Am I a Lady?

I am of a generation that was brought up with (though most certainly not to laugh at) the joke ‘That’s no lady, that’s my wife’. Classist overtones? Undoubtedly, as well as inherent sexism: the word ‘lady’ to me is not one with which I want to be associated. Let us leave aside the question of whether a knight’s wife should be deemed a Lady, though that also contains inherent sexism: my husband has no title deriving merely from the fact that I am a dame, the female equivalent of a knight, as such a Lady does. However, use of the word ‘lady’ continues to be used in ways I regard as sexist and demeaning: as in ‘here is top lady scientist Professor X’. And yes, I have been introduced essentially in that cringe-inducing way. As far as I’m concerned, either I should be introduced as a top scientist or just call me Professor without any adjectival qualifier (I will return to the idea of ‘adjectival’ below).

So when the Buzzfeed Life section ran a listing on what women at the top would offer by way of advice to young women setting out I felt a little put off by its headline referring to ‘lady bosses’, albeit I am well aware of the honour I should feel at the sight of my own words appearing in such a list (and if I hadn’t known beforehand, my Twitter feed soon spelled this out ). My own tweet expressed slight unease about the title (poorly reproduced below) and the next time I looked the offending word had been removed (so thank you Rachel if you’re reading this). Now the title simply reads ‘ 21 Tips For Slaying At Work From Top Bosses’  which seems positive enough.


However let me return to the adjectival use of the word lady which I so dislike. It has always jarred on me although I’d never stopped to wonder why; the word ‘woman’ as a prefix would annoy me almost as much if used in this way. Then I read an article in the Guardian during the autumn and all was made plain. I was reacting against the bad English as much as against the highlighting of gender. I am not a woman scientist – any more than I am a lady scientist. If it is felt necessary to point out that I am a woman, the correct usage is that I am a female scientist. Woman and lady are nouns and should not be used to qualify another noun. This is not a new complaint. Dorothy Sayers in her 1935 novel Gaudy Night about a fictitious Oxford women’s college and speaking through the voice of her quasi-heroine Harriet Vane, objected to the head of the college being referred to as a ‘Lady Head’. I suppose in that language I would be a Lady Master. It’s just wrong, as well as distasteful.

Now by and large I see no reason why my gender should be relevant when I am introduced as a speaker; after all it’s pretty obvious once I’m standing there that I am indeed a woman. I am a scientist who happens to be a woman, however, not someone who is doing womanly science. Nevertheless, if my profession has to have a gendered tag attached to it to satisfy someone’s sense of – well what? Old-fashioned chivalry? – let’s say propriety, I wish they could get their grammar right.

But one should ask – although the moment of a public introduction hardly seems the right moment to do this – why is it necessary to identify my gender at all? I find it hard to imagine introducing a man as ‘here is male Professor X’, let alone as ‘gentleman Professor X’. I’m afraid it comes down to the quote of Samuel Johnson

woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all

Since it still seems surprising to some to find, for example, a female physicist giving a seminar, such people appear to feel obliged to refer to it. I can’t help feeling that those who choose to stress my gender in introductions probably think, misguidedly, they are somehow complimenting me because of my rarity value.  From where I stand, it doesn’t feel that way.


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Science Policy and Impact: Lessons from History

REF, the Science and Innovation Strategy document (S+I) and the Nurse Review of the Research Councils  collectively mean that the UK HE world of science is stuffed full of current policy issues that matter to us all – never mind the concentration of minds arising from an upcoming election followed by a Comprehensive Spending Review of unknown political complexion. It is easy to think that this period is both uncomfortably full of political masters making decisions based on shaky evidence and that scientists now are uniquely pressed to discover the ‘impact’ of their work, indeed to make such impact a primary driver. Of course this latter point simply isn’t true. Any cursory reading around the history of science will demonstrate that scientists have been buffeted by political (or, if you go back far enough, Royal) power and inclination. Patronage is a word rarely heard now (although pork barrel may be its more modern translation) but historically it definitely determined the fate of many careers.

Having a bad habit of reading multiple books simultaneously, it so happens there are three history of science books I started reading over Christmas that contain salutary messages as we face the current uncertain funding world (I should add, I have finished none of them yet). In terms of the period it covers, the earliest is The Fellowship by John Gribbin. Starting with Gilbert’s work on magnetism De Magnete published in 1600, it covers the times and aspirations of those who were involved with the foundation and early years of the Royal Society. Whatever challenges we face now, at least we aren’t ducking and diving between political masters on different sides who go to war with each other, or need explicitly to worry about our religious beliefs and observance. Nor do many of us have to accept the only way to get a university education is to become a ‘subsizar’ in a Cambridge College, willing to empty chamber pots to pay one’s keep, as Isaac Newton was alleged to have had to do. Some things do get better (though not all)!

Also amongst my current reading is Jon Agar’s Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond. If these days we feel in thrall to political masters whose views we don’t necessarily share, his account of science under Stalin or the Nazis should make us realise things could be an awful lot worse. Although my physics, sitting as it does at the interface with biology, isn’t exactly mainstream nor likely to build a better weapon of mass destruction, at least I don’t fear I will be purged at any moment as a consequence. My political beliefs do not, to the best of my knowledge, determine whether I get funding (although there are those who note the increasing emphasis on ‘place’, as the S+I document puts it, on funding decisions, so perhaps the geography of where I work does. Are we getting a regional science policy by stealth?).

The third book isn’t precisely a history of science book, although that is in some senses its scope. It is a heavy tome (Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin). It is written by the trio of Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Montgomerie and covers the development of ornithology as a science, starting with a chapter on the discovery of Archaeopteryx. This book is as much about the people who moved the science forward and how they interacted – if you ever wondered how important science networks are, after 400 pages of this book you will be in no doubt – as the birds’ biology. It compellingly demonstrates how much chance and good luck play a part in even, perhaps particularly, the most successful scientists’ lives. Things such as whom you happen to meet, where you live, who lived just before you and kickstarted a field not to mention random job and funding opportunities that turn up at just the right time – or not. These all matter and are beyond one’s control.

But throughout these three books we see how science funding has come and gone and how motivations may vary from the intensely practical to the inherently curious but impractical. If you thought the Royal Society founders were all dilettante gentlemen who had more money than sense, dabbling in a little science to while away the hours, think again. Just as in the slightly later period that Richard Holmes discussed in The Age of Wonder, interest in ‘the heavens’ was driven as much by a need to improve navigation aids as by idle curiosity about those pinpricks of light in the sky. Hooke’s work on springs was part of the challenge of measuring longitude accurately. Newton was one of the early telescope builders: although that is hardly his main claim to fame it was relevant to Newton’s initial election to the Royal Society. These gentleman cared about impact, as we would define it now, a great deal. And that is equally true throughout the twentieth century, although as I pointed out previously,there was an intervening period when impact was seen as undesirable and ungentlemanly behaviour. David Egerton’s Warfare State discusses the way science, science funding and (military) policy-making were intertwined within UK science through most of the twentieth century; Agar makes the same point more generally as it applies around the world.

We may quibble over whether Willetts ‘Eight great technologies’ are the right eight, even whether this is too close to the ‘picking of winners’ that people tend to shudder at, but we cannot be surprised that politicians want to affect what gets done. Our job as scientists is to make sure we fight over what is fundamentally important. That most certainly includes, first and foremost, making a case for investment in science in a way that they can understand (and grasp as a vote-winner!); we need to encourage more serious thought about an ‘industrial policy’ (and that might include encouraging much more industrial R+D, which has been so savaged by our stockmarket’s obsession with short-termism); and we should not be frightened of continuing to defend that class of research that as yet seems to have no demonstrable use.

