The Potholes in Life

As regular readers of this blog will know, I rely on my bike to get me around to the myriad committee meetings I need to attend across Cambridge. It is my lifeline to get me speedily to the railway station (often, I suspect, faster than car or bus during peak rush hour) where the (relatively) new bike park at the station – increasingly filling up though it is – is a huge improvement. Our previous bike parking was an ill-lit, unsurfaced, outdoor mess of bike racks of different vintages attempting to serve the Cambridge population but totally inadequately in terms of numbers. My regular weekly shop is done by bike too, with the recently-opened Sainsbury’s in the new district of Eddington a welcome addition. I can judge my declining muscle strength by the increasing challenge I face in hefting 12 pints of milk each week into my voluminous bicycle basket, or the difficulty I find in springing up from locking my bicycle to a ground floor handle when wearing a rucksack. But I will need to be a great deal more decrepit before I stop cycling for convenience, even if my average speed drops steadily year by year.

Potholes are big news these days and a massive problem for cyclists in Cambridge as elsewhere. Possibly a sign of austerity measures, they rarely get patched. They often turn up in surprising places. I can think of two roads where there is a long line of potholes down the centre quasi-equally spaced, each maybe 30-50 cm across as if some giant had tossed a large boulder into the road and it had bounced like a pebble on water. I assume (the materials scientist lurking inside me says) that, since roads are usually tarmac-ed in two halves, to minimise disruption to traffic, that actually this is a cohesive failure at the join between the two halves, where sites of weakness abound easily torn apart by freezing water expanding. Nevertheless, since the very centre of the road gets less impact from traffic than the two lanes each side themselves, I still find this mode of failure surprising.

More common are the potholes at the side of the road, in the gutter particularly around drains, that cause so many problems for the cyclists. The drain issue is no doubt another problem of cohesion, where a small hole rapidly causes additionally stresses and the hole soon becomes substantial (this materials science problem of stress concentration around cracks is of course well known; I have discussed it previously in the context of airplane crashes.) Last week I encountered a recently created crater – it was above average size – of this sort at a particularly dangerous corner on my route to the station. Imagine my surprise when, 24 hours later heading off to the station again I found it had already been mended. That is an unusual occurrence, at least in Cambridge. It is the longevity of so many of these potholes that is now being highlighted as a contributor to our nation’s health, or rather lack of it. Potholes are being blamed for discouraging cycling and hence a factor in the very obvious obesity crisis we face. So, getting them sorted is perhaps a higher priority than local councils have previously appreciated, although the budgets dealing with the two very different burdens will not be meshed in any way.

However, since potholes alone are not enough to deter me from relying on this convenient mode of transport, the question has to be how best to negotiate these gutter-based potholes. What is the safest way of doing this? And, as I was cycling down yet another road full of its own suite of potholes this week, I realised that there is a not too-laboured analogy between the other parts of an academic’s career and the pothole negotiation strategies one chooses. So here are some familiar scenarios to ponder.

1 Pushed into the kerb

On the road this would correspond to a large bus alongside you making it impossible for you to swerve away from the pothole. Instead you have to bump into the hole, facing the danger of being thrown off your bike or into the kerb (or both). Either way it can be painful. In the lab the equivalent would be the alpha (fe)male who bears down on you, trampling on whatever you’re doing and making you feel rubbish. There is no place to retreat to in many cases, so again it often turns out to be a painful, bruising experience. All one can aim for is a defensive strategy – perhaps by slamming on the brakes or, in the lab, simply keeping out of the way. In the workplace, though, there are other solutions such as forming a network of support or finding ways to stand up to the offender (I can’t think standing up to a bus is likely to lead to anything good). If they are your supervisor this is when the problems get really painful, but peer group support, alternative mentors and (if it is bad enough) turning to HR may all be helpful.

2 Hitting a pothole hard at night

When it’s dark it’s all too easy to fail to see the pothole at all. This can lead to hitting it at full speed. If, as has happened to me, your front light bounces off as a result, you truly are left in the dark.  A situation not unlike that which happens when the unexpected turns up in your in-tray (which you have not a clue how to handle) or you find an unwise prior acceptance of some task pitches you into the high stakes unknown. Exactly what will propel you into this dark corner will depend on your discipline, your seniority and your prior experience. But all of us have, from time to time, found ourselves accidentally taking on a role or responsibility that was certainly not sought, planned for or indeed desired. Those situations may be thought of as perturbing but not necessarily dangerous. However, to take the pothole analogy a little further, there are times when you fall hard into a departmental fight (for instance) without meaning to take sides yet finding your words are claimed by one side or other and the fall out can definitely be pretty dark.

3 Swerving

In daylight it may be possible to see the pothole a few yards ahead and swerve (in the absence of buses) to avoid it. This is obviously the ideal strategy: no bruises, no darkness. But, in practice in daily life, in one’s anxiety to avoid a foreseen obstacle, the swerving may take you a long way out of the path you thought you were following. Sometimes, if the obstacle was large and unpleasant enough – that alpha (fe)male perhaps – by dodging the obstacle an entirely new route may appear which offers fresh opportunities (e.g. a new supervisor). I have come to realise that this is the strategy that – consciously or, more often, not – I have used to overcome what have felt at the time to be major setbacks. The potholes in this case would correspond to grants not won or jobs not offered (to cite some specific experiences of mine); the new directions taken have included getting much more heavily involved in gender work: not exactly planned, but something that has given me much satisfaction alongside the inevitable frustration.

So, I have probably answered my question above. When a pothole looms – and you have seen it far enough in advance – when some immovable obstacle is in your way, swerving to find new directions and new strengths is probably the most constructive solution.


Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Sold for a Mess of Pottage

A couple of weeks back I undertook another trip to Europe. A trip that got extended by nearly a day due to snow which disrupted my travel plans, thereby making it impossible for me to get back to the UK as planned.  The trip was another opportunity to ponder what we are losing as we head off into #Brexitshambles. Once again I was there in my capacity as a Scientific Council member of the ERC and this time the visit was to EMBL in Heidelberg where the Plenary Meeting was held. There is absolutely no doubt that every time I attend one of these meetings there is something new to provoke a focus on the myriad undesirable consequences of that vote in June 2016.

I flew into Frankfurt Airport. On the flight, when the joys of editing some text had failed to keep my concentration fixed, I turned to the book of the moment on my Kindle. This was Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in the Second World War by Virginia Nicholson. Having just been reading some searing accounts of the Blitz and how women coped in London, flying in over a city that too had been heavily bombed and looking at all the buildings constructed in the 70 odd years since, I couldn’t help making the connection with the fate of so much of London. The buildings, lives and loves lost in Frankfurt by the UK’s forces; a medieval city centre destroyed.  A clear parallel.

For many of those who survived the war, the European Union (under its different names over the years) was a way to ensure neither side could bomb the hell out of the other again. I think of my mother, like so many of the women in Nicholson’s book, a woman whose life was utterly disrupted and reshaped by the war, surviving the death of friends and family and the roles and education she was and was not allowed to assume. No active service for her – she was too young – but she was proud of her role in the Royal Observer Corps where, certainly at one point she was one of only two women who achieved the level of Master pass in aircraft identification. Not, as I discovered towards the end of her life, that she got much opportunity to tell a Messerschmitt from a Junkers, as German planes rarely got to her part of the country, but even when I was a young child she would pepper her conversation with tales of the Master Test and the planes. Those names were, now I look back to my childhood, curiously often mentioned. I found her test papers amongst her belongings after her death: this was, as for so many women of her generation, an incredibly formative period for her despite its horror and stresses.

But flying into Frankfurt it seemed to me that we have forgotten that history of nations tearing each other apart. We are scrapping our post-war idealism, selling it for a mess of pottage* that is worth little to many of us (though possibly a lot to a few of the politicians who are pushing Brexit so hard upon us).

EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) itself, where the ERC meeting was held, is equally testament to shared visions. Created soon after the war to be a centrepiece for biological sciences in Europe under EMBO (the European Molecular Biology Organisation) it, like CERN, sits outside the EU and will still be accessible to UK scientists come what may. While the rest of us try to deconstruct Science Minister Sam Gyimah’s remarks and the latest Government position paper as regards access to the next Framework Programme, UK researchers attached to the various institutes associated with EMBO, of which EMBL is one, do not need to worry. In the UK the key institute is the EBI (European Bioinformatics Institute), located close to Cambridge. Until recently this was headed by Janet Thornton, a fellow member of the ERC Scientific Council. EMBO itself is currently headed up by Maria Leptin.

Janet at EMBL
Janet explained all these different relationships to us over an informal dinner.

Close to International Women’s Day it is perhaps worth pausing to note that here are two female leaders in (molecular) biology who have made so much difference to their field. And, to round up the strong female presence during this trip I should mention the speaker at the formal dinner held in Heidelberg:  Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, pictured below and 1995 Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology or Medicine, (shared with Eric Wieschaus), who spoke to us about skin patterns in fishes.


I come away depressed that all the scientific community stands for and appreciates in terms of internationalism and of  mobility of researchers; all the joint efforts after the war to bring peace to the continent, seem to be heading for the scrap heap. Once again it is clear that, to organisations like the ERC, the UK’s scientific strengths are so obvious they would love to find a way to keep us within the fold. With the Government itself so tied in knots over everything from the Irish Border to financial passporting, it is hard to see them wanting to pay much attention to science. They should. Of course they should. But their troubles over trade and immigration take centre stage and the science community can only press as hard as they can and try to remain optimistic that the structures that make our research thrive are not carelessly destroyed as ideology wins out.

* Spelling of pottage corrected March 18th 2018!



Posted in Research, Science Culture, Science Funding | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What Can I Do? Press for Progress….

What follows is a lightly edited version of the address I gave at the joint Churchill/Murray Edwards Colleges ‘Humanist Happenings’ last Sunday, in advance of International Women’s Day today.

Today is International Women’s Day, with its theme of Press for Progress. Every year this day gains a little more momentum; more people are aware of it, more occasions swell the message. In fact, if you watch the news, stories about women gain more and more prominence all the year round. Not always in a good way.

In the UK we can see a woman be Prime Minister, and yet the average gender pay gap is still close to 20% in those companies which are now legally required to report. If you look around the world, every country will have a slightly different set of issues to address. In some countries at war, survival without molestation is perhaps the best one can hope for, a little bit more education and surviving childbirth and seeing the children (not too many) grow up healthily. In richer parts of the world the opportunity to train for a career and not just be a domestic drudge seems a reasonable aspiration. In the UK and other developed countries the issues are well-rehearsed and yet still seem so far away from solution.

And when a woman’s will is as strong as the man’s who wants to govern her, half her strength must be concealment.

Think about that quote and think what generation of woman might have said it. Your mother, your grandmother? In fact, it was written by George Eliot in her 1876 novel Daniel Deronda. Many women need to live their lives like that, even today. A strong woman may be seen as a threat. A woman who speaks out may be silenced, as Mary Beard has written about so eloquently, most recently in her book Women and Power where she points out that the silencing of women dates back at least to Telemachus and Penelope in Homer’s Greece. Just last year this silencing was obvious yet again in the political sphere when Elizabeth Warren was prevented by Senate Republicans who voted to stop her reading out a letter from the widow of Martin Luther King during a debate over Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general. Subsequently a male senator read the same letter with impunity.

