On the Loss of a Giant

At the turn of the year I wrote about the death of Ed Kramer, one of the two key people in my life who turned me into the person I am as a scientist. I am deeply saddened to learn about the death of the other crucial individual who influenced the course of my career so substantially, Sir Sam Edwards. I have written previously a little about Sam but it seems timely to say a little more to celebrate his life, his wisdom and the impact he made on the field of soft matter he was so influential in creating (along with Pierre Gilles de Gennes).

My interactions with Sam were very different from those with Ed Kramer, in some ways more distant lacking the intensity of the two years of near-daily contact I had with Ed during my time as his postdoc. But Sam was there for much longer in my life, offering me his wisdom, his support and the benefit of his contacts over an extended period. But, aside from the purely professional, there was one absolutely vital statement he made to me that meant that I stayed in science and had the confidence to attempt to combine motherhood and a career. At the time that it became clear a lectureship was going to open up in polymer physics at the Cavendish I went to see him to discuss the situation. I pointed out that I wanted to start a family. I have never forgotten his response

‘Intelligent women should have families’

he said, making it clear that were I pregnant at interview he, for one, would not hold this against me (he was at the time Head of Department as well as Cavendish Professor). Remember this was a very long time ago when such attitudes could not be counted on; perhaps they still cannot.

At various points Sam was Chair of the Science Research Council (the single predecessor of EPSRC and BBSRC) and de facto Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence, though that probably wasn’t the job title at the time. Of course he was also head of the department of Physics in Cambridge, Cavendish Professor and a Pro Vice Chancellor, I think the first Cambridge ever had. He had a very strong belief in the importance, not just of physics, but of contributing to the community wholeheartedly to give back for what he had himself received. As a Welsh grammar school boy who won a scholarship to Cambridge immediately post war, he never forgot his roots and that his grandfather had been down the mines. He felt strongly he owed something to the country that had enabled him to progress from these roots to the highest levels in academia and he had a palpable sense of public service and duty.

If you look around the country at Sam’s protégées it is clear many of us imbibed the message that his life conveyed. Numerous of those who worked with him have gone on to leadership and public roles. Of those I know well I can think of 3 PVC’s/Deans (Richard Jones at Sheffield, Tom McLeish at Durham and Ken Evans at Exeter). That cannot be a coincidence. Mark Warner is running the Rutherford Schools’ Physics project  operating from the Cavendish; Robin Ball was Director of the Complexity Science CDT at Warwick. Two of us are currently serving on Royal Society Council (Mike Cates and myself), something he himself did, becoming a vice-president for a year. We all learnt from Sam that involvement with these larger spheres is both important and interesting, a message that many scientists don’t necessarily ever hear or receive.

But Sam never gave up his science. He had a reputation at the Ministry of Defence for being incredibly thorough at taking notes during meetings, but in practice he was often working on solutions to the latest problem that had caught his interest in his notebook. His interests were wide and, after his retirement he started up the whole new field of granular solids practically single-handedly although not without controversy. Many of us felt he was unlucky not to share the 1991 Nobel Prize with de Gennes, but the pair of them maintained a very close relationship until de Gennes untimely death, even if it was a relationship tinged with a hint of rivalry.

He was a non-executive director for various companies and always maintained close links with industry. That his name was widely celebrated at Unilever was a source of mixed pride: he was remembered for solving the equations for polymer viscosity that enabled the company to make a loo cleaner (Domestos I think) that hung around the bowl for longer and therefore disinfected more efficiently. He wasn’t sure that that was the product he really wanted to be associated with! His close links with industry had major importance for me in that he was able to pull all the relevant parties together to create a  linked grant from government and industry on the topic of colloids, at £3M a huge sum back in 1992 for the Cavendish to win. This was a grant I was then fingered to lead. His was the hard work that brought the grant to fruition, but I was one of the group who derived the benefit of scientific credit. This wasn’t the first time he had done so for me either: he had previously brought Food Physics to the Cavendish with another major grant which I then took the scientific (and experimental) lead on. My scientific reputation, if you like, derives from his vision. It was demanding to fulfil that vision but I had a strong financial platform on which to build.

As I write this, and having circulated the news of his death widely over email, the messages that come back to me all use words like affection and fondness in their remembrances, plus words recalling his wisdom and humanity. For instance, as Randal Richards wrote (and he was one who had never worked directly with Sam)

He will indeed be missed not just for his scientific insight but also for his warm humanity and an ability to treat all as equals be they fresh PhD students or Margaret Thatcher (who appointed him as chair of the Science Research Council!).

This attitude of equality is something I identified when I wrote about Sam some years ago, another key characteristic we should all bear in mind in our own behaviour.

Finally, there is no doubt that Sam was a bon viveur. He was an opera aficionado who frequented Glyndebourne, and a serious wine buff. His room in his college (Gonville and Caius) had a small (former bedroom) room off it in which he stored a huge cache of wine. This collection was legendary. I cannot comment on his knowledge of wine because I would never have been able to catch him out, although I did once see one of my junior colleagues do so. In fact, I didn’t always appreciate his taste in wines although over the years I managed to consume quite a lot of it. Sam’s solution to many situations – trying to win grants, win friends from industry or just to entertain visitors – was to host a good dinner.

Indeed one of his last pieces of advice to me was to hold dinners as a way of making progress in tricky negotiations, one I didn’t follow (at least until I became Master at Churchill, at which point I seem to be far more involved in formal dinners than at any point previously). At a dinner given by ICI in his honour around his 80th birthday in Caius, I realised – not for the first time – my ability to consume wine was not up to everyone else’s and I was all set to leave the red wine in my glass rather than drink it and slide under the table. At that point Sam held up his glass and said

‘at current prices I think this wine would fetch around £150 a bottle’

– he had of course laid it down long before when the price was more moderate. I looked at my glass, calculated that it contained £30 worth and felt obliged to drink it all! He had strong views about wine. Quotes abound. There was the hotel at which he picked up the wine list and remarked scornfully there wasn’t a bottle on it that was fit for more than being flushed down the toilet. And he said, more than once, that life was not long enough for the Gamay grape.

Of course, his shrewdness and his wisdom extended far beyond the wine cellar. For many years I would trip along to his office and pour out my latest conundrum, including long after he had retired. He would offer me the voice of experience and encourage me every step along the way. He had invested in me in the sense of procuring the grants he then handed over to me; he wanted to make sure I, and all the associated research, flourished and did all he could to ensure that.

RIP Sam. You will be missed by so many. A good friend, mentor and collaborator whose reach went far beyond those who actually formally worked with him. A ground-breaking theoretical physicist (read Stealing the Gold if you want to read his seminal papers and the impact they had on all around in the fields of spin glasses and soft matter) who set the field alight in the UK and far beyond.

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Knowledge versus Experience

One of the things that is always said about teaching is that it shows you what you do or don’t know. You can’t flannel an explanation to a student who keeps asking probing questions though you may manage to do it to yourself. They may be questions that approach a topic in some way you had never considered before but rapidly realise is illuminating – possibly even challenging – and so they can aid your own understanding. Sometimes writing a talk is rather like that too.

I have a list of talks coming up that aren’t on particularly familiar territory, starting with one on communication for a group of postdocs. I have never previously sat down and thought about my style of speaking, or what I feel the necessary ingredients of a good talk are beyond clarity and coherence. And keeping to time. And that the slides are visible from the back of the lecture theatre. And that you’re audible. And….You will see why I realised as I started putting my presentation together for this talk, that actually there were a lot of things I felt quite strongly about. I may not have been used to articulating them but nevertheless I ‘knew’ at some level what I thought was important (though in fact most of the talk won’t be about giving talks).

I have presumably been asked to give this talk because someone thinks I know something about communication, whereas in fact it is more a case of having got on with the job, experimented with different styles, media (as with this blog but also newspapers and radio), topics and audiences. For each of the multiple combinations you can construct out of those four ingredients, there is probably a different set of ‘rules’ one is implicitly obeying. But this does not mean that I have ever sat down and constructed a matrix of how to construct ‘communication strategies’ appropriate to each of the different combinations.

Experience is a wonderful thing because it enables you to ‘learn’ without noticing. The first time of doing anything will always be daunting and things may easily go belly up. But, to use that apparently trite cliché, one learns from one’s mistakes. And one does. So, after years of hiccoughs, trials and tribulations you slowly find out how not to fall over quite so painfully. (If you want to hear about the ‘lumpy custard’ debacle when attempting to discuss the somewhat unfamiliar topic of colloids with the media many years ago, I refer you to Desert Island Discs. Believe you me, that first major interaction with the media after an ill-considered press release was painful. It put me off talking to the media, in any shape or form for about 15 years. In fact until shortly before Desert Island Discs invited me along and, out of the blue, they sprung the question about the lumpy custard saga….)

Experience is in fact often just knowledge which hasn’t been put explicitly into words – I guess it’s ‘unknown knowns’ to rework Donald Rumsfeld. When someone asks you to articulate how you do something, a little reflection enables you to realise what strategy you’ve unconsciously been putting into practice. However, on that first occasion when you have neither experience nor internal knowledge you do have to rely on others to stiffen your spine and to pass on their tips and advice. So, I guess talking about communication may help others to start identifying some of the strands they personally will need to pull together and to consider what the options are and which ones personally appeal.

Last year I was asked to talk about leadership. Rereading what I wrote at the time, it seems to apply almost as well to communication as to leadership (in the case of this paragraph I was specifically referring to committee work):

Whatever, I am who I am and my style has to be what works for me and I guess the same is true for everyone. Worry about the content first and foremost; make sure you’re articulate, coherent and audible as well as factually well-prepared and aware of other people’s sticking points.

This idea that one has to be true to oneself was very much the advice I gave a young colleague recently who was facing his first after-dinner speech. I told him

If you’re not good at telling jokes (I’m not), then don’t for instance. Are you trying to give any particular message? It’s often best if you can ‘talk from the heart’ i.e. be quite personal without being self-centred. But personal anecdotes by way of illustration of some point – something you’ve learned for instance, something you wish you had known but didn’t and so messed up – tend to work well.

I haven’t included the art of after-dinner speaking in my talk on communication – I am after all talking to scientists not Toastmasters. Perhaps I should cover it too, but it is such a particularly peculiar format, and so very British, that it doesn’t feel as if it would fit in. Of course in my own College when I have to speak I always have the option of peppering my words with some appropriate Churchillian bon mot, although on the whole I don’t. I certainly still feel I am learning ‘what works’ for a relaxed and mellow audience in after-dinner speeches, and how to manipulate notes, microphones, toasts (with requisite full glasses of wine) and remember all the well-deserved thanks, interweaving the one with the other without the notes descending to the floor in fluttery chaos as they are prone to do.

Unfortunately this talk on communication is not the only unusual topic I have agreed to do over the next month. Looking at my diary I see I am also supposed to be giving a Keynote to PhD students on the topic of ‘Understanding Service’, although I’m convinced that was not what the original invitation highlighted. I am sure, as I put that talk together, I will likewise be teasing out ideas that lurk in my head without necessarily having been previously put into words. But, it won’t take the reader of this blog long to know I believe service to the community is hugely important and a task that too few senior professors are willing to engage with wholeheartedly. Shortly after that I’m supposed to be giving a talk on ‘transitioning to independence’ for aspiring PIs. This transition is a key stage that I’ve obviously been through but I wonder if I can reflect sufficiently coherently on what I did, well or badly, at that critical juncture to be any use to a new generation.

So, a series of talks to groups at different stages, on different aspects of ‘making it work’ as you progress. I hope, as I tease out some strands of what I did and what in hindsight I wish I had done, I can be of some use. Service, as I’ll be discussing in that middle talk, takes many forms, but assisting those who are setting out should be something all of us nearer the top of the greasy pole need to embrace. I hope I’ll be doing my bit this month.

