Athene Donald's Blog

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

Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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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What Women Think – First thoughts on the Athena Survey of Science, Engineering and Technology 2010

Posted by Athene Donald on November 9, 2010

I have been glancing through the results from this year’s ASSET survey.  This is a web-based survey of academics at postdoctoral level and above, both men and women, asking them about their experiences and career progression. The results  make fascinating if rather depressing reading; depressing because all the way through – at this nationally aggregated level – we find there are still significant differences in the perceptions of men and women and almost invariably where this is the case it seems to be the women who feel disadvantaged or at the very least less optimistic. What follows is an entirely personal and somewhat preliminary take on the figures.  I have not attempted either to compare with earlier surveys (the Athena Forum produced a summary report on the two earlier surveys) or with the figures I have seen for my own university, so this is simply a first reaction to the bald percentages given. You should read the full report to get the actual numbers.  I believe there will be a more formal report released early in 2011 by the sponsors of the survey.

There were ~ 4500 respondents at the faculty level (of which just under one third were women) and another ~2500 at the postdoc level (of which 52% were women), so the numbers are large enough to believe that the differences reported really do reflect the current situation in universities. However, of course there will be differences between institutions and between disciplines and these totals mask all these subtleties. Universities will have access to their own figures broken down by department, so locally much more specific issues can be examined, although inevitably without the statistical certainties of large numbers.  I do hope institutions will carry out such local scrutiny, and readers may want to find out whether and where such scrutiny is going on: heads of participating departments should have received their own raw, disaggregated data some time ago.

If we start by considering issues relating to ‘progression and representation’, the first curiosity that stands out is that significantly more men than women seem to be aware of women in science initiatives in their own department, although more women believe they are personally benefitting from such initiatives. A second curiosity, given the general beliefs about ambition, is that amongst academic staff more women than men aspire to be a senior departmental or university manager. Perhaps the men want to stick closer to research, or that the women see this as the only route really to get recognition, but we can’t tell that from the questions posed.

However the bad news for women starts seriously with the questions around appointment and promotion. There are clearly far more women than men who appear to know little or nothing about promotion criteria and the process involved, particularly at the departmental level; women were also more likely to believe that women were actually disadvantaged ‘in respect of promotion and the provision of positive feedback’. Why should this be? Is it because men were significantly more likely to feel supported by their current line managers (in the case of postdocs) or senior colleagues (in the case of academic staff), according to the survey?  Male academic staff turn out to be also more likely to be appraised as a matter of course than women, which will also be relevant to promotion. This is a worrying indicator that things are not as equal as one would like to believe, even on such a process-driven aspect.  Male academic staff also believed their contributions were valued by their department more than women did for each heading in the survey: research, teaching, success in working life, external professional activities and administrative work, with the differences being most significant for research and external activities. This is of course only about perception, but it does imply that women feel undervalued, whether or not that is the message each department is in fact conveying or wanting to convey. For the postdocs, things looked much more even and female postdocs were actually more likely to believe that their successes in working life were valued than men.

Looking at factors contributing to career success, more women than men expressed the view that an absence of role models and an absence of mentoring had been detrimental to their career. These worries might have been anticipated, but it is useful to have the hard numbers backing up the anecdotal evidence. In terms of factors that had been beneficial there was almost universal agreement that hard work was a major factor in career success, but male academic staff were also more likely than women to identify luck as a contributing factor (there was no difference between the genders at the postdoc level) and they were also more likely to feel that their ability to attract PhD students had played a part. Do female academics attract fewer students? We can’t tell from this study, so it is not clear if men attributed success in part to this but the actual ability to attract students was or was not actually different.

And how did the men and women regard their working environment? It is disheartening to see that faculty women were significantly less likely to feel socially integrated (male and female postdocs were equally likely to feel OK about this), or that they had an opportunity to serve on important committees; and two thirds of the women felt the workload was unfairly allocated – as did more than half the men.  These last figures were almost exactly the same for the postdocs.