We should learn from history that we are not uniquely disadvantaged currently and work to make the most of the opportunities the enthusiasm the Treasury currently is expressing offer the scientific community. We should continue to make the case that innovation arises in unexpected ways, ways a Chancellor cannot control but can facilitate. We should also ensure that at every stage the commitment to openness that the Science and Innovation document refers to is constantly kept in mind. As that paper says, the vision it invokes can only be delivered ‘if it is owned and supported by the science and innovation communities in academia and business, and by all those who work alongside them.’ Throwing the evidence-base out of the window when making decisions would be a good way of losing that support. Whitehall should never forget that.

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We’ve Come a Long Way But…

When it comes to women in science, the Athena Swan ‘brand’ is well established. By now, universities up and down the country are signed up to the Athena Swan Charter and many departments are seriously engaged with the process. Nevertheless there are still many that are not, and even of those that apparently are there is the danger that some see it as no more than a tick-box exercise in order to get the necessary seal of approval. Now the Athena Swan process is being expanded to other disciplines we have to hope that the good work that the awards have engendered is not diluted or weakened by trying to create a ‘one size fits all’ process which ends up not addressing the fundamental issues in different disciplines.

The Athena awards grew out of what started as a very modest initiative, the Athena Project, funded by HEFCE back in 1999. The founding group of women – Julia Higgins, Nancy Lane and Caroline Fox – sought ways to make the money HEFCE granted them reach as far as possible. They started off trying to identify and encourage good practice around gender issues and induce culture change for women in academic science. This phase ran until 2002. The second phase ran until 2007, focussing more on the development of tools and methodologies. Out of this second phase grew the Athena Swan awards.

At the end of last year the Athena Forum* (which I chaired between 2009 and 2013), the group that took over the Athena legacy after 2008, held an event to celebrate the pioneering work of the Athena Project, to consider its successes and to discuss where future effort should be put to ensure progress does not let up: we have not yet reached a point where these matters no longer need to be considered and there undoubtedly is still work to be done. As part of the celebrations, and to ensure the hard work that went into the many different projects associated with the early years of Athena, a review has been prepared by Caroline Fox, bringing together reports of all the earlier work. This review will serve as a useful reminder of where the community stood not so very long ago and also identify approaches that were more or less successful. This report and the executive summary will shortly be found on the Athena Forum’s about-to-be-relaunched website.

As Ottoline Leyser, the current Forum Chair, says in the Introduction to the report, there is still a long way to go ‘The forces against which culture change must work mean that constant sustained pressure is essential’. And, as many individuals know to their cost, too many departments still think that Athena Swan means ‘high profile events, counting how many women professors you have, and trying to get a higher award than the next department’. The changes that many departments have enacted are encouraging but others have yet really to embrace the idea that diversity benefits everyone.

The Athena Forum will continue to build on the legacy of the Athena Project and to work with others, particularly research funders, to ensure that gender equality really is embedded in every academic science department and that all researchers encounter a genuinely level playing field. Equality requires not only the leadership talking the talk but putting cash on the table too. Funders need to do more to consider whether their own processes are unintentionally disadvantaging certain sections of the community. Universities need to consider whether the criteria they deploy when appointing and promoting individuals are still fit for purpose or whether they are reinforcing a culture that may have suited traditional, male career paths but no longer reflect the way many individuals live their lives. We’ve come a long way in the 15 years since the Athena Project was launched, but we have still much more to do.

*Updated 20-1-15 with correct weblink for newly launched Athena Forum website inserted.


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Resolving Your Way out of a Rut

I wonder how many of my readers have already broken their New Year’s resolutions, assuming they even bothered to dream them up in the first place. Daily visits to the gym and a diet excluding chocolate sound all very well on December 31st, but then look less enticing on January 1st. If you want to know what my resolutions are, I have put them publicly out there – along with eight other scientists – in Nature this week. Other resolutions may be less specific: how about resolving not to feel busy all the time, or to get yourself out of the rut you feel yourself in? Both of these were advocated by Oliver Burkeman in recent months, not specifically as ‘resolutions’, but as ways to make you feel better and happier (see here and here).

As an academic scientist I am all in favour of not being stuck in a rut. It seems to me that career structures don’t necessarily favour this, since if you become an expert it’s all too easy to feel obliged to stay in that same field to make your case look convincing when you apply for grants and to be sure that the invitations to speak at conferences keep coming. To tear that up, metaphorically, and say that you’re going to become an expert in something different might be thought to be a brave thing to do. Nevertheless for our mental stimulation it may well be the right thing to do and I would advocate taking time to consider whether you’ve milked the subject you’re currently working in as much as you genuinely want to do, or whether you’re actually staying put out of fear of the unknown and a suspicion it will be ‘difficult’.

It will be. I think that’s certain. My own experience of branching out into new fields is that when you first try to publish you may well have a hard time of it. Referees will, consciously or otherwise, be thinking if they’ve never heard of you it probably means you’re not up to much. It can be decidedly frustrating. If you have entered the field with different experience and a different mindset you may approach a problem, familiar in the field, in a totally novel way that can be hard to get accepted. It doesn’t mean you are wrong though!

Of course getting out of your rut may mean nothing as drastic as completely changing field. You can allow your research to ‘evolve’ into new areas, perhaps starting up a new avenue whilst still maintaining the primary one until such time as you have sufficient preliminary data to make a splash of a research grant application. But, leaving that sort of evolution aside (of the kind I describe my late mentor following in my previous post), you can also get an injection of stimulation simply by taking on some sideline activity to kickstart your brain cells and to introduce some novelty and unfamiliarity into the daily routine. That could be anything from starting a blog, becoming a STEMnet ambassador or joining a new committee within your departmen,t according to inclination and experience. Any of these may offer new opportunities for rekindling enthusiasm if you’re feeling jaded. Any would seem appropriate as a New Year’s resolution to contemplate. And, speaking personally, I know how much starting this blog 4 1/2 years ago refreshed me, releasing a voice I didn’t know I had and which unexpectedly has opened new doors for me.

What about the other suggestion from Burkeman I alluded to above? Can one resolve the daily ‘busyness’ crisis? His solution seemed to be to compartmentalise time – by which I understand he means things such as not reading emails in bed, or allowing exam-marking to encroach on time set aside for family evenings – and to accept that not everything will get done. That last point is an interesting one. I don’t think a department head would take it too kindly if the exam-marking never got done, but it is probably the case that some things (including some of the endless emails that turn up in one’s inbox) can be allowed to slip into oblivion. Perhaps on this front the correct answer is to construct a list of tasks that could be allowed to ‘softly and suddenly vanish away’ in order of priority i.e. put the absolutely inessential ones at the top and work down. And then stick to it. Unfortunately this is unlikely to be a list from which things will ever get crossed off, since when would you cross off a task you had merely successfully not even attempted to start? It might be, however, that thinking about what you regard as a low priority may be a useful exercise in itself: who are the people whose emails you don’t want to reply to and feel you can get away with ignoring? Not an easy question to answer honestly; often the most difficult emails to deal with really are rather essential. However, the old adage of don’t let the urgent crowd out the important is worth bearing in mind, although it’s easier said than done.

The final piece of advice I took away from the earlier Burkeman column was to make sure there is some space in one’s life when nothing else is happening. Perhaps that recommendation is the really important thing which needs to force its way into your consciousness over the urgent crises that batter us from day to day. Finding time to breathe, metaphorically, may be the only way it is possible to consider how to branch out from your cosy rut. Doing this when you lie in bed endeavouring to get some sleep is not likely to be conducive to a good night’s rest, so other times for thinking need to be identified. So, if your New Year’s resolution really was to spend more time in the gym, perhaps the optimum strategy is to use time on the treadmill to sink into a contemplative mood and find out what it is that you really want to do that is different from what you are doing. That way you could possibly achieve two goals simultaneously, and refresh body and mind.

Happy 2015!


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Losing a Mentor

There are usually only a handful of people in anyone’s life who can honestly be said to have had a radical impact on how that life turns out. Yesterday I learned of the death of one of my key mentors, Professor Ed Kramer who was one such person in my own life. I feel desperately sad at his passing. Not only an amazing and inspirational scientist but someone who supported, shaped and mentored so many of us. Living 6000 miles away my contact with him over the last 30 years has been limited, but I knew he was always there in the background, metaphorically cheering me on. My last email exchange was just before Christmas when we traded our Christmas letters by email for the first time, both of us having moved house at around the same time and lost each other’s new home addresses. I will always treasure the two years I worked with him as a postdoc as the most amazing, exhilarating and eye-opening period of my entire scientific career.

I went to work with Ed almost by accident during my years at Cornell University. Having completed a PhD on the electron microscopy of metals at Cambridge I went to Cornell to work with another professor in the Materials Science and Engineering Department continuing this line of work. The ensuing two years were miserable, unproductive and merely convinced me the sooner I got out of academia the better. The problems were many and various and at least some of them were of my own making. As the end of the two year position approached I had to find another position to enable me to stay in the USA while my husband finished his PhD. I approached Ed, who at that time was still working in his original field of (low temperature) superconductivity, but he had just hired the microscopist he needed for that project. However it transpired he was also looking for someone to work on the electron microscopy of polymers – the new field he was just getting going in. He agreed to take me on, despite my completely disastrous stay so far in Cornell, having checked up on me sneakily with my PhD supervisor when attending a conference in Cambridge at just about this time. (A conference, I may say, that was held in this very same college of which I am now Master and which always went by the name of the Churchill Conference amongst polymer folk.)

I did wonder if I was mad to make what felt like the huge leap from metals to polymers but, given I felt I had nothing to lose, I took things very seriously. I spent the summer before I switched projects mugging up on polymers and tried to get to grips with what was known about their mechanical properties and, specifically, the topic of crazing. You probably won’t know what a craze is, but it’s those thin white lines you see in a well-used Perspex ruler representing damaged zones which possess an internal microstructure on a scale to scatter light.

Known to be a workaholic he was also at that time seen as slightly intimidating by his students (many of whom were older than me due to the length of US PhDs relative to UK ones). I merely found him intensely serious and involved with his work. The intimidation I felt was only ever that generated by being with an intellectual giant. I had a clear line of work laid out for me and got stuck in. And soon showed what an experimental klutz I was by managing to put my sample into the electron microscope not flat in the way that I was supposed to but slightly tilted. Ed, being the amazing man he was, took one look at my images and could see that I had completely inadvertently and incompetently managed to photograph something that had the potential to prove a pet theory from one of the great and good in the field. I was challenged to go back and do it again, on purpose, to get some stereopairs for good measure. So it was that, literally within 6 weeks of starting that project, we were submitting an abstract for the American Physical Society meeting the following March. I was on a roll, and for the next 2 years it continued.

Ed – and I always insisted on calling him that, whatever the rest of the group did – and I used to talk for hours every week, if not every day. We sparked each other off. I learned so much although he was always unobtrusive in his instruction. He also quite deliberately set me challenges. I well remember in those first few weeks, when I had the images that looked so promising, he tossed a draft of the manuscript he’d written on my desk about this unproven theory of the growth of crazes and asked me to see if I could find the mistake in it (which was why it was still a draft). I felt so triumphant when I worked out what was wrong, but also it gave me confidence I was beginning to understand the field.

So, Ed took me as he found me and then made sure I fulfilled my potential. He inspired me to work harder and harder so that I willingly became a workaholic like him (maybe this isn’t really a very good recommendation, but at the time it felt wonderful; such a buzz!). When my husband got a fellowship back in Cambridge during that first year there were some very sticky moments at home: I realised how much I didn’t want to walk away from this project that I was only just getting my teeth into. This problem was sorted when my husband himself got a year’s postdoc at Rockefeller, with the dispensation to work every other week back at Cornell. It has to be said that the grass-widow weeks were the weeks I worked ridiculous hours with enormous enthusiasm. I had, fortuitously but with great good fortune, stepped into a project where so much of the necessary but tedious groundwork had been already laid by someone else and the results just kept on coming. A high of the like I have never had since, with Ed there constantly throwing new ideas into the mix and finding new directions to push us off into. If he disappeared for a few days it usually meant he’d holed himself up in the library to come back with yet more ideas for us to test out. Even there to teach me to write good prose: one thing I learnt from him and have never forgotten is not to start a sentence with ‘This shows…’ or ‘This is..’ without specifying what the ‘this’ is, as in ‘This problem was sorted..’ a few lines above.

The one thing I taught Ed was when he wanted to get back into doing his own experimental work. With enormous trepidation I had to teach this 40 year old full professor how to make the thin film samples he needed to do mechanical testing for a consultancy project he was working up with IBM. That was fairly nerve-racking, particularly given my own propensity to drop samples on the floor or otherwise mess up, but also because it felt such cheek to be teaching him anything. He was a ready pupil, though, and I don’t recall it ultimately causing either of us any embarrassment. He always brought out the best in me.

It wasn’t enough for Ed that I was flourishing scientifically, he wanted to make sure I got known by others. He packed me off to give seminars in various universities around the USA, my first experience of this, he introduced me to the top professors in the field when we went to meetings, made sure I joined them for dinner (did they think this was odd I wonder in retrospect?) and would be remembered by them. That I was a woman (at a time when they were still very thin on the ground, to the extent that I had been the first female postdoc in the department when I’d arrived) never bothered him at all. I was simply someone at whom he could toss ideas and theories for us to dissect at length. He even made sure that I met a visiting academic from Cambridge who passed through Cornell to ensure that I had a lab back here that I could attach myself to when the postdoc position did finally finish and my husband returned to Cambridge to take up his fellowship. What more could one ask of a mentor? Inspiration and practical support offered freely day by day.

When I returned to the UK he was still always there in the background giving me encouragement. Not a great letter-writer (or its more modern version of email), nevertheless if I needed advice or a reference letter Ed was always more than willing to step in. His constant encouragement persisted right to the end. I last saw him in 2010 when we were both speaking at a conference in the Peak District (he had by this time moved to UCSB). My talk did not go well. Why? Because I realised, with hindsight, that having him in the audience made me nervous! My great early mentor, who meant so much to me, and what had I to show for myself? Had I lived up to his expectations or was my work now, so far removed from what we had worked on together, somehow lesser and regarded by him as unworthy?

I sat next to him at the conference dinner and we talked and talked (I apologised afterwards to the poor person who sat on the other side of me whom I ignored the entire meal). I probably knew then I was unlikely to see Ed again, but he continued to be wonderful and it was a total delight to have those last few hours of conversation with him. I had been worried that he would think that I was wasting my time with the gender work I had got so stuck into by then as a distraction from real science, but far from it. He obviously had been following what I had been doing and told me how important he thought it was. Despite the fact that he always chose, as far as possible, to avoid heavy administrative tasks that took him away from the science he loved, he respected those who chose other paths. He left me feeling reassured and upbeat.

PS 2010speakers copy
Photograph of the speakers at the High Polymer Conference 2010. Ed is standing next to me at the end of the front row.

(For completeness the speakers are Back Row: Dr S Rimmer, Prof P Messersmith, Prof R Grubbs, Prof R Jones, Prof J Feast, Dr J Rieger. Centre Row: Prof E Reichmanis, Prof C Hawker, Prof I Manners, Prof A Cooper, Prof J Frechet. Front Row: Prof T McLeish, Prof V Vogel, Prof L Leibler, Prof Tony Ryan (Chairman), Prof A Donald, Prof E Kramer.)

So, here am I, just one of his many, many students and postdocs whom he inspired, instructed, encouraged and supported by word and deed. I can think of a substantial number of these who now hold senior positions in universities around the world. How many of us would have succeeded without his mentorship, his intercessions and his wisdom? I know I am not the only one who would have turned away from academia without his input and encouragement. What a giant he was, what a difference he made to the field of polymer science. And how much he will be missed.

Professor Edward J Kramer (1939-2014), survived by his wife Gail, his two children Eric and Jeanne and their children.

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