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The Perils of Procrastination

Voter registration in the UK showed just how many people are good at procrastination, with nearly half a million people registering on the last possible day. My email inbox is also a good indicator of people’s expectation that we are all procrastinators. How many emails do you get a day headed ‘Last chance – fantastic offers end tomorrow’ or ‘Final Days to Register for…’. We are presumed to respond to these last minute opportunities, rather than opt for something in a stately and timely manner well before the deadline.

Does this matter? We’ve all been guilty of engaging in some variation of this from time to time. Students turning up with a piece of coursework 24 hours after a deadline is a familiar occurrence which, not even 5% automatic mark loss per day late seems able to counteract. Or academics who put pressure on institutional administrators to process major grant applications within a day of a funder’s deadline; we don’t take kindly to being reminded that the organisation’s rules require a week’s notice particularly if, as a consequence, the institution refuses to sign the grant off. (Although I suspect many administrators would not actually feel empowered to throw a hot-shot professor’s application back in their face in that way, however reasonable such behaviour might be.)

But what if the only person who gains or loses by the procrastination is oneself – what are the pros and cons then? It seems to me that there are times when a task is so tedious the only way that one can motivate oneself to do it at all is to leave it to the last minute. That can apply to writing numerous letters of reference for students you don’t know very well; or reading the paperwork for some committee that merely feels like an exercise in drudgery and pointlessness, or that you feel you have been stuck on as a makeweight and you actually have little you feel qualified (or interested in sufficiently) to offer.

The other group of tasks that, it seems to me, we are prone to put off and put off are the ones that are the complete opposite. These are the tasks that are so important they feel horrifyingly daunting. Challenges such as the big talk you’ve got to give at an international conference for which simply recycling a previous one with some tweaks and updates will not suffice; or the new lecture course that has to be delivered to 400 keen (or not so keen) first years. Some of these tasks you know about so far in advance that they seem remote so that it is easy to put off week after week. Until suddenly, the talk is only next week, or the 24 lecture course next month. Then, perhaps, the adrenalin will surge and fear will prompt a sudden flurry of activity. The danger is that time will still run out. A talk (or lecture course) will be written, but it won’t be honed and polished to perfection. At that late moment it may remain rough around the edges. Afterwards you will curse yourself for not devoting the tender loving care to your thoughts and slides that you know they deserved.

I well recall when I was invited to give a big lecture, on a topic of my choosing but specifically not simply about my research and for a general university audience. I had around a year to think about this and I read extensively, broadened my range of reading material significantly, thought about all kinds of topics that I had barely considered before and had a huge amount of fun and stimulation. But did I write the talk? No of course I didn’t. The ideas were floating around in a vague amorphous mess but not a slide did I construct. I had files of useful articles and quotes but they were all jumbled up metaphorically and literally. A couple of weeks before the talk my husband asked how it was going. That gave me a jolt! I hope I did the topic justice; I do know that I had more questions (about half an hour’s worth) than on any previous talk I had ever given and they only stopped because everyone’s tongue was hanging out waiting for the drinks reception. Nor were these hostile questions but searching, deep ones which made me believe (wishful thinking perhaps) that I had got through to the general listener. But it doesn’t alter my perception I could have done better if I had started the actual talk construction (rather than merely thinking about the ingredients) further in advance.

Nevertheless, the real problem arises when you leave things to the last moment and then something goes wrong. Not quite along the lines of ‘the dog ate my homework’, more typically that you have flu or your computer crashes. That I suppose is what has prompted this post. Trying to tidy things up in advance of going off to a conference for a few days, I was copying what I needed off my desktop computer so that I could take material with me. I just had a brief interval before rushing off to a student event in College and that, of course, was when my computer crashed. It just sat there blinking forlornly at me refusing either to reopen programmes or shut down. Fury, despair and panic ensued. Luckily I extricated myself (and it) after only about 10 minutes, but it reminded me of the dangers of not being well prepared. Had I allowed a proper amount of time to accomplish the needful, I would have expended less nervous energy on the trivial task.