Nevertheless it is not helpful always to dwell on the dark side. We can choose to celebrate how far equality for women has moved on a day like International Women’s Day, or we can wring our hands about the fact that all is not yet perfect in countries like the UK, let alone elsewhere. When I first moved beyond just doing my research to looking at the bigger picture, around the time I became a professor, I found it frustrating how many groups of women felt it was adequate just to bemoan what was wrong instead of trying to come up with constructive steps forward. A group that complained that there was only a single digit percentage of women professors wanted a commitment to reaching 30% within a very short period. That struck me as just a strategy to alienate people given that it was so obvious the supply was not yet in place.

For myself, I have never felt comfortable calling myself a feminist because the generation of feminists I grew up with were undoubtedly of the view that men were the enemy. (Nevertheless I was there at the first ‘Women’s Lib’ March in London on March 8th 1971 – as was my grandmother, although we had not gone together.) We will never progress if we think like that. Research from Murray Edwards has shown just how important ‘collaborating with men‘ is if genuine progress towards equality is to be made.

However, whatever the old cigarette advertisement may have said about having ‘come a long way baby’ we most certainly have not reached the end of the journey. We need to reach a place where we no longer have to think about gender at all. We need to #press for progress.  If I am asked to think about what true equality looks like it is a place where individuals are judged on who they are, not their chromosomes, their looks, their age or skin colour. We know we are a long way off that yet. We all are incredibly culturally influenced in ways that it is easy not to see.

So in the spirit of constructive actions to enable progress to be made, let me propose three things everyone in the room might wish to consider. I am sure in my list there are things that each and every one of you can do when the right circumstances arise.

Amplify. At any meeting you attend you may spot a timid person, not necessarily a woman though it might be, who makes a sensible comment that is – for whatever reason – talked over or ignored. If you are stronger, speak up for them. Repeat it. Remind the other committee members – particularly if some dominant voice then tries to claim the idea for their own – that Mary Bloggs has already said that and wasn’t it a good idea. If you feel uncomfortable speaking up, remember how much worse it must be for the person who spoke first and was ignored.

Support. You may think your peers are all as tough as old boots, but the chances are you’d be wrong. If you see a student being attacked unreasonably in a seminar, or an acquaintance fretting because their mother is ill offer them a few warm words. It doesn’t take much to make someone feel they are not alone. You may not be able to solve their problems, but at least you can show you recognize them. And if, for instance, the attack was unwarranted, just driven by the need the attacker felt to boost their own ego, perhaps you can spell that out and make it real for the victim.

Be an active bystander: this is something the University of Cambridge is working hard at, providing training and opening the dialogue up.  Don’t ignore other people’s uncomfortable actions. If you see a young woman being pinned in the corner of a bar by someone who’s had too much to drink or is just a bit of a lad, you might want to catch their eye to see if they’re OK. If they are finally making their escape, ask them explicitly if they feel all right or if they want to download. And if it is clear things are getting out of hand, step in if it’s safe for you to do so. We’ve all observed bad behaviour in bars and have felt, perhaps in a very British way, that we shouldn’t intervene. But sometimes maybe we should. And, if it is a general conversation with jokes that are getting out of hand a quiet reminder may suffice to bring things back into the arena of good taste.

I mentioned Elizabeth Warren. Maybe she will finally manage to convince the American electorate that a woman President is worth celebrating – or maybe she will decide she doesn’t want to go through what Hillary Clinton suffered. A remark the former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Julie Spence made has stuck in my mind, however. It isn’t sufficient just to have the first in any  category: the first female President of the USA, the first female Master of Churchill or the first female President of the Supreme Court in Baroness Hale. It is when we have the second and third and so on that we know it is no longer news and therefore we are another step forward on the road to true equality.

I have focussed on the situation in the UK and perhaps unreasonably focussed on the white women in the University in these words. But it isn’t sufficient to think like that. Intersectionality is a word that probably isn’t yet heard enough. Whatever the problems I as a white woman may have encountered I am under no illusions I am still privileged compared with many. But I cannot speak as a woman of colour, or as a woman whose education never got off the ground or who was abused as a child. I know that I have had it easy and I should never forget that.

International Women’s Day is a day to remember where we’ve come from – 150 years ago a woman was merely a chattel in this country and had no legal standing – through the granting of the vote to propertied women over 30 in the UK 100 years ago, to a day when the leading judge is a woman. But it isn’t sufficient and each and every one of us in this room has a role to play in making sure we keep moving forward.

If you want some other suggestions as to actions you can take to improve the situation, specifically for women in science, let me point you to my earlier collection of actions #Just1Action4WIS.


Posted in Equality, Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Nothing’s Wasted

No doubt the majority of my readers are far more familiar with TEDx talks than I am, and have watched many more than I have. They are a notion that has floated past me occasionally. I have been asked to do one a few times, usually by student associations and usually with very little warning.  Hence, although I have explored the format from time to time on YouTube and watched  a few of the much talked-about talks, I have always felt justified in saying ‘no’ to an invitation myself. This despite my frequently-given advice, on this blog and elsewhere, that one should try out new things. Undoubtedly there was a sneaky, lurking fear behind my refusal as well as a perfectly rational thought that, at less than two weeks (which was the length of time I was offered a couple of times) there was no way I could manage to perfect such a talk.  However, when the Royal Society approached me with considerably more warning, asking me to talk at this January’s TEDx Whitehall, I did not have the same justification for turning the offer down and, with considerable trepidation, I agreed.

With a couple of months to go it seemed so easy. The whole of the Christmas vacation to get my head around it and work out what I wanted to say: lots of time (but aren’t we all such wonderful procrastinators!).  I was sent advisory notes: the first sentence is key I was told. I fairly quickly worked out what I wanted that to be, so I felt sure the rest would follow (just like writing a blogpost when it’s the getting started that is hard).  Slowly I made headway with a rough outline and when I got a message indicating that a talk around women in science would probably not be ideal as there were plenty such on the web I felt smug. That wasn’t what I intended to talk about, so all would be well – but I still hadn’t actually written it. Nevertheless by a week before the dry run in early January I had my 15 minutes all laid out, written in big font because my eyesight (particularly in not-so-good-lighting) is not up to 11 or 12 point. And then I realised this was this not a PowerPoint talk – slides of which are always such a useful prompt. Nor was it a talk I could essentially read from my crib-sheet, as I do for after-dinner speeches  (even if I frequently ad lib and deviate from the intended words). On this occasion I was meant to have learned the whole thing like an actor learns their part. It had to be memorised.

Now the sad fact is that I am getting old and my brain plasticity is not what it was. Memory work, at least accurate memory work, seems to be beyond me. I have struggled with my few sentences of Latin in the Senate House when conferring degrees; how was I supposed to memorise 15 minutes’ worth of material? I decided my best tactic would be to remember the flow of paragraphs, with crib-sheet cards of bullet points to hold in my sticky hand in case of mental blanking, and then have an approximate idea of my wording sufficient to get me through. At the dry run I was assured this would be OK. Holding a stack of such cards was approved, to my relief.

There were still another couple of weeks between the dry run and the actual event. Having memorised the intended flow once, I found it astonishing how fast I could forget it again. So, yet more time expended on reminding myself of the points to get across, more time murmuring to myself at my desk, timing the talk and clutching my cards. Then the day dawned. I didn’t even have the advantage of watching everyone else, which meant I couldn’t be reassured that they had nerves, and forgot their words;  nor could I be terrified by how polished the rest of the contributors were. No, I only got to the Royal Society a couple of talks before my own due to the demands of yet another committee meeting all morning in Cambridge.

By this point I had to believe I could do it and I marched up onto the stage confidently enough, with microphone firmly attached. I started talking. I got into my flow. My cards seemed unnecessary (although still firmly clutched). And then there was a commotion from the floor. Someone rushed up onto the platform and told me that the microphone was in fact not working properly at all and please would I put a new one on. And then, I was kindly told, I could start again. That did not seem a good idea; how could I sound interesting when saying the same material a second time to the poor captive audience. So I didn’t.

Now my talk, appropriately enough, was all about learning from experiences. I had called it ‘Nothing’s Wasted’. On the whole this was meant to be a positive talk but I had included a sentence that included ‘sometimes you learn you never want to go near that situation again’; conveniently for me this was just about where I had got to in my presentation. So, once the guy had marched off the platform again I launched precisely into that sentiment. ‘Maybe’, I said, ‘bad experiences will teach you that you never want to do another TEDx talk’. Well, at least that did get me a laugh as I tried to get back on track. And that laugh did help me find my feet. It gave me a chance to regroup and – as is very evident from the recording – from that point on the sound quality on the video is much better with the second microphone.

The series of talks from this day of TEDx Whitehall have now been released and you can find mine here. Watching it now I am interested to see that, although the interruption felt like about five minutes in, I discover I had in fact been talking for a mere two minutes. (The actual interruption has been edited out, though if you look hard you can see the man move up through the audience.) With hindsight I guess I’m glad I did pluck up the courage to do this event. However, I think I may stick to what I said and avoid a similar situation again. I don’t think it is my natural forte. Talking extempore is one thing, I’ve done that often enough, but talking to a script, live but without the script in hand, is a different matter. Other people, younger or just more used to strict memory work can probably do a better job of committing their words to memory. Other people may have fewer of the annoying mannerisms I can now see I possess (watching videos of oneself is always a discouraging affair in my experience).

But, I have said yes to the opportunity. I have learned from my experience and I take away that I haven’t wasted that learning even if the message I take away is ‘don’t do that again!’

Posted in Communicating Science | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Nothing’s Wasted

The Only Woman in the Room

The Only Woman in the Room, is not only an experience I have frequently endured, but is also the title of a 2015 book by Eileen Pollack (subtitled Why Science is Still a Boy’s Club). I’m not sure why this particular book hadn’t crossed my path until recently, given it is about her experiences as an erstwhile female physicist during her education, but it hadn’t. She and I are near contemporaries but her environment in the USA seems to have been infinitely more hostile than anything I experienced, despite formal similarities.

I went to a girls’ grammar in London. I may have been the only girl in my year ‘weird’ enough to want to study physics at university but no one told me so to my face in so many words and they certainly didn’t make it difficult for me. I had an experienced teacher who had herself studied physics (at Oxford). How different from Pollack’s experience where, in a co-ed school, she was in a minority of one from early on in her attempt to get the subjects under her belt which would enable her to study physics at university. For a girl to enter Yale, only a few years after they had first admitted women and coming from what might have been termed a ‘bog standard comprehensive’ had it been in the UK, rather than some elite academy or private school, was also a huge accomplishment for her. Perhaps when she did it, she hadn’t quite appreciated how big a step she was taking or quite what she would be facing; no one had taken the trouble to warn or prepare her. At least my school had a track record of sending girls to Oxbridge and, even more to the point, Oxbridge had been accepting girls for many years even if in segregated single sex colleges. We were simply not unexpected in the lecture theatre even if uncommon (with a ratio of about 10 men to every women on average across the subjects).

I wrote about the not-so-very-close parallel between the Ivy League transition to coeducation and the opening up of Oxbridge colleges to a mixed entry in a post last year, written in a more impersonal vein on the back of the book Nancy Malkiel wrote (Keep the Damned Women Out). It did occur at around the same time but the fact that Yale and its peers had never previously allowed the admission of women to its courses seems to me to have made the transition to coeducation an awful lot harder than in the UK. Certainly, to return to Pollack’s detailed experiences of isolation, what she terms ‘subtle hazing’ and a constant battle to be recognized simply don’t tally with my experiences of a few years earlier.

