A year ago today I set finger to keyboard for the first time to start my blog. When I did it I had no real idea of what my focus was going to be, but I had a sort of sense that I wanted to write something. A friend, a blogger on entirely serious scientific matters, encouraged me saying ‘go on, it will be fun!’. I’ve no idea what he thought I was going to write about either, but he was right, I’ve had lots of fun this past year. Having got so far as to ask advice from my friendly, local computer officer (thank you Owen, you wrote the very first comment on my blog too as I recall) about how one set such a thing up I thought I had better proceed. It was a touching vote of confidence that on the Monday following that conversation Owen actually checked to see if I had got myself set up.
My first thoughts were that I would write about interdisciplinary science primarily. I even asked a couple of other scientists who work at the physics-biology interface if they would like to join in and we might all write about papers that took our fancy in this field. Neither of them responded to my email, so that idea bit the dust, at least in that particular form. But I always knew that one of the strands was going to be about ‘women in science’ and, for that reason, I was very clear that I was going to write under my own name. Only by identifying myself can people judge whether I can lay claim to any authority in what I write about and if, having survived in the system for all these years and experienced whatever vagaries life has thrown at me, the ‘voice of experience’ is of any use for others.
Sometimes I feel my seniority actually means that people too easily assume that I have no feeling for what it is like to be junior. Occasionally people have implied I have no sympathy for women in science. I find these responses to what I have written very strange, although no doubt it merely highlights that, however hard one tries to write clearly, things can be misunderstood. Certainly one of the things I have enjoyed most about doing this blog has been the opportunity to write things that aren’t in standard peer-reviewed journalese, of the sort our favourite journal beginning with N wants to receive. I’ve loved rediscovering the joy of composition, as opposed to simply stating what one has done, and what one can infer from the evidence in some dry-as-dust passive voice form. When I took my 11 plus, all those years ago, and was subsequently being interviewed by my prospective headmistress, it is amusing to recall it was my English skills that she lauded, not my maths. ‘A budding Shakespeare’ was the phrase that sticks in my mind. She was wrong, my worst O Level grade was in English and I dug my heels in about doing English Literature at all, but maybe I’ve found my (written) voice finally after many decades. I cannot think it is simply coincidence that over the past year I have written a couple of things for Times/Eureka and several for the THE (two of which are yet to appear), having had no exposure in such publications at any point previously.
Although once or twice, as I say, I feel my messages may have been misunderstood, much more often I have been really heartened by the responses of people – in written comments, on Twitter or just in conversation at chance meetings at different sorts of events. Women in particular tend to say how valuable they have found it that a senior woman will speak out about things that worry them too, or that it is useful to know that other people have experienced setbacks or awkward situations. So, I would like to think I am not just talking to myself, but that there is some point – as well as fun – in keeping this blog going. I was amused to find, when Physics World wrote up my blog, the comment was made that
we get the impression that its author has been itching for an outlet for her opinions for years.
If true, I wasn’t aware of the fact myself. But perhaps that was a tactful way of saying I am opinionated, which probably goes without saying.
I started off as a free-standing blogger, but was amazed and delighted to receive an invitation from the much more experienced Jenny Rohn to join Occam’s Typewriter as it was formed, although technically I think my own blog did not become live till a day or two after OT’s birth. This is a happy home of scientists writing about life in science, rather than purely about the details of their research.
During this past year I have taken on new responsibilities relating to school education and public engagement, and it is becoming increasingly clear to me how little school children (or their parents) understand about what scientists do or what makes us tick. OT, as it stands, can’t serve that purpose, but we should miss no opportunity to make our lives seem accessible, interesting and fun to pupils for whom school science teaching touches no chord. Perhaps that is why I have written so much about impact, loosely defined, because as scientists we should feel no absolute entitlement to public money without justifying ourselves; we need to demonstrate we are giving something back to society for the money they are willing to pay us (at least they would in an ideal world) for having the fun we all do with our science. This is not about economic impact, but about sharing our knowledge much more broadly.
Finally, I have had fun with my anonymous characterisations, one might say character assassinations, notably of committee members. That one of these posts provoked a Gilbert and Sullivan little list in response, and another a cartoon display I take as great compliments. I shall be watching out for other situations where I can let my imagination run riot with the inner life and motivations of people I work with. You have been warned!