Awards about three years ago, a new subject award – appropriately called the Franklin Medal to celebrate Rosalind Franklin  – was created for ‘distinguished research in physics applied to the life sciences’. An encouraging development that a need for a specific award for this area was identified. It is awarded every other year and this year the recipient is Tom Duke , previously a colleague of mine in Cambridge, now at UCL. Like me, he was an early convert from synthetic polymers (which he studied for his PhD) to biologically important ones such as DNA. More recently he moved on to more complex systems including the inner ear, as his citation for the award declares. The first recipient of the Franklin Medal in 2008 was David Delpy, now chair of the EPSRC (but formerly also at UCL), who specialized in medical imaging approaches. It is interesting to compare the current position with 2005, when I won the Mott Medal . Then I made sure my citation included both the phrase soft condensed matter, and also biological materials, not terms that I think would have turned up frequently before then in citations.  Having a specific subject award for the area is a great fillip.  My own work was also recognized this year with the award of the Faraday Medal, a handsome chunk of gold gilt.

From this we can see that the breadth of physics covered by the collection of IOP medals now includes topics that a few years ago might have been viewed askance (As an aside I note that there are 3 women in the list of 19 prizewinners, a reasonable percentage rate of 15% given the make-up of university departments).  To back up this statement, let me recount an episode about my early work in starch, following on from my last post . Early on I was distinctly dismayed to be told by a very senior (if by then emeritus) colleague that

‘things have come to a sad pass when people at the Cavendish study starch.’

It stuck in my mind as a depressing point of view, and not the kind of message a young lecturer wants to receive.  Hardly good mentoring!  However I suspect this professor would not have been alone in his view at the time; many people back then (in the early 1990’s) no doubt held to the view that condensed matter physics was about simple and well-defined systems and it is only more recently that complexity, emergent properties and the messy world of biology have been incorporated (at least in some departments, if not all) into the physics canon.

I can only hope that the anticipated swingeing cuts do not encourage or force departments to retreat back to what might be perceived as ‘core competencies’. However, I fear it is only too likely – and indeed necessary up to a point – that funders such as the EPSRC will be much more prescriptive about what they will fund.  So there is the danger that in defining priority areas for funding, scientists will end up trying to bend the science they do to fit some theme. In biological physics I suspect this might equate to squeezing research into topics such as Healthcare, Ageing or Living with Environmental Change, judging by the current list of priority topics on the EPSRC website.  The oft-repeated mantra that the research councils will simply fund the best science, and we all should simply write the best research case we can about the science we want to do, will be sorely stretched. It may turn into a case of funding ‘the best science that fits into our perceived priorities’ and if you don’t/can’t contort the science you do into one of these, your chances of success may be minimal. I understand the strong drivers that will force them down this route, but times ahead are inevitably going to be pretty grim and some areas are going to suffer massively. Biological physics may have to duck and dive a bit, but I’d like to believe there will still be opportunities.

Phil Willis, now Lord Willis, gave the after dinner speech. As an MP he was  Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee and remains a staunch supporter of science as was made totally clear in his impassioned remarks. He was adamant that a healthy UK in the future will not be served by these anticipated swingeing cuts. He was also full of praise for the way the IOP has worked to keep the importance of physics and science more generally, firmly  in politicians field of view. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, as outgoing President, was equally passionate about the importance of scientists not attacking each other in the hope of securing a little more funding for their own particular area.

At the dinner, my colleagues Val Gibson and David Peet were on hand to pick up a Juno Champion award for the Cavendish, the third department to be so honoured.  I wrote previously about the Athena Swan awards, and the IOP’s Project Juno has a similar underlying basis.  As the citation for this scheme says:

the Juno code of practice addresses the under-representation of women in higher education physics. The designation of Juno Champion recognises that the department is making a substantial contribution towards this goal.

There are slight differences between the two schemes, since the IOP is specifically dealing with Physics-based departments, but there is a very close correlation between physics departments that achieve Athena Swan Silver awards and Juno Champion status. The Cavendish now joins the Physics Departments of Warwick and Imperial College who won Champion status a year ago.

Project Juno to a large extent grew out of the site visits the IOP carried out a number of years ago (reported here). The IOP Juno awards now have 3 levels of success: Champion, Practitioner (which is new this summer) and Supporter.  As with Athena Swan, the key issue for a department is to sit down and reflect upon its practices, and work out what it could do better – and trumpet what it is already doing well.  The IOP view it as important that there is buy in from senior management, but also that the culture is well embedded throughout the department, so that everyone knows what is being done. Within my own department, in the run-up to the submission the Personnel Committee ran an email questionnaire and a focus group with postdocs which will now turn into a regular forum for discussion about their experiences in the department.

Finally, an aside about implicit association of gender and job (as I mentioned previously here), or in this case gender and title. I was recently trying to renew my house insurance online. I got to an impressive pull-down menu to allow me to fill in my title. This long list included such familiar appellations as Mother Superior, Reverend Miss and (had I been a male) Professor Sir. But was there any listing for my own correct title of Professor Dame (note, the female equivalent of Professor Sir)? No!  I could only be a professor or a dame.  Clearly they had never considered that combination. My own hunch would be that there are more Professor Dame’s in the UK (there are at least half a dozen in my own university alone) than Mother’s Superior – but maybe that hunch is wrong. I gave up and stuck with what was on the previous documents – simply Dr.

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