Reader, beware of putting yourself in this same position. Regularly. Do not procrastinate as no doubt you, like all of us, do.

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The Myth of the ‘Myth of Women in Science’

If you skimmed through some articles about women in science recently, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘problem solved’. A recent study by Cecil and Williams, published in no less august a publication than PNAS, claimed women actually had a 2:1 advantage over men when it came to hiring at tenure track level. Isn’t that fantastic! Hence CNN ran a story claiming it was now ‘the myth of women in science’, implying that those tedious whinging women could now shout up (other outlets ran similar write-ups).

However. Yes, there’s bound to be a however. This claim, which many women would be hard pressed to believe from personal experience, was sure to be scrutinised. If you want an analysis of why the study is not as robust as its abstract (and the CNN article) suggests, take a look at this. This deconstruction of the study highlights a number of shortcomings , not least the fact that respondents being asked if they’d hire someone knew full well the CVs they were sent were not genuine. Why not show how impressively unbiased you are by choosing the minority candidate when absolutely nothing hangs on it?

Now the plural of anecdote may not be data, and indeed hiring decisions could in fact be completely independent of the microinequities people feel justified in making day by day (see Jenny Martin’s recent blogpost if you doubt such things are still ongoing) but nothing I have seen suggests we have yet reached a point when we can relax and think equality has been reached in science. Study after study suggests that women leave the profession at a faster rate than men and that, whatever percentage of women start out at undergraduate level the percentage falls at each successive stage, although the numbers vary between disciplines.

It isn’t the first time Ceci and Williams have published a study suggesting discrimination in hiring is essentially a thing of the past (see this earlier study where in essence the blame was put on women wanting to become mothers). It is of course true that overt discrimination is not common, but subtler forms undoubtedly still occur. The sort of thing covered by a suspicion that a woman of child-bearing age wearing a ring might be a risky appointment in case they want to take time out for a child or an undefined sense that someone might not fit in as well as the candidate who looks like everyone else already in the department

Hiring is of course a crucial stage in any individual’s career, but it isn’t the only moment that matters; possibly not even the most critical. If the community is led to believe that they can relax because all is completely hunky dory when it comes to hiring, then collectively I am sure there will be an inclination to stop looking at the wider problem. Yet the problem is not one-dimensional and there are multiple factors that may cause the attrition in numbers of female scientists. That is why recognition of the sorts of pervasive microinequities that Jenny Martin describes is so important. The PhD student who feels bullied, ignored or treated as no more than a dumb blonde is not likely to want to stick around (see here for my discussion of a study highlighting these issues specifically in chemistry). The female post doc who wonders why it is always the blokes who get encouraged to go to conferences to present the group data or who is only the second author on a paper describing what is actually her own work may feel there is little point in applying for a fellowship or faculty position. You cannot blame an appointment committee for failing to appoint the women who don’t apply because they’ve been systematically discouraged before they reach that point, even if none of this discouragement is explicit. Yet Ceci and Williams seem keen to load this blame for not applying onto the discouraged women.

That is why I think investigations that are being carried out into the data on success rates by career stage and gender for grant applications are so important; I know my own university (and maybe several others too) are carrying out this analysis together with several funders. As I’ve written before, working out why women aren’t applying for Royal Society URFs in the numbers represented in the pool and why they are less successful when they do is an important step forward. Since URFs – and their equivalent from other funders – are an important staging post in an aspiring academic’s career, grasping and solving this problem would be an important milestone towards equality.

But if we have a study, which in itself can actually be heavily criticised, allowing institutions to wriggle off the hook by permitting them to kid themselves there isn’t a problem, then we are likely to end up with a lot of complacent deans and chairs of appointment committees. A similar point was made here where a careful deconstruction of some of the additional claims made in the Ceci and Williams paper is made. More importantly, though, this piece by Marie-Claire Shanahan spells out just why the discourse being created by Ceci and Williams is potentially so dangerous: it implies it’s the women’s fault (by not applying for positions) because it certainly isn’t the hiring committees’ fault if they don’t get hired. This puts the blame on women in a most unhelpful way. It isn’t that women are wimps who don’t apply because they believe there is bias in the appointments, it is that too often they get deterred and derailed by a whole range of different factors along the way. Feeding a misleading message to the media, as appears to have happened around this article, is at best unhelpful.

Personally I fear that by putting the blame on women it means that the ‘establishment’ will sit back and wait for the women to ‘man up’. Articles like the latest Ceci and Williams one and the hype surrounding it run the very real danger that some of the encouraging trends we’ve been seeing will unravel. Actions such as requiring panels to take unconscious bias training will be put into reverse and more thoughtful and thorough approaches by search committees will be allowed to lapse. In other words, equality will be set back. I sincerely hope people will not allow themselves to be deluded back into inaction by this PNAS article.


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On the Need for Shiny New Facilities

I’m off to open a new block at Brighton and Hove Sixth Form College tomorrow. A shiny new building to provide fresh classrooms and additional study space, something many schools would dearly love to have. A decent working environment is undoubtedly contributory to children finding it easier to learn – rather like Virginia Woolf’s Room of her Own. Dark, dingy classrooms with poor ventilation can only hinder concentration. Too many schools have to operate under such conditions.

When considering the future of the science base through the students being educated, an important consideration needs to be the quality of the laboratory facilities provided to permit appropriate practical work to be carried out at every level. At primary school a lack of teachers feeling well-qualified and/or confident to teach such work does not help, although the actual cost of required equipment may be relatively modest. Things get worse at secondary school where there may be teachers with the right skills but who lack the requisite apparatus. A 2013 SCORE study of the school budgets assigned to practical work highlighted the dire state many teachers have to operate in. How can you carry out exciting work in a lab to stoke the curiosity of a child if only 75p pa per capita is assigned to practical work (this was the lowest figure quoted in the SCORE analysis)? The average in the state school sector was around £10 pa per capita to be contrasted with an average of £27 in private schools. That’s a big difference in money which can’t be expected to have zero impact when it comes to the enthusiasm with which a child approaches the school laboratory.

Practical work may not be going to count in assessments under the new regime, or at least in the way it traditionally has, an outcome many organisations have complained about. But that does not mean it has no worth – which is why its obliteration has been so fiercely contested. There is no doubt for many children it is precisely this practical element of work, getting their hands dirty as it were, which sparks curiosity. Finding out how things work (or how they don’t work, even why they don’t work) is an important part of getting to grips with science, whether or not the child has aspirations to further scientific study. More money into school buildings and school resources more generally are desperately needed. I hope the politicians have this firmly in their sights as they speechify up and down the country this month.

Of course the other part of my role tomorrow is not just to celebrate the clean walls and pleasing architecture, but to act as a catalyst for thought in the children who attend. I am still unclear (as I believe is the evidence in the literature) of the specific importance of role models. In particular it isn’t obvious to me that some woman nearly half a century older than the pupils is likely to inspire any particular excitement or positive identification. Sometimes it worries me that I could have a negative effect of making the future as a grown up merely seem inconceivably remote. I can’t help feeling that someone closer in age to them is more likely to enable them to believe that their career is a path they might wish to emulate.

On the other hand, experience counts for something. The kind of messages I like to give in such pep talks include:

  • Don’t be fooled successful people have never had setbacks;
  • Or that they’ve always known exactly what they want to do.
  • Don’t believe confidence is necessarily more than skin deep.
  • Realise that opportunities are there to be seized
  • And that missed opportunities often leave a worse taste in the mouth than trying something new and failing at it.

I am sure that some mixture of these bullet points will feature in what I have to say before I unveil the plaque. I hope I do this more successfully than a previous ceremony I attended, carried out by a junior minister and which used to show up on Auntie’s Bloomers. I leave you with this image forever burned into my mind, featuring Edward Leigh as he opened the new laboratory I was presiding over at the Cavendish at the time (1992).
edward leigh 92

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