European Reflections from Padua

The ERC (European Research Council) last month celebrated its 10th Anniversary. Judging by the speeches and conversations on the day, ranging from  Commissioner Moedas and President Juncker to the ERC’s many grantees, it seems to be widely considered as rapidly to have become a success story and is highly regarded. Its philosophy is simple – and in stark contrast to the UK’s Research Councils’ – with excellence as the sole criterion when judging applications. Many events were held around Europe – and indeed beyond its borders – to celebrate the tenth anniversary, and  a brief video of the central celebration held in Brussels on March 21st,, which I attended, can be seen here.

I am now in my fifth year as a member of the ERC’s Scientific Council, the committee that has ultimate oversight of the ERC’s operation. My first meeting, when I was merely an observer and strictly not yet permitted to disclose my as yet unapproved membership, was held in Erice in 2012 (I described reflections arising from this visit to Sicily here, although not the motivation for it) . This week I have been back in Italy with the ERC, this time in the equally beautiful and historic city of Padua, and I have enjoyed having a little time in the margins of the meeting to explore this attractive city.  Unusually for me I’m posting a few photographs to illustrate some of the academic attractions of this city taken during a brief guided tour of the Palazza del Bo where our meeting was held (and I know I’m no photographer).


John Harvey

William Harvey, shown here in a prominent painting on the university walls, studied anatomy at the University of Padua, which right from the start had attracted many international students. He attended at a time when it already had both a significant reputation in the field as well as the word’s first anatomy theatre. I had read about this theatre in a biography of Harvey by Thomas Wright and seen an image of it in the book, but I had somehow imagined it to be much bigger than it transpires to be: its central cavity is really only large enough to accommodate the dissection table and the professor walking around it. It is nevertheless an impressive construction (slightly modified since Harvey’s day, but still largely original) allowing space for over 200 students to stand and watch a dissection take place.

Anatomy theatre

Standing at the bottom of the theatre in its current form, photographing the tiers of wooden balustrades reaching up to an overall height of 14m (shown above; they presumably helped to stop students overcome by the stench and sight of blood from falling down into the central well), it is hard to give a true impression of the size and beauty of the construction in this photograph.

The university also saw the first female in the world to graduate back in the 17th century, although she wasn’t actually allowed to attend lectures in the university along with the men, but was instructed privately at home. The deal for Elena Piscopia was that she could not study theology but had to study philosophy (as being more appropriate for a woman) and also that the conditions imposed meant explicitly that future women were debarred from following in her footsteps. A  statue in the university commemorates her.

Elena Piscatoria

However, coming here, and indeed in attending all the ERC Plenary meetings of the past year, is very bittersweet. I think I first noticed it when I went to Dublin last autumn: I now feel like an impostor in a European city. I have been, it would appear, stripped of my European citizenry. Hence now it is hard not to think of myself as ‘not belonging’,  an outsider. I am of an age that can still remember crossing borders within Europe before we joined the EU, when passports had to be shown at every border guard outpost. My late mother, like so many of the generation that had lived through the 2nd World War, believed that the EU was an insurance against a third such war. The integration of Europe that has proceeded over the past 40 years has opened up opportunities in myriad ways.

The involvement of the UK in the ERC is just one small but non-negligible aspect of this. I dream that we will still be able to find a way to ensure scientists in the UK can continue to access Horizon2020 and subsequent programmes from the EU; to make international students and scientists feel the UK is an attractive destination and place of work or study; and that we will be able to ensure that science remains open and international, for which national boundaries do not introduce mental and scientific boundaries. The last, it seems, can no longer be taken for granted in various parts of the world.  I personally will be doing all I can to try to find a way to achieve continuing access to European science for researchers in the UK. But I look at my Twitter profile photograph and wonder at what point I should remove my aspirational ‘Scientists for the EU’ twibbon. The opinion polls give me no hope that in 7 weeks time it will have relevance once more. Spending time with the ERC just reminds me of what the UK, collectively and not just scientists, are losing.


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Success does not preclude Humanity

Mental health on campus is frequently in the news. It is widespread, as it is within just about every other sector. If you haven’t suffered from a period of depression yourself, it is almost inevitable you know someone who has or who has other mental health issues such as bipolar disorder. Yet those you know about probably only represent the tip of the iceberg of those who suffer (or have in the past). Academia – probably even more so for staff than for students, although I can’t back that statement up with hard evidence – is a community where people are reluctant to speak up. Mental health issues are still, as Prince Harry has recently made abundantly clear, something many do not feel able to talk about, be it because of a stiff-upper-lip-upbringing or because they fear an admission of weakness may be used against them to hold them back or even to be taunted with.