So, we still have a situation in academia where women feel disadvantaged and the suspicion must be that there is some basis for their belief, as manifest by the inequality in appraisal provision for instance. At the postdoc level the differences are less marked, and that must be a cause for hope.  Nevertheless, this large scale survey demonstrates a continuing imbalance both in the external atmosphere and the internal feelings around professional life in the SET subjects for men and women.  A comprehensive study such as this cannot simply be dismissed as soft, anecdotal moans by whingeing women; this is what it feels like for them at the coalface.

Posted in Equality, Research, Science Culture, Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Eureka! – the Influence of Scientists on the CSR

Posted by Athene Donald on October 20, 2010

The Eureka reception – hosted by the Times – was buzzing last night. This reception was to celebrate the 1st birthday of the Eureka Magazine and many of those named on the 100 most influential people in science a couple of weeks ago were there at the Science Museum. But beyond that pleasant feeling of well-being that comes with a couple of glasses of champagne (and I’m sorry if that makes me sound like Nigel Dempster) there was an additional buzz doing the rounds, as word spread about the CSR announcement for science. First it was just a hint, that the Times had been briefed, but then it began to gather momentum: it was flat cash for science; the science money was ringfenced – both the Research Councils and the QR elements.

My own ‘best moment’ because it’s when I really believed it was true, was when David Willetts walked in looking happy. Would he have come if things had been as bleak as we all feared? After all, it was only a few days ago the talks were all of 20+% cuts and that the Research Councils were talking about the dire consequences to the grants portfolio. So many people have done so much to make sure science did not get forgotten, despite the absence of a CSA within the Treasury. The list of people who have brought us to this much-less-discouraging -than-one-had feared position is long and many people deserve our thanks. People like Adrian Smith who was present last night, looking thoroughly exhausted but ultimately pleased that the news had leaked (but not at his hands); but there are many more including just the ground swell of opinion from the scientist-in-the-lab and the Science is Vital Campaign. One should not forget the CSA Sir John Beddington, the impact of the economic report by Jonathan Haskel and Gavin Wallis, and the Royal Society’s report The Scientifc Century, plus all the associated contacts and briefings. The media have done their bit, including the recent leaders in the Times and the Guardian in the last couple of days. The message from both Adrian Smith and David Willetts was plain, both said this to me personally, now scientists need to stand up collectively and say loudly and clearly that we are delighted, that this protection for the science budget is welcomed; that we are pleased and satisfied – and then of course to deliver the goods that the arguments have promised. Willetts made it clear we should appreciate what ‘George’ had done – a remark that caused temporary consternation in number 69 on the Eureka list George Efstathiou who was standing next to me at the time, until he realised the remark referred to Osborne.

The devil will be in the detail, of course, it is far too early to know what the reality is – of course as I write the CSR hasn’t even been published. But I for one slept better last night just knowing that the future for us and our scientific successors – those young who are planning a career in science, even if not knowing how they will finance themselves through university since we cannot forget the university budgets still face a slashing today – is not as bleak as I thought this time yesterday.

1745 October 20th 2010 I have now updated this with links and a few more acknowledgements to the people and bodies that have made such a difference in reaching this relatively happy state. The details of the CSR are now known, and there will be many wise deconstructions of what it all means. In keeping with the Eureka spirit, I will point you to Mark Henderson’s view of things, since he was the one who first (I believe) broke the story. But if the paywall just irritates you too much, try the CaSe analysis here – CaSE too played a large part in today’s outcome

Posted in Research, Science Funding | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Eureka! -Choosing the 100 Most Influential People in British Science

Posted by Athene Donald on October 7, 2010

This piece also appears as a guestblog on the Times’s Science blog “Eureka Zone” (behind the paywall).

When an invitation to join the panel to help draw up the Eureka100 powerlist in science arrived in my inbox, my fancy was certainly tickled and I readily accepted. However, as the process evolved it became clear in just how many different ways the phrase ‘ most influential people in British science’ can be interpreted. Does it mean simply practicing scientists? Certainly my first assumption was these would represent the majority of entries.  Over what time period did influence need to have been exerted; in other words were we trying to produce a list of ‘old farts’, to use Will Carling’s memorable phrase, or those at the peak of their profession now whose influence would continue to increase? Or perhaps we should be searching out those who were clearly upwardly mobile but perhaps not yet reached their peak. How widely were we to spread our net beyond actual practicing scientists? Should it include politicians, policy makers, captains of industry and those associated with the media? These may well not be scientists, may not even have studied science beyond GCSE/O Level but that definitely does not preclude them from wielding power and influence within the sector. Each of us came to the table with different internal weightings of these sorts of factors, and that led to some lively banter and discussion as we tried to draw up an agreed ranking. Throw the need for good journalistic copy into the mix and things only got more complex. Ultimately the ‘editorial decision is final’, as they say.

So at the end of the process am I satisfied the list does justice to all, and that it really does represent a meaningful take on the UK today?  Well no, I think we could have produced many variants of this list each of which would have been equally valid. There simply isn’t a single figure of merit that can be accurately quantified for this purpose. We have produced a list of spurious accuracy – as I described it at the time – and the scientist in me is worried by a measurement that may look precise but is so inherently inaccurate. Unfortunately I am also used to ranking other imprecise things, grants and departments come to mind, and so rather too well-used to having to compare apples and oranges in ways that can also make one feel very uncomfortable. There will be many people on the list whom readers will think ‘why on earth are they there’; for me that group would include Prince Charles and Heston Blumenthal.  There will be other names which some readers will see as dreadful omissions – insert your own favourite omission mentally here. Everyone reading Eureka would have created a different list according to their own internal weightings, prejudices and knowledge.

However I am quite sure that there will be some people, such as our number 1 Paul Nurse,  about whom everyone can agree. He clearly should be there or thereabouts; furthermore, he is a prime example of someone bucking the apparent brain drain that has been hitting the news in recent weeks.  We also got it right about Andre Geim , ranking him high even before Tuesday’s announcement about the Nobel Prize More debatable is whether George Osborne should have been on the list – he was very high up at times, and then in the final iteration simply banished to the politicians’ list, along with Vince Cable and David Willetts.  From my contribution to the Fight Debate, it will be clear that I was not that keen on public communicators being high up on the list. People like Brian Cox zoomed up and down the list; he eventually settled at number 24, with David Attenborough somewhat higher at number 7.

There was a debate (initiated by Evan Harris as I recall) about whether we needed a woman in the top 10. I argued against any such tokenism (I’ve written previously about the pros and cons of women-only prizes here). Women had been proposed on merit, and were placed as accurately as the males. That’s how it should be.  In the end the top-ranked woman, Nancy Rothwell, came in precisely at number 10, just below her Manchester colleague Geim.  Had women mysteriously not been put forward at all I would have adopted a very different position about this, but the number overall in the list strikes me as reasonable if hardly impressive at 12. We must hope that if the process were to be rerun in 10 year’s time the position would be significantly different.

In the end I think the list has probably downplayed the influence of government advisors such as John Krebs and Adrian Smith in favour of individual scientists, although I am delighted to see my Cambridge colleague David MacKay well regarded because of the importance of his role as CSA at DECC  – see my comments on him here (scroll down, but behind the pay wall). I am not entirely comfortable that the CEO’s of the Research Councils are separated out to another list (with the exception of the outgoing chief of the MRC Leszek Borysiewicz , because he doubled up as the incoming VC of my own university), but Mark Walport seemed to be regarded entirely differently as head of the Wellcome; no one else had problems with this but I saw it as a slightly artificial distinction.

I could go on; we all had pet issues that made us nervous, so don’t ask us to defend the detail of the outcome.  But then, what do you expect if you ask a committee to produce a list like this? To adapt Nietzsche “You have your list. I have my list. As for the right list, the correct list, and the only list, it does not exist.”

Added 1145 am Oct 7 2010: See also fellow judge Alice Bell’s blog on the meaning of ‘influence’.

Added 1300 Oct 7 2010: It has been brought to my attention that the full list of the 100 names has been published at the UCL STS blog without a paywall, and including some comments.

Posted in Communicating Science, Research, Science Culture | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »