Post doctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London. She set up Women in Physics at Imperial and sits on the WISE young women’s board. Prolific contributor to Wikipedia.
Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.
I am amazed every time I watch sunrise. If the weather forecast is clear and I’m in London, I cycle to the top of Primrose Hill. Sometimes during the summer the sun moves so far East the sunrise isn’t as dramatic, but when it rises over the City of London it is incredible. Sometimes the sky is so pink before the sun comes up it looks like it is on fire. I love waiting for it to catch on all of the tall buildings – London is the most beautiful city on Earth.
How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?
Wonder is the unknown – it’s what keeps me awake at night frantically writing ideas for experiments on pieces of paper on my bedside table. Awe is the amazement that you feel when something works – when you mix together two molecules and something fantastic comes out – when the sky turns orange as the sun comes up. Curiosity is always asking why something has happened – it’s designing experiments, collecting data and working out what’s happened. When you learn a subject properly, you don’t get better at listing facts but better at asking ‘why’.
What inspires you to be creative?
Creativity helps in every aspect of life – it helps you work out how to approach all different problems as well as meaning you never get bored. I can’t imagine a world where my mind isn’t always trying to make something beautiful.
Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?
If it’s in the lab, then there are many ‘rituals’ we have to do before we even begin. Lots of our most creative work happens in the cleanroom – and to even get in there you have to put on a gown, gloves and overshoes. There are fewer than 1,000 particles per cubic metre. At home I like to be in my pyjamas sitting near a window – I find it very hard to think clearly or creatively if I’m in artificial light or overwhelmed by heating.
What do you love about magic?
Magic is everywhere. For me it happens in the lab – when we’re measuring out materials and coming up with new ways to process them. I love the fact that we can go from a powder of semiconductor to a fluorescent solution to a light emitting diode in a couple of hours. Magic is watching physics students learn about the formation of stars and galaxies. Magic is when my dad sees patients with headaches and works out how to make them better before they even sit down. Magic is when my mum can talk people through their anxiety and fears. Magic is when my brother watches Arsenal win.
What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?
No one wants to let their guard down – it has become ‘cool’ not to care about things. I wish that would stop.
Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?
Parents and teachers. We need to encourage young people to keep asking questions – and never make fun of people for not knowing the answers.
You run a website called makingphysicsfun.com Is physics really fun? How can we make it fun?
Physics is fun. We need to get better at celebrating it!
You’ve written ~300 Wikipedia pages promoting the work of female scientists. Why is this so important to you?
For all biographies on English speaking Wikipedia, only 17.67 % are about women – which is crazy when we make up half of the people on planet Earth. That means that 8 times out of 10, if you’re reading about a person on the site, you’re reading about a man. Wikipedia is a powerful educational tool, and we have a responsibility to make sure the content it is teaching is the most impartial and honest I can be. It’s also important for our future – preserving the best account of history that we possibly can. At the same time, I read this great book called ‘Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong’ by an engineer-turned-science-writer called Angela Saini. That provided lots of examples of all these cheerleaders throughout history who were pushing back against stereotypes and advocating for other women. That inspired me to think ‘I can do this now!’. So I figured I could start making Wikipedia better, by telling the stories of women who otherwise might be forgotten.
I’ve got two young daughters who have just embarked into the world of formal education. I want them to have exactly the same opportunities that I had and not be limited by either external or internal views of inferiority. What can we do as parents, teachers, and society to evaporate inferiority?
I’d start by reading the Institute of Physics’ Improving Gender Balance reports – their advice is really good. Stop using gendered language, talk about careers and recognise the contributions women have made throughout history. Read Inferior (see above).
For your daughters… never allow anyone to tell you what to do – if you study physics, you’re going to get so many opportunities thrown at you for the rest of your life. Everyone wants to employ scientists, which is something you don’t necessarily appreciate that when you’re at school. Girls are especially in demand – the challenging part is choosing what to do from all the options in front of you. Trust yourself to make the right decision.
What stood out for you? Any questions? Things you disagree with? Write a comment and join in the discussion.