Girton when I went up was a women-only college and therefore every time I returned there I returned to being surrounded by women. If I had wanted support – as of course I sometimes did – there were plenty of female friends and Fellows to offer it. But in fact I don’t recall my experiences in the lecture theatre or practical classes resembling the atmosphere Pollack found herself in. All alone as a female in a practical of around 60 men I might have been, but that didn’t seem to be the problem in itself. (The fact I was incompetent was much more to the point). In fact, in my chemistry practical in the first few weeks I was helped enormously by a lad from a posher school than mine who knew exactly what all the different glassware was for. He became a good mate throughout my three years, as well as my best friend’s boyfriend, all because we bonded over a conical flask.

Nor do I remember supervisors treating me differently from my male peers when, in my final year I was finally paired with men away from my own college. Indeed one of those supervisors was supportive then and has remained so ever since (thank you Archie Howie! My erstwhile head of department at the Cavendish, now an emeritus fellow of the college I am proud to serve as Master.). I was one of those tedious students who used to pin down lecturers at the end of lectures about missing minus signs and other things I wasn’t sure I understood, and they never brushed me off however annoying I must have been.

My Cambridge was, for me, a totally different experience than Pollack’s Yale. To take a very close parallel. In my first year – as in hers – I had a test (mine was just a dry run) in physics in which I scored some dismal score in the 30s. I forget precisely what appallingly low percentage it was but Pollack clearly felt scarred that she had scored 32.  She remembers it exactly. She describes in detail how she was so mortified by this failure, the belief it gave her that she was rubbish and everyone else was much smarter, and hence the compulsion she felt to work even harder. She doesn’t seem to have discussed her result with anyone to see whether any of her beliefs were true. I, on the other hand, had a sympathetic Director of Studies, the late Christine Mackie, who said merely she was sure I would do much better when the actual exam came around and she suggested I took the weekend off to clear my brain. (Advice, I may say, I took and cycled to Saffron Walden with a friend on a lovely spring afternoon.  When I next saw Mrs Mackie she seemed a bit startled by the literal way I had taken her advice.)

Pollack was so burnt by all her experiences, feeling at the time that no one ever offered her support or encouragement (although at the end of the book she admits that perhaps that wasn’t quite true) and that she basically was not wanted in the male geek club of physics, that she left the subject despite her initial determination to proceed to a PhD. Instead, although I never really understood exactly how this change was effected, she started attending creative writing and literature courses toward the end of her Yale years, found far more women in the room and a far more welcoming environment, and switched her aspirations. She has since made a very successful career as a writer and as an academic in creative writing. Yet clearly, all these years later, she was driven to try to explore what went wrong, what has changed – at Yale and elsewhere – for women studying physics and engineering. The latter part of her book describes her conversations with young women and, most notably, with Meg Urry the well-known astrophysicist and head of Yale Physics.

She reveals that many women still regard themselves as outliers, as unsupported and struggling in a hostile predominantly male environment. Again, I wonder how similar the experiences she describes of these current students would be to those in Cambridge. I would like to think the answer would be, as in my day, not very. The numbers of women in physics still struggle to get much over 20% but on the whole those I talk to do not describe a hostile workplace. They may find the course tough. They may feel, as I did with my chemistry practical class, that other students are better prepared than they are. Studies of exam results suggest that first year women do fare slightly less well but that the gender attainment gap closes with each successive year (by no means true in all subjects). Perhaps the legacy of the 1970s experiences of Yale and other Ivy League universities lives on in subjects like Physics. Perhaps Oxbridge got some things a lot righter then and now.

I did not warm to Pollack in the first part of the book. Her anger and hurt were visible but she came across as a fairly self-centred and unsympathetic character. I note that one of the reviews I read of the book in the Chicago Tribune obviously shared my reaction saying ‘As the sole focus of two-thirds of the book, they [her stories] land with a tremendous whine.’  Other reviews were kinder and I certainly felt drawn in by the end of the book to her exploration and comparison of now versus then.  In that sense it was a book well worth reading. But the contrast with my own, clearly relatively fortunate experiences, was clear.


Posted in Women in Science | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments