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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A Professorial Guide (Updated)

In the run up to Christmas I feel I should be posting something light, frothy and cheerful. But somehow a diet of the REF, the Strategy and Innovation review which prompted my last post, as well as more domestic upheavals and concerns have knocked any frothiness out of me. So I’m going to cheat and repost and update something I wrote as Christmas 2011 approached, because at the time it struck a chord with my readers and may entertain any new aficianados of my blog.

An Identification Guide for Professors

(first posted 21-12-11)

As we head for Christmas, it is worth considering the people we’ve been surrounded by for the past year.  Some will have been a delight, others may have caused immense stress for a number of different reasons. So, time to continue my characterisation of the Dramatis Personae in university departments, bearing in mind the recent discussion in the THE about what professors ought to be offering in terms of leadership, strategic development and support for those around*. (Of course the title professor should be taken as generic; these characters may apply at any career stage of a tenured academic.)

Professor Inefficient

Whatever task you ask this person to take on, they will manage either to fail to start or most certainly fail to finish; possibly they will even manage to screw up the bigger picture of the task for others en route.  Sometimes this is due to inexperience, but sometimes it is clearly a carefully thought through strategy so that colleagues never ask them to do anything again. I have known young lecturers who successfully followed this strategy early on in their career, so as to avoid having chores pointed in their direction, and who have subsequently turned into irreproachable heads of departments. I leave others to judge the ethics and/or wisdom of this behaviour.

Professor Centre-of-the Universe

This person may or may not be the star of the department. It doesn’t matter to them what the rest of the world thinks about them. As far as they are concerned they know the world revolves around them, and they expect everyone else to fit in with what they want. If they need more space they assume others will cheerfully relinquish their targeted rooms. If  they want that outstanding student who has applied from abroad, it never occurs to them that others may equally have their eyes on them – and the accompanying finance. Such behaviour can be amazingly disruptive; while less egocentric colleagues will confer and be willing to compromise, Professor Centre-of-the-Universe charges on without a sideways glance at those who fall by the wayside. Of course, if they don’t fall by the wayside voluntarily, things can get even nastier. Battle lines can be drawn before others have even had chance to draw breath. A tricky person for the head of department to try to keep in check.

Professor Mid-Atlantic

This person may or may not be synonymous with the previous character. Those who think they are the centre of the universe may also be those who are constantly on airplanes, jetting around the world from one high profile conference to another.  They rely on teams of students constantly to replenish their powerpoint presentations with new data, but they are not necessarily close at hand to advise these students. Hence a large team of postdocs may also be required to keep the research group actually functioning in the long periods of absence of the boss.

Professor Charming

Again this may often be one and the same person as Professor Mid-Atlantic, because a quick charm offensive on their return from every trip may be required to stop the troops from rioting during their next absence. One student I knew of such a professor told me how he had always gone into meetings raging about the lack of support  he received from his supervisor, but found himself instantly disarmed by the (mock) sympathy expressed by the professor, with the outcome the student came out still not having expressed his fury. This is a skill that is clearly very useful to possess, but I would be most reluctant to encourage others to perfect the skill! A related tactic, perhaps more relevant to dealing with senior colleagues, is the line I was once faced with ‘How long do you want to rant at me this time, Athene?’ Again, I was disarmed by this approach (and am still waiting for an occasion when I feel I can try that line out on someone myself).

Professor Last Minute

This character is well known by the administration. If there is an important grant deadline approaching, this one will turn up in the admin office a maximum of 24 hours beforehand demanding instant attention and resolution of all problems, large and small. This one will leave submitting marks for any course/exam until ½ hour after the deadline (to the distraction of the senior examiner) or fail to provide the syllabus for the course or title for any seminar until at least 3 reminders have been circulated. What makes it worse is they fail to realise the stress or mayhem consequent upon their (non) action. They’ve done whatever it was that was being asked of them, what’s the problem? – they will ask in injured terms.

Professor ChiponShoulder/It’s Not Fair

This person feels the world treats them unfairly. Always, Whatever. They believe they are asked to do far more teaching than anyone else, regardless of what any workload model may demonstrate (strange, as scientists are meant to believe in evidence). They are convinced that others get more departmental resources, be it space, money or access to students. Their brilliant research is (they would claim) overlooked if individuals are being considered for any ‘reward’ – more salary, a prize or a nicer office. Nothing that comes their way is appreciated because it’s never enough to feed their fragile egos. The strange thing about these people is that sometimes they genuinely are valued for their skills and treated accordingly well, but somehow they can’t see the respect with which they are viewed, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy as others start to value them less.

Professor Workhorse

Every department needs its share of these desirable individuals. They quietly get on with whatever is asked of them. Give them an extra dose of lecturing and they will perform, perhaps without charisma or even much enthusiasm, but with competence and consistency so that the student liason committee will not need to make a fuss demanding that they are instantly removed. Ask them to join a committee, and they will have read all the papers before the meeting although they may not wish to contribute much to the debate one way or the other (something that is by no means always a disadvantage). They will likewise deal appropriately with practical classes or admissions or whatever other task is tossed in their direction. What valuable colleagues these are, even if they may sometimes be less likely to attract large sums of money or the most aspirational students. They are a welcome relief from many of the other characters described above.

Professor Nearly Perfect

I don’t need to describe this person, since I’m sure all my readers fit into this category so they can fill in the blanks themselves.

Added 22-12-14 – a couple of additional characters for the departmental list.

Professor I-can-do-it-Better

This one knows that if only they were left to get on with the task in hand, their contribution would be much better than the idiot who is actually responsible. If they’ve come from another institution then they will endlessly bore their audience about how that previous place of employment always got this right and did it some way completely other than is being carried out now. Of course, the reason they don’t get asked to take on the task in hand is that everyone knows they are a pompous, walking disaster whose verbosity is only equalled by their lack of skill.

Professor Spreadsheet

This one adores Excel and its ilk. Whatever is under discussion – but particularly if it’s financial – this one will produce a spreadsheet to prove whatever conclusion they are desirous of selling to the audience. Unfortunately, a bit like the REF, there are many ways of manipulating data and if it is all hidden behind some complex spreadsheet it is often hard to contend with the arguments airily waved in the face at committee meetings. As a typical example, what would be the benefit of running a taught MPhil? Put in some plausible (or not-so-plausible) figures for anticipated student numbers, cost of teaching time (always ignoring the opportunity cost that arises if lecturer A asked to teach this course may refuse to continue teaching their existing course) and what fee might be charged for domestic and overseas students and anything can be proved according to the creator’s wishes. This professor is certainly hard-working, but can nevertheless be a menace for departmental unity.

Who have I forgotten?

* Any similarity to real persons, alive or dead, is purely coincidental.

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It’s All about Science Policy this Week: the Good and the Bad

There has been much activity on what could loosely be termed ‘Science Policy’ this week, including both the long-awaited/significantly delayed BIS Science and Innovation (S+I) Strategy document (entitled, optimistically ‘Our plan for growth’) and the outcome of the REF2014. I will leave discussion of the latter for another day when the dust has settled. Into this heady mix of headline-grabbing stories, the Royal Society today (for reasons outside our control and which make the timing definitely regrettable) has published a brief document ‘Doctoral students’ career expectations: principles and responsibilitiessetting out what different individuals and structures ought to be doing to make PhD students’ life as constructive and productive as possible: in other words ‘who is responsible for what’. As chair of the Royal Society Higher Education Working Group that has been looking at the doctoral landscape, my thoughts on the document are posted today over at In Verba, the Royal Society’s policy blog, and cross-posted below. But I’d like to offer additional thoughts written after this initial blogpost in the light of the S+I document but which tie in with the HE work we have been doing. These thoughts, however, are very much my own and do not reflect anyone else’s within the Royal Society. So, my personal reflections first.

The S+I document was due to be published at the start of last week. It was delayed for reasons not publicly available. Rumours are rife. To publish it on a day when every senior university leader/manager/administrator in the country was poring over their still-embargoed REF results seems curious if maximum impact was intended. So, as others have suggested, was this a good day to bury bad news? Actually, in the most part it is hard to read bad news into a document which is full of enthusiasm for science, loosely interpreted. (Somewhere, early on, the report does say that for science read ‘the natural, physical and social sciences, engineering, technology, the arts and humanities‘. I doubt those working in areas other than STEM would have felt their disciplines were adequately covered; my Twitter feed confirmed their annoyance.)

So, lots of enthusiasm for science but surprisingly little new content would be my summary analysis of seventy odd pages of text (plus another 35 of ‘evidence’); almost certainly not enough imagination or determination (or cash) actually to counter the challenges the UK faces, despite their attempt to put a positive spin on every metric they could lay their hands on. Most of the actions envisaged, including cash injections, are not announced here for the first time, although the paper pulls different strands together to make a positive statement of intent. Positive, but not really to the tune of making a difference in the nation’s investment in R+D which is noted to be significantly below the OECD average – and falling ever lower – currently standing at a mere 1.72% of GDP.

The one statement that is totally new is the, perhaps surprising one that Sir Paul Nurse will ‘lead a review with the Research Councils in order to build on their firm foundations‘. A review ‘with’ is presumably meant as a review ‘of’, yet it is only just over a year since their last triennial review. Why is a new one needed? One has to hope that this isn’t simply about more efficiency savings, or about top-slicing for new dollops of investment into areas that Research Councils would not (otherwise) support or to build up new swathes of research institutes operating outside the university system. University research is strong (as the REF2014 announcements make clear) and it would be a shame if we headed off to create a new breed of institutes just as countries like France are winding their’s down to make their research base more like the UK’s.

There have been those in the community, spotted again through my Twitterfeed and also reported in Research Fortnight, who suggest Paul is conflicted when it comes to heading up this review, because he is head of the new Crick Institute, which might be a beneficiary if top-slicing of the science base funding were to occur. If this take on things ends up as a general view, and it is easy to see why it might, then the review will be fatally tainted in the same way as we have seen in other recent Government reviews (e.g. on historic child abuse). If the country is to have this review then it is crucial that the community buys into its conclusions or, far from happily delivering efficiency savings it will at best be seen as a waste of time and money and possibly something rather worse.

There have already been various manifestations of the aforementioned dollops of cash identified, many of which are listed in the S+I plan. These include the recently-announced £235M to set up the Sir Henry Royce Institute (aka the Crick of the North) for Materials research based in Manchester and the smaller lump sum for the AlanTuring Institute to be based at the British Library. Without wishing to denigrate either of these activities and the people who will work there, I am curious to know how the decisions to locate these centres have been taken, or indeed the rationale for creating such new institutes.

The Government of late, not least of course the CSA Sir Mark Walport, has discussed the importance of evidence-based policy and one has to hope they sought an appropriate evidence base on which to base the decisions about these massive cash injections. The rumours floating around HEIs and other organisations might suggest this has not necessarily been the case, and there appear to have been interesting tensions at both the personal and departmental levels playing out. We absolutely need to have a funding regime which is palpably transparent and one in which the research community can have total confidence. Not so long ago there was quite a revolt against the EPSRC over some of their policies, notably Shaping Capabilities, and it was immensely damaging for individuals and for science. If wider loss of confidence in our funding masters occurs the scientific community will be in a very unhappy place. The Haldane Principle is discussed at some length in the S+I report. It points out that its original appearance in print stated that the ‘choice of how and by whom [that] research should be conducted should be left to the decision of experts‘. That is usually translated as the Research Councils and their system of governance and peer review, but of course ‘experts’ could be other people such as Government advisors. Whatever and whoever, complete trust in these experts is all important.

The one place where I believe a review of the operation of the Research Councils, collectively not one by one, could really play a part is in looking at the entire landscape in a seamless way. As I have written about previously, and as I frequently discuss with the Research Councils themselves, I believe too much falls through the cracks and the totality of what is done is not looked at enough. This isn’t a plea for a single research council, which would probably cause far more problems than it solves, but it is a plea for much more effective cross-council working, something that the last Triennial review did indeed highlight as needing attention. This applies not just to research grants but also to funding of students, hence the tie-in with the work regarding training of PhD students that the Royal Society has just carried out.

In the course of the HE working group’s work, we started to look at the distribution of studentships between areas – both disciplinary and geographical. This information turns out to be surprisingly hard to access reliably and in detail, but what is clear is that the move towards Doctoral Training Centres/Partnerships etc (according to the terminology of different funders) means that the landscape is getting blotchy. There may be many people studying Applied Rocket Widgetry in Scotland and none in Wales; there may be no one studying Theoretical Knotting or Caterpillar Camouflage anywhere because these are subjects which haven’t been allocated a centre; project and committee studentships have long since vanished. Is this healthy? Should we, as a nation, worry that for the next 5 years we have picked (at least in the case of the EPSRC with which I am most familiar) ‘winners’ of subjects and universities and there is little room left for new activities to blossom, albeit there is still a little money left in central departmental allocations? I worry that we are simply losing flexibility – or ‘agility’ as the S+I report likes to describe it.

That is perhaps a rather longer lead-in than I intended to my actual, original blogpost about the Principles and Responsibilities document the Royal Society HE Group produced. There is much food for thought in what has been produced this week and in the processes by which the outcomes have been decided. Now, here is my original text on the HE working group’s paper.

Expectations for All

This post first appeared at In Verba and is cross-posted with permission.

Research students embarking on a PhD do so for many reasons and with different degrees of understanding of what they are letting themselves in for. Equally, supervisors of research students have a wide range of different attitudes and aptitudes towards supervision. Sometimes there is a mismatch of expectations. When this happens students can find themselves disillusioned, unhappy and let down by a system that doesn’t always seem to have their best interests very high up the agenda. Universities themselves, and their careers services, also have responsibilities in managing expectations and delivering support and advice.

Recognizing the possibilities for a mismatch of expectations, the Royal Society has published a brief document ‘Doctoral students’ career expectations: principles and responsibilities’ spelling out who should take responsibility for what. Undoubtedly there is more that universities can do in setting out the framework within which research should be carried out. Students must not be regarded as mere ‘bench monkeys’, but nor should they themselves be passive in seeking out what they need; certain responsibilities fall on them as others fall on the supervisors and the institution itself.

As Chair of the working group that has produced this document, I was unsure how it would be received by ‘stakeholders’ i.e. representatives of all the different parties to whom it potentially could apply. The Royal Society hosted a series of stakeholder meetings to test the waters before finalising the text. I was heartened by the enthusiasm with which the group I saw – senior university managers and people working in careers services – greeted our words. It seemed that university managers felt they tried to promote ideas of responsibility to both supervisors and students, but that their words too often fell on deaf ears or carried no weight, not least because it was ‘managers’ saying these things. It is to be hoped the external voice of the Royal Society may carry more authority, because these messages are of fundamental importance for the well-being of the research base. I understand representatives from the researcher community also felt it gave greater clarity as to what they could and should be asking for from the systems in which they worked and so would make it easier for students to voice their concerns.

Research students need to know what too many seem to want not to know, that doing a PhD is not an automatic passport to a lifetime in academia. For many, that isn’t what they want to do anyhow. It depends on discipline – engineers are less likely to expect or wish to stay in academia than biologists, for instance – but it is unfortunately too simplistic to believe if you get a PhD there is a faculty position waiting for you. If you query that, look at Figure 1.6 in the Royal Society’s report The Scientific Century. The precise numbers are difficult to establish, but the overall shape of the pipeline feeding through from research student to professor is not in doubt. Few make it. So, it is vital that students pick up other skills, look to broaden their CVs and gain a breadth of experience during their PhD’s – and that they are facilitated, not obstructed, when they try to do so. Failing to gain such skills they may not be well-placed to find jobs outside academia.

In what I write above I by no means intend to imply that academia should be the destination of choice. I absolutely don’t believe that, although it is a message too many students can receive during their training. As a nation we so often desperately need, but lack, scientifically-trained individuals in a huge variety of spheres ranging from politics to the media. I would love to see a world in which experienced scientists were valued in such milieus and that students actively sought such opportunities out. These are messages that our higher education institutions and the supervisors themselves should be giving out throughout a PhD programme.

I hope that readers across the spectrum (students, supervisors, careers services and Deans and Pro Vice-Chancellors) will look at this document and consider what they individually need to do to improve the climate in which students carry out their research. PhD students are an invaluable intellectual resource for our nation and must not be squandered or hindered. Whatever their future destination we need to ensure their time is not wasted or limited during their PhDs and that they can maximise their talents and skills for everyone’s future benefit, most particularly their own.


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Should I Be Discombobulated?

If I were Mary Beard I’m sure I could tell you about my particular current predicament with grace and self-deprecating humour. As it is my reaction is a severe case of impostor syndrome when perhaps I should be swanning around with delight. But yet to talk about such delight makes me feel in danger of exhibiting unsuitable over-confidence verging on arrogance. Perhaps this is even a case of a #humblebrag. What’s prompted all these inner devils to get loose again? Well, this picture might give a clue.


The moment of unveiling, with my Head of Department Andy Parker.

If my seven-year old self could have imagined where I would be 50+ years later, I don’t think I’d have considered the possibility I would be standing, glass of champagne in hand, next to a portrait of myself. The picture (and for copyright reasons I’m not sure I can show you the finished work of art, a delightful picture by Tess Barnes, but her website shows her characteristic style) has now been hung on the stairs outside the lecture theatre adjacent to two of the Cavendish Professors (i.e the senior professor of the day) from my lifetime of research: Sir Sam Edwards, my mentor and supporter (as exemplified by the sort of actions covered in my immediately preceding post) and his predecessor Sir Brian Pippard. I am deeply humbled to find myself in such august company, just across from Lord Rayleigh, he of ‘why the sky is blue’ fame an earlier Cavendish Professor and Nobel Prize winner. But, it is discombobulating to say the least, embarrassing and pleasing in roughly equal measure. As I walk past the portrait daily in the years ahead, which emotion will dominate on any given day will probably depend on my mood.

Tess has been painting a series of portraits of female scientists for the past several years, with an eye to an exhibition to show the world that women and science mix, mix well and that we are interesting people whose characters shine through her artwork. The exhibition is intended to showcase equal numbers of male and female scientists, a powerful group of pictures when they go on tour, I hope inspiring another generation to think about what a scientist ‘looks like’ and whether therefore it looks like them. (Clue: it is unlikely to involve sticking up hair, test-tubes or a white lab coat.) Making sure that everyone can relate to these images of scientists is clearly close to her heart, although I fear the exhibition may be homogeneously white-skinned, a challenge to be resolved another day (I may be wrong on that count, as I only know the names of a section of her clientele.).

Related to this issue is a recent report that discusses how young girls think of themselves in the context of science. For many there may be a conflict between their self-identity and their perceptions of scientists. In this arena, two specific recommendations are of relevance:

  • Give students messages that allow them to resolve the conflict between their self-identity and their perception of the STEM-identity.
  • Use adjectives the sort of people – their aptitudes – who work in STEM, as well as explaining what engineers ‘do’ , using verbs.

Should be simple then?

To return to my own portrait. Hanging, as it now does, in a prominent position straight outside the department’s main lecture theatre, there is no doubt it will be seen by all our female students in their third and fourth years (for reasons associated with the geography of the city and teaching of the Natural Sciences Tripos, first and second years have their lectures in other departments). There are few portraits around, though lots of photographs, and there is no doubt it will be very conspicuous (pause for another bout of self-pinching and panic). At this point I have to think to myself ‘isn’t it wonderful that these young women will have a role model who isn’t an old man, merely an old woman.’ Hmmm, doesn’t yet feel a very comfortable thought.

I am writing this post within the hallowed walls of the Royal Society which still has not refreshed its portraiture to reduce the overwhelming preponderance of men by even just a little, nor yet put into store pictures of lesser-known gentlemen with pith helmets – I believe literally although I’m no expert in this type of headwear – or bewigged (albeit not simultaneously). This refresh is on the cards and I for one sincerely look forward to a more welcoming bunch of individuals decorating the walls. The Cavendish, on the other hand, is well-served with photographs of individuals but has only a very limited number of paintings. The photographs are an amazing record of students past and present. And women are represented if you look hard, with splendid hats in the earliest days as seen below (1904 batch). The women are named but their history is not necessarily recorded: I have to assume they weren’t simply clerical assistants. As far as I know, the first woman to receive a PhD from the Department was Katherine Blodgett in 1926.

1904 students copy

 1904 Research Students: Photograph copyright Cavendish Laboratory.

The one thing I regret about my portrait is that I have been painted holding a red felt tip pen, beloved by me for marking up student’s work (see my thoughts here). Unfortunately, if you don’t look too closely I could be thought to be holding a tube of lipstick, possibly not giving off the message I feel appropriate for who I am. I don’t suppose I have used such a thing since I was a teenager to the extent that I’m not even sure that lipstick is correctly described as coming in tubes. No matter. I assure you it is a pen, but you’ll have to wait for the exhibition itself (or a visit to the department) to check.


Posted in Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

On Sponsorship and Kindness

Academia is intrinsically competitive, full of the need to win grants – which necessarily implies winning out over nameless others – gaining promotion and trying to beat others to a hot result at the expense of colleagues in the game. Does that mean the best science gets done? Almost certainly not. Being competitive can lead to a race to publication involving errors if not downright fraud; it can lead to one research student losing out to another due to small matters of luck or timing, regardless of intrinsic skill; and it can induce severe loss of confidence without due cause if things do start going wrong.

But competition can mean more than just legitimate criticism of another’s experimental (or indeed theoretical) data. It can turn into a war of attrition, of malice and of aggression. Post-publication peer review can seem like such a good idea, until nay-sayers hide behind the anonymity of some sites to pursue an active policy of something that can start to look very like harassment. Philip Moriarty has talked about this in his own blogpost if you’re unclear about this particular manifestation. I have known colleagues who have found such anonymous viciousness deeply distressing, making them question their own future even though externally they may look extremely successful.

I was struck by a blogpost I came across recently, entitled ‘On the need for empathy and kindness in academia‘ by Raul Pacheco-Vega, making a plea for individuals not to ‘spew[ing] vitriol on other academics’. That seems to me to be a reasonable request. Robust criticism, if something looks dodgy, unclear or unsupported seems fair enough. Personal, persistent attacks are not. We are, as Pacheco-Vega says, only humans.

Being kind takes many forms. It isn’t only a case of not being unpleasant; there are many active forms of support directed at those junior to you that can take up but a little time but make significant impact on those to whom this support is proffered. People often talk of the importance of mentoring. It is only recently that I have come across the related, but distinctly different act of sponsorship. It might not be seen as kindness as such, since it is a purely professional activity, but its impact may be significant and, I would suggest, particularly important for women who may not naturally be at the receiving end of what is historically known as the old boy’s network.

So what is sponsorship? It differs from mentoring in that it doesn’t need to be a long-term relationship, or even have much of a personal dimension to it at all. But it does require individuals actively to have a mind for those who might otherwise be forgotten when it comes to job opportunities, prizes or invited speaker slots – all those things that really matter to an up-and-coming researcher who needs something to differentiate their CV from others. Sponsors need to keep in mind, not just the obvious names, but the slightly less in-your-face individuals whose actual work may be just as excellent as those highly visible (and audible) people who tend to get the low-hanging fruit. When it comes to conference organisation, such sponsorship in making sure that a truly representative group of speakers are invited is important, but it is within HEI’s themselves that I think such people are particularly crucial.

Of course I have in mind that this is important to improve diversity, but it goes further than this. It means, in the particular context of conferences you might not have to listen to the same old, same old time and time again. Fresh faces being invited is likely to lead to a more stimulating meeting, although the odd one might be an unexpected dud at a major meeting. But then, it surprises me how often the really well-known speakers also can mess up a platform performance, probably due to lack of preparation /lack of time with the research team because they are constantly jet-setting from one conference venue to another.

Why does it matter in HEI’s so particularly? Because it is here that the early career researchers might be expected to get a helping hand from senior colleagues and, if they don’t, their careers are likely to falter. Take the case of Royal Society University Research Fellows. As I wrote previously, are women (and some men too) being handicapped in their applications either because they don’t get the encouragement to apply in the first place, or because no one casts an eye over their application and CV to check they are as strong as they might be? To read a junior colleague’s case for support needn’t take very long but it can be immensely helpful. If you can point out that they’ve forgotten to mention in their application an early career prize they won, or that they had already supervised some student projects, it could make their CV look much stronger. Not everyone knows how to make the most of themselves and it shouldn’t be down to a lottery of who you work with as to whether you get such advice or not.

Of course, to revert to the point of being kind, there is no point in reading an application and then remarking that you’ve never seen such an unconvincing load of twaddle. If the application is irretrievably weak then try to find constructive ways of saying so that might enable the researcher both to learn from your advice and also to walk away not feeling half an inch tall. Otherwise that is neither an act of sponsorship or kindness.



Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged , , | 4 Comments