It is all too easy to judge people in academia by misleading proxies for ‘success’ – perhaps not quite as crude as evaluating someone based on the size of their office, but sometimes not much better. Admitting that one has been depressed will be regarded by many at the antithesis of success and therefore is ‘obviously’ better never mentioned. Despite many great scientists who have quite openly suffered – I’d cite Lewis Wolpert as one who not only admitted to dark depression, but even wrote eloquently about it in his book Malignant Sadness: the Anatomy of Depression – depression still seems somewhat taboo within universities.

Furthermore, academics frequently end up running groups – and of course group size is another of those crude proxies for ‘success’ that academia probably relies on more than is healthy – without necessarily receiving much training in how to support the less-experienced researchers in their care. Success may not obviously reside in looking after PhD students and postdocs as opposed to swiftly extracting as much data from them as possible. Yet, doing this latter may be a very short term gain, rather like a company that does not invest in long term research because it’s expensive with uncertain payback, preferring instead to focus merely on improved packaging and marketing/advertising because the dividend on this is quickly obvious. This is short-termism at its worst as well as, in the context of a research group, in danger of becoming inhuman.

As my last blogpost indicated, I have been away in Australia and the Far East talking, amongst other things, about gender issues. I found myself repeatedly coming back to the book Cambridge University published a couple of years ago The Meaning of Success, in which we attempted – sadly with less impact than I would have hoped – to initiate a dialogue across the Higher Education sector about what success means to and for women in different roles within the university. I hope readers of my blog will continue to dip into the book to gain insight and inspiration: it has a telling narrative drawn from the interviews of those women whose profiles feature as well as many more.

One particular woman featured in the book who has worked hard not to bleed her students dry, whose career has been anything but typical (she only started her PhD at around 40) but who is shortly going to join me as a fellow Head of House in Cambridge as she takes up the reins as President of Wolfson College, is Jane Clarke. A protein chemist, she spells out very clearly her attitude towards her research group in her interview:

I judge people based on how they behave and what they achieve scientifically – not the trappings of importance, like the size of their office. You can be a successful scientist whilst recognising that you have young people in your care who deserve your support, your mentoring and proper training. These young people are not cannon fodder to be thrown in to do your research, regardless of their own needs. There can be too much of that in academia – it’s highly competitive and it’s tough sometimes.

I think she is a fascinating exemplar of someone who has never pursued the standard academic trajectory, nor seen success per se as the name of her particular game, yet who has simultaneously demonstrated that achievement can be reached by non-standard routes. An FRS, someone who has made scientific breakthroughs and won prizes – in other words, someone who ticks the boxes of what most people would judge as success – she has done it her own way and according to her own set of values. We need to celebrate such women and others like them, be they male or female, who have risen through the system without forgetting their – and others’ – humanity.

However, as my discussions both here and during my recent travels abroad make very clear, too often the ‘caring’ side of academia is not valued, be it caring for those with mental health issues or a much broader interpretation of caring. As Australia attempt to set up their Athena Swan lookalike SAGE, they will be calling on scientists to step back from their research in order to put effort into the necessary paperwork. In the UK giving due credit for this has long been an issue. The required hard work that needs to be put into completing action plans and more is too often tossed thoughtlessly in the direction of the latest female recruit regardless of the importance – for her and for her department – of getting her own research off the ground. Working on Athena Swan action plans does not require a female brain; it needs the brain of someone who cares enough to make it work. Men may even have the advantage that any recommendations they make will not be seen as special pleading; seniority may mean recommendations are more likely to be implemented. But, be it a man or a woman who takes on the workload, they need to be properly recognized for the hours they put in just as much as if they were running the departmental research strategy committee or acting as chair of examiners. For the health of a department in the long run, getting diversity right is as important as any other aspect of strategy.

When I formally stepped back from my role as the University’s Gender Equality Champion I naively thought I’d done my stint and that I could step back mentally too. As the topics I cover on this blog must make obvious, I don’t feel like that now. There is too much work still to be done. The attitudes towards women, towards academic careers, towards what success means and towards supporting those setting out are all as yet in a very imperfect state.

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Making the most of our ASSET’s

When it comes to the reality of what it’s really like for women in academic science, it is always useful to have evidence up one’s sleeve to make a point as well as merely be able to relate anecdotes, personal or otherwise. The recent report on the 2016 ASSET survey  provides just such concrete evidence to bolster arguments around Athena Swan action plans or to develop general departmental strategies. This time around, the survey also considered intersectionality issues for gender coupled with race, disability and sexual orientation to show which parts of our workforce face yet further challenges.

ASSET – which stands for the Athena Survey for Science, Engineering and Technology – has been running since 2003, with surveys in 2003/4, 2006 and 2010. I discussed the 2010 survey quite early in my blogging career here. Although the questions have changed somewhat each time, is it possible to say whether things changed over the years? The answer is yes and yes they have, but not that much is the disappointing answer. Women still feel disadvantaged in a number of ways compared with their male counterparts, although the men who responded to the survey on average seem unaware that some of these differences persist. I recommend you read the whole report to get a thorough feel for what the academic workforce, at different levels of seniority, is typically reporting. Here I will just highlight a few key points. It is encouraging to see that both men and women tended to agree that Athena Swan initiatives have had a positive impact on the local environment.

Women continue to feel on average that men are more advantaged – be it due to the encouragement they themselves aren’t given to apply for new jobs or promotion, because men seem to be given less teaching and fewer administrative tasks or because women  feel excluded from unofficial networks and meetings. Women are systematically offered fewer opportunities for training, particularly with regard to leadership and management roles, and feel held back by the long hours culture, something that is especially the case when they also have outside caring responsibilities. None of this will surprise readers. The ability, when answering the survey, to give freeform answers means that there are plenty of useful quotes to illustrate alike how men and women view the current situation. Nevertheless the gaps between the experiences of men and women seem to be narrowing; in many cases the answers to the questions did not throw up significant differences in response, so it would seem we are at least heading in the right direction. Athena Swan has given this work an impetus and direction of travel that perhaps is the most we can yet hope for. Other countries may be less far forward on this journey.

The ASSET 2016 report finishes with a long list of recommendations aimed at reducing the gap between men and women’s experiences yet further. This list contains few surprises but perhaps will serve as a useful kicking-off point for those departments which have yet to engage seriously with the equality agenda. Ensuring that mentoring is in place for all who want it, that workloads are equitably distributed and that training opportunities are open to all are hardly radical ideas but, if actually properly implemented could make a substantial difference to the workforce.

I read this report piecemeal on long plane journeys, as I have just come back from travels to Sydney, Singapore and Hong Kong, amongst other things meeting up with Churchill College alumni in each of these locations. In the first of these places I gave a lecture about the operation of Athena Swan, as Australia sets up a gender equity programme journey under the banner of SAGE (Science Australia Gender Equity) modelled on Athena Swan, as well as my personal experiences of being the University of Cambridge’s Gender Equality Champion. A recording of my talk can be seen here. While in Sydney I also talked about gender issues to a Women in Business lunch hosted at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, although the actual driver for the whole trip was a talk about my science, giving the Dr Peter Domachuk lecture at the University of Sydney about Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy. In Hong Kong I also gave a talk about gender issues under the HeforShe banner.

Talking to people at these various events simply reinforces my perception of the global reach as well as universal nature of the issues facing professional women. The talk to lawyers and other professionals confirmed to me just how non-unique the issues facing academic women are. Everywhere, they look remarkably similar despite very different sectors and geographies: difficulties reside in moving up the career ladder; many women have a strong feeling that their voices are not heard; and that ‘success’ is defined by a certain narrow set of criteria which do not favour those who perhaps take time out, expend effort on pastoral care or otherwise don’t fit the traditional mould. These topics seem to arise and confound women around the world. Athena Swan may have prompted the Australians to establish something similar, the awards have undoubtedly focussed minds in UK academia, but we are still a very long way from having the problem cracked.


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When Your PhD Goes Wrong

There is no point pretending that research often doesn’t pan out the way one hopes and dreams about. All kinds of things can go wrong in both the short and long term, and these are not always your own fault (although sometimes they are). I have been reflecting on this aspect of a researcher’s life during a week being spent about as far away from Cambridge as one can get. I am in Sydney where I was honoured to be invited to give the Peter Domachuk Lecture. I chose to talk about ‘The Importance of Imagery’ which enabled me to talk about the many years I spent working on Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy (ESEM), as well as sneak in issues about the importance of using diverse images on departmental walls, not simply reflecting a pale, male way of doing science.

What has that got to do with research going wrong, I hear you asking, surely you didn’t talk about failed research in a major public lecture? Well yes, in one sense I did. For all the person-years my group collectively expended on ESEM research, studying a huge range of samples from ice cream to cement, from leaves to mammalian cells, ultimately – particularly in the area of the imaging of biological samples – the research hit what I see as a dead end. While electron microscopes give you higher resolution than a conventional light microscope, modern optical methods (STORM, PALM and all the other acronyms this field has spawned) can beat the diffraction limit and provide novel insight at the single molecule level that ESEM cannot. There are many interesting problems of hydrated samples away from biology that can be imaged in exquisite detail in an ESEM, but the field never really took off for reasons that I still find rather hard to fathom. So our work languishes in what appears to be a cul-de-sac.

Having discussed this frankly, at the end of my talk I was asked about how I felt emotionally about this failure, a question I had never posed to myself. In many ways, as I slipped out of all-consuming active research into simultaneous, substantive roles as the university’s gender equality champion and chairing the Royal Society Education Committee, it was just another form of logical progression to let the area dwindle. I had derived a great deal of satisfaction from the work I did, it had turned up lots of neat physics and interesting problems to solve. My students and postdocs who had worked on the ESEM technique had all gone on to jobs of their choosing: some had gone to work with electron microscope manufacturers and had easily slipped into working on other types of instruments; some had stayed on in academia and had spread their own wings in different directions from solar cells, to biomaterials, from metrology to peptides. One had even become a tax inspector. They had all successfully moved on, untainted by the ultimate demise of my own research in this arena.

So, emotionally I felt saddened that the technique hadn’t revolutionised imaging but I wasn’t devastated. Things can be far, far worse. I have never been scooped in my research, a fact that I attribute to the fact I have tended not to work on ‘hot’ topics where multiple groups are simultaneously chasing the same pot of gold. Not being topical has its downsides, but so does having the key results of your thesis published just weeks before your own paper is submitted. This happens. This is devastating. But it has never happened to anyone in my own team, for which I am duly thankful. Of course being scooped is not in itself going to prevent the award of the thesis if you have already done the experiments but not published them. Your own data stands up to the award of the degree. But the loss of that anticipated Nature paper can certainly jeopardise your future as a hot-shot researcher. The prize does indeed go the fleet of foot in a situation like that.

What I have seen happen to one of my own research students is rather the opposite. This was a case where not a single experiment attempted yielded any insight into the problem in hand. It was a thesis full of null results. We were comparing the standard way of producing chocolate with samples produced by room temperature extrusion in collaboration with Nestle. We knew the two forms of chocolate were different, their bulk mechanical properties made this very clear. But every type of analysis we attempted – X-ray diffraction, thermal methods, microscopy as I recall (it was a long time ago) – produced no obvious structural difference. This was deeply depressing, but clearly written up the student still successfully defended the thesis and she was duly awarded the PhD. She had done the work well, but clearly we were asking the wrong questions.

So what do you do when things go wrong? Being scooped, or producing null results do not mean you are (necessarily) a bad researcher, but it is only natural if either outcome leads to you wanting to turn your back on research. Indeed, you may find you have little choice. On the other hand, as I have written about before, I spent 2 spectacularly unsuccessful years as a postdoc so in some sense I am proof that it is possible to move on, bounce back and progress. It isn’t easy. It requires determination and resilience – and quite a lot of luck (as undoubtedly applied in my case). Nevertheless it is important to distinguish when the fault really does lie with you, as it may, because you are a sloppy experimentalist, unmotivated or simply don’t put the hours and effort in because you are distracted by extracurricular activities; on the other hand the problem may arise due to circumstances beyond your own control. You are likely to know which applies. If you don’t your supervisor will probably have a clear view and may well make this abundantly clear. But, even if the fault is entirely yours you still have to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and decide how to put it all behind you and go on to find what (else) does excite you.


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Being Media-Savvy

I’m a great believer in media training, but the reality is that it isn’t as simple as ‘one size fits all’. Any training will no doubt help confidence and maybe point out your good and bad traits, but how to deal with a media interview about your latest paper in Science is very different from how to handle a Paxman style interrogation about some contentious issue possibly involving policy/politics. However, I do believe getting more scientists on air is definitely a good thing to do, to try to share the excitement and relevance of what we do with a general audience. Indeed, in the wake of recent events here and in the US, we in the higher education sector need to think much harder about how and where we do that communicating. My Vice Chancellor, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz expressed this eloquently in his recent Kate Pretty Lecture:

The public trust placed in us is directly linked to an understanding that what we do –through education, learning and research—is good for everyone. One of the biggest risks to our legitimacy and reputation is the public feeling that universities’ goals and our societies’ goals are no longer shared –in other words, a breakdown of trust….when people in King’s Lynn or Chatteris ask themselves that classic question –“What has the University of Cambridge done for us?”—I suspect the answer they come up with is: “Not that much”….clearly there is a problem here. If society at large does not believe that we have its interests at heart, then the failure is our own, because serving the interests of society is our only purpose. If society at large does not believe that what we do is ultimately for the common good, we need to do a better job at engaging with it, and communicating the impact of our work.

Can we have too many people communicating about science on our airwaves to fulfil, in some small part, that necessary agenda? Last week saw an article in the Observer apparently complaining that Radio 4’s programming needed to be ‘rebalanced’ because there was too much science. Programmes like Jim Al Khalili’s wonderful The Life Scientific, in which he interviews a different scientist each week about their life and science, were singled out for mention. I think this programme works spectacularly well: it doesn’t only focus on some limited aspect of detailed science which, however dear to the interviewee’s heart may not strike a chord with the average listener. Instead it focusses on the processes of science, the inspiration, the frustration and how the interviewee got from A (typically childhood and education) to B (wherever they are now). If Radio 4 were to recreate something in The Life Scientific’s image with ‘creatives’ as the interviewees rather than scientists I am sure it would be an equally good listen. But that is not to say that there is too much science.

With a sub-heading that read “James Runcie [the new head of Arts at Radio 4] plans to rebalance programmes in drive to put more ‘creative voices’ on air”, I was not the only person to react with incredulity over Twitter to the implicit idea that there was now an excess of science. When my howl of dismay at the article’s apparent buy-in to an outdated Two Cultures version of reality reached the Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams I was delighted to find that she rapidly sent me an email by way of reassurance. In this she stated categorically that she was proud to have championed and continues to champion science programmes on Radio 4 and was simply now highlighting other areas – taking the science success as a model. I do feel reassured. I suspect it merely indicates that press briefings can go wrong and journalists don’t always give the flavour one would wish to an article.

To go back to media training, nothing can stop a sub-editor having their wicked way with a story, however carefully one tries to prepare the ground. There is also the problem of how much the interviewer understands of the topic under consideration. Having been put off talking to the media for about 15 years after an ill-advised press release I helped to draft tried to explain what a colloid was by analogy with lumpy custard, I know how badly things can go wrong.  The flak after that included me being accused of merely doing cookery on live, albeit local, radio and it really got to me. Being a woman the not-at-all-veiled implication was that that was all I was fit for. And then, when I had just resurfaced into the media world after all those years I was wrong-footed on Desert Island Discs by Kirsty Young’s researcher having dug that story up. However, with the advantages of experience and age plus some serious media training, I could laugh the story off easily enough however much it had cut deep at the time.

This week I came across another situation that I found challenging in an interview with an international journalist for whom the idea of Collegiate Cambridge clearly didn’t make much sense, nor had they an awareness of the narrowness of the English school education system. I hope I managed to get my message across of why the Cambridge College system offers something special to undergraduates through the small group teaching they get within the College on top of lectures to the whole undergraduate cohort given at university level. And that our students at 18 have an undoubtedly high educational standard, it is just that it is much narrower than the equivalent European Baccalaureate and I regret that narrowness. But I had gone into the interview expecting the topics to be very different, about Cambridge University’s place as a global university and why the referendum result should give us pause for thought, as illustrated in the VC’s statements above. So, once again I managed to be wrong-footed having prepared, as it were, for a different interview.

It all goes to show experience is never enough, nor can one really do a sufficiency of preparation. But media training does at least permit one to breathe deeply and engage with less panic and fear, knowing how to regroup and take the necessary time to come up with an appropriate answer (this last interview of mine was anyhow for print media and so not in any sense ‘live’; time was not of the essence). The moral of these various anecdotes is that, as a scientist, I believe we have a duty to engage with the public and the media. To do so we have to hone our skills and there is always more one can learn to do it better.

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