Wednesday, 29 August 2012

#MFScience survey - the results are in

The 24 hour flash poll* was simply this - find a non-scientist and ask them to name famous scientists: one male, one female. Then we sat back as the answers came in. And they did! Thick and fast, mostly through Twitter but also via our Facebook page - and by generally bugging our own family and friends. 
And the winner is..... 

We confess to having had a hunch about which female scientist would come out in the lead. Marie Curie was our Usain Bolt with 61.3% of the share and the others ate her dust: Rosalind Franklin was next with 8.1% of the mentions. We saw a similar pattern with the male scientists. Albert Einstein was far out in front with 33.3% of mentions and there was a sharp drop-off before Isaac Newton got his 8.3% look in. 

Looking at the way the numbers fall, the contrast between Curie’s lead and Einstein’s seems to be because people can name more male scientists overall. That is, the female mentions were distributed amongst fewer names, so Curie has less competition. Out of the male scientists we see 25 original names, whereas there are 14 in the female group. We’ve subtracted fictional characters from this count! Yes, we got some of those.... 

The other reason for Curie’s massive lead is that we see more repeats in the male scientist group: 40% of the men were mentioned more than once, compared to 28.6% of the women. When selecting a male scientist to mention, it seems like the non-scientists we asked had a greater pool of men at their fingertips.  

“That woman who.....”

We excluded something else from our ‘unique mentions’ count, but only for the women because it just didn’t come up for the men. We had 3 responses that were a description of a woman scientist. These were: “that woman who didn’t get recognition for her work on DNA”, ‘that cancer lady” and “the lady who invented Kevlar”. We’ll help out by telling you that we think they meant: Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie (because it is well known that she developed cancer as a result of her work on radioactivity) and Stephanie Kwolek. 

Er, can I pick you?

Something else to note is that we didn’t get an equal number of responses for male and female scientists. Overall, nine didn’t name a woman at all. Only one didn’t name a man. Three people tried to choose the woman scientist who asked them the poll question! Two responses came with an admission that they couldn’t think of a female scientist off the top of their heads, and didn’t want to cheat. 

We loved (but had to exclude) a happily rebellious voter who gave us 5 females (Emile du Chatelet, Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, Fabiola Gianotti) but joked that they couldn’t think of any males.

Wanted: dead or alive

When we break the list down by number of mentions, 20.8% of the male and 14.5% of the female went to living scientists. Pretty similar, but it would be interesting to see how those numbers look with a larger sample. Overall, historical figures greatly outnumber living scientists. This isn’t surprising: scientists are recognised when they make a significant and lasting contribution to their field. That’s something that often needs historical context. 

Looking a little closer, we learn that 3 out of 7 of the living male scientists were mentioned more than once: Stephen Hawking, 5 mentions; Brian Cox, 4 mentions; and Jim Al-Khalili, 2 mentions. Only 1 out of 8 of the living female scientists was mentioned more than once. This was Jocelyn Bell Burnell: she was mentioned twice. 

Are you ready for your close up?

We asked for famous scientists and everyone on our list has made a great contribution. The majority of mentions went to the great thinkers and innovators we have learned about over the years. But we believe that people also know Stephen Hawking, Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili because they see and hear from them on a regular basis. They are visible. 

That’s what we’re trying to do with the ScienceGrrl calendar. To reflect the many women doing great work in the lab and to help the names of female scientists roll off the tongue. Why? A 2011 survey by GirlGuidingUK found that 60% of girls thought a lack of female role models was a major reason for low female entry into STEM careers1. We can keep discussing how and where these women are most effectively seen - on the TV, in our calendar, through their writing, through school mentorship programmes, etc - and we plan to. But one thing’s for certain: you can’t have an invisible role model. 

* Kind of like asking your mates down the pub, but on a larger scale. And just as rigorous.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Laser Shoot

Monday the 13th was laser day, which made for a great start to the ScienceGrrl week! We all gathered outside UCL where we were met by Lia- our laser scientist. She escorted us up through the corridors to the security protected laser-lab. Jumpers on. It turns out laser labs are kept quite chilly because the beams are affected by temperature (they are also really sensitive to vibrations too, so the laser table sits on a pocket of air).

Our laser- one of the stars of the show!

Our photographer Ben got to work straight away setting up the shot. Lights were being erected all over the place, which transformed the lab into a glamorous looking set. I was mainly just getting in the way, so was taken away on a tour of the UCL lasers. One of them could trap a speck of dust in levitation- apparently the light actually exerts a force on the dust so that two opposing beams can act a bit like tweezers, holding it in mid air. Pretty nifty. Unfortunately it doesn’t work on larger objects because you would need much higher powered lasers- which just start to burn things up. So no laser-powered levitation for me.

Back to the lab and Ceri our other laser expert had arrived- it was time to get shooting. The Grrls were naturals and we got some great looking shots really quickly, with the laser in the foreground looking beautiful. It was soon time to change the shot, which meant I got a chance to learn even more about lasers. Lia’s research looks at using lasers to cool down small particles of glass to nearly absolute zero. The idea is to see if they can get them to behave in a quantum way- apparently that’s quite a challenge as no one has been able to do this for such big particles. Aren’t ScienceGrrls great?

The next shot was with the safety goggles on- which made it look a bit like a futuristic advert for a holiday to Uranus (in a good way of course). Then a quick slug of coffee while Ben set up the final scene. This one had the Grrls in the foreground lit by a light above them. Cue my first useful moment of the evening! I held a makeshift reflector to bounce some light back into Ceri’s face (apparently it helps to prevent dodgy shadows).

And that was a wrap! It turns out that two great ScienceGrrls, one talented photographer, and one ‘girl that can hold stuff’ is the perfect recipe for some really fantastic photos. Thanks to everyone, and bring on the next one!

Friday, 17 August 2012

What a difference a day makes

After last night's post, I thought it was time for a brief update on what so many of our Twitter followers may be wondering... so what happened yesterday? What did I miss?

I decided back in July that I really needed to come down to London about once a month whilst we are working on the 2013 calendar to meet up with people involved with ScienceGrrl, strengthen those working relationships, have some proper face-to-face discussions about outstanding issues and hopefully make lots of decisions that everyone can get on board with.

The first of those visits started on Wednesday night, when I travelled down to London after work and met Louise Crane (our Producer and in charge of public engagement at the Physiological Society) for the first time. We've been e-mailing, texting and chatting on Google several times a day but had never actually met up for real. It was slightly strange at first, as we looked at each other and tried to mentally resolve the images and words we'd seen on a screen with the person in front of us...but I'm pleased to say we get on just as well - if not more so - in real life. As an aside, I think people should do that more often; don't spend forever messaging and texting someone, get out and do something fun together as soon as possible, and ground your connection in a fuller understanding of who you both are.

Anyway, after a reasonable night's sleep and a fabulous breakfast with an old (well, not THAT old) friend from University, I arrived at the Smith Centre - next to the Science Museum - for our first ScienceGrrl 2013 production meeting. In attendance were Marianne Rance (head of Corporate Relationships at the  museum), myself, Louise, Ben Gilbert (our principal photographer, who is usually found at the Wellcome Trust but also worked on Geek Calendar), and Lucy Harper (Press Officer, normally at the Society for Applied Microbiology). Roger Highfield (Executive at the Science Museum Group) also popped in to introduce himself and discuss the project briefly.

We talked through the shot list and were relieved to realise that we had already completed 2 shoots, 6 were close to finalised, and we had clear ideas of what to do about another 2. 3 remain somewhat up-in-the-air, but Louise and I were confident we'll have a clearer idea of what is happening with those in the next week. We also talked briefly about publicity (including the launch party) and about how we see ScienceGrrl continuing into 2013 and beyond, before heading off into the bustling galleries of the Science Museum itself so Ben could scout out some possible locations for shoots. Later, Louise and I also managed to fit in a quick conference call to Cosima Dinkel, our designer, who unfortunately couldn't be present over lunch.

At this point, I think I need to pause to say how truly wonderful Marianne and Roger have been. The support from the Science Museum has been so brilliant that I nearly need to pinch myself. They have taken time to talk, e-mail, discuss our ideas and help us develop them; they hosted our meeting and fed us a very tasty lunch, and have offered to do so again; they are providing us with shoot locations for at least three of the calendar photos; they are also hosting our launch party. And all for free. Such amazing people, such outlandish generosity. Please help us reward them by going to the amazing Science Museum next time you are in London; it is a fascinating place of true beauty and wonder.

A few of us hung around in the Smith Centre after that to catch up on the ensuing administration, before heading down to Euston for drinks with some of those working on the calendar - either being photographed or volunteering other kinds of support. At the risk of missing someone out, I am going to try to remember everyone who was there and what they're helping us with: me, Ellie, Louise, Ben, Lucy, Ceri Brenner (in the laser lab at UCL), Julie Gould (researching biographies), Jenna Stevens-Smith (fundraising), Anna Zecharia (social media), Laura Nelson (whose Breakthrough project we are raising funds for) and Helen Czerski (in another shot, TBC!). We talked about the project itself, the results of the initial shoot, plans for the calendar, the future of ScienceGrrl and all kinds of other things that we had experienced as (mostly) women in science with an interest in engaging people with how science works. The enthusiasm around that table was amazing, it made me realise that the networking aspect of ScienceGrrl is potentially very powerful in itself - something as simple as drinks after work was a real encouragement to all those involved, and seemed to strengthen the sense that we are a community of like-minded individuals pulling together to do something we couldn't begin to attempt alone.

I was buzzing by the time I got on the train. What a day!

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Leading the conversation

In her opening blog for ScienceGrrl, our producer Louise Crane described me as ‘leading the conversation’. On reflection, I think this is a fairly accurate description of my role as ScienceGrrl Director.

I joined Twitter back in May, after reading an article about how more researchers needed to join to promote their work, network with others, and engage the public with the work of professional scientists. Also, Dallas Campbell (who I met volunteering at Bang Goes the Theory Live in Manchester) asked me why I wasn’t on Twitter, and I didn’t have a decent answer. I’m a scientist, big on evidence-based practice; I need a good reason for my decisions.

Initially, I tweeted about my professional life but soon connected with a network of like-minded scientists who became a genuine support network, who I shared the ups and downs of life as an NHS Medical Physicist with...and increasingly, some of the other corners of my life, too.

At the end of June, the European Commission launched ‘science, it’s a girl thing’ using THAT video. Twitter went nuclear that Friday, I was at home with my youngest son and kept checking my feed to see more of my contacts exploding with indignation that women scientists had been portrayed in this fashion. I joked with them that we should do a calendar of women scientists to counter the fake images used in the video… and a few people responded saying it was a great idea. Gia Milinovich was particularly keen (I quote: “Do it! Do it!”) and put me in touch with Louise, who was artistic director for the Geek Calendar 2011 and had the contacts and experience to bring this idea to life. Enthusiasm continued to grow. A variety of people volunteered to be photographed, including some famous names, and I realised that this idea had wings of its own but that someone – well, me… who else? – would have to step up and make it happen.

In the last 6 weeks, I’ve worked with Louise to shape our ideas into a series of images that represent a wonderful variety of women doing a real mix of amazing science, in partnership with their male colleagues. We also have the support of a great number of willing and able volunteers, who’ve been helping with social media, researching, writing, assisting with shoots, photography, design, building websites, communicating with media and press, fundraising, and so much more… Pulling all this together and delivering in time for our launch in mid-October is going to a be a Herculean effort and I feel like have taken on a second job. But the energy, encouragement, support and genuine positivity of our collaborators is carrying me along. Hardly anyone is getting any money for all this hard work, and most of those who are doing so are being paid at heavily reduced rates. The goodwill is breath-taking and heart-warming.

I’ve also been talking to potential funders (of photography, design and print costs) and potential beneficiaries of the money we are raising, as well as various other contacts… I’ve found myself on e-mail and the phone to organisations as diverse as the Science Museum, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, Science Council, Women in Physics Group at the IoP, UKRC/WISE, STEMNET, BBC Radio Manchester and the Breakthrough Gender Stereotypes Project. I’ve talked about things I had no comprehension of six months ago with people who have considerable influence and financial resources, and found I can still think through things to sensible conclusions with the right input. Studying science has taught me more transferable skills than I realised.

In all of these conversations it has become apparent to me that there are so many in the scientific community who are passionate about representing who scientists really are and what they do, getting us out of the geek ghetto and reconnecting us and our work with mainstream culture, to impress the next generation and inspire them to follow in our footsteps and achieve even greater things.

‘Director’ conjures up an image of a suited and booted high-powered executive, barking orders from a corner office with spectacular views. As ScienceGrrl Director, I am... erm, rather different. My directing is exactly what it says on the tin - steering the conversation, keeping an eye on the overall direction of our efforts, and whether individual decisions propel us towards our goals or distract us from them. Looking forward, ScienceGrrl is maturing from a body of volunteers working on a rather excellently groovy calendar into a network of (mainly) female scientists who are passionate about passing on their love of science, technology, engineering and maths to the next generation through a variety of grass-roots initiatives. ScienceGrrl is not mine, it is ours – the fruit of all our labours, motivated by the enthusiasm of women (and men) who are as keen to engage the next generation with STEM as I am.

Dr Heather Williams
Senior Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine, Central Manchester University Hospitals…
and Director, ScienceGrrl