What’s Wrong with Conferences?

September is customarily a busy month for conferences, often with too many interesting ones that clash. What makes for a good meeting? Exciting talks, which you haven’t heard before (so not just lazy wheeling out of the usual suspects by the organisers); lively discussion; comfortable beds, quiet corridors and good food; poster sessions with enough space to permit circulation as well as in depth conversations around the ones that catch your fancy; and a friendly atmosphere in the bar. If the beds are lumpy it will mar the meeting due to a general feeling of drowsiness (it’s curious how too little sleep arising from late nights in the bar don’t have the same negative effect). If the crowd is the same one you met last month on the other side of the world you may wonder why you bothered to come. But one particular thing that always infuriates me is when the timing of sessions goes awry.

This poor time-keeping can be due to a range of different reasons, one of which can be the trivial one that there is no clock in the lecture theatre, or at least not one that’s visible to the speaker. The problem is most acute if the clock is actually located immediately behind the speaker, so that the audience is constantly reminded of the overrun, but the speaker may be blithely unaware. Good chairing of course can obviate this problem. A good chair will give clear signals as the clock ticks down – though sometimes this can require some almost literal gymnastics to draw the speaker’s attention – and step in to cut the speaker short in extreme circumstances. But not all chairs are good, and often they are too timid to challenge a keynote speaker who’s been droning on way past their allotted slot. It is of course rude to step in and say, in essence, shut up. But it should equally be remembered that it is rude to the audience and later speakers in the programme not to do so. For a graphic illustration of what the mood can be in a lecture theatre when no one intervenes to shut up an over-running speaker, I’d refer you to the world of LegoAcademics here.

Speakers who over-run also defeat the purpose of time scheduled for discussion. Not all talks lend themselves to real discussion, as opposed to some snotty intervention about nit-picking detail best left to be done in private, but in most conferences there will be one or two presentations that get the arguments going. Sometimes this may be a long-running debate between two camps. Unfortunately, if arguments get too polarised, such debated can simply seem like a rehash of the unresolved issues of a previous conference. But, on all-too-rare occasions there can be lively clashes of opinion or disagreements about the interpretation of results and something new and exciting can emerge in front of the onlookers’ eyes. This can never happen if someone has rambled on previously in the session, eating up all the allocated time. Learning to keep to time should be a critical part of one’s training as a researcher. It is something that practice makes perfect. It should not be achieved by talking extensively about context and preliminary data and then visibly skipping 25 slides towards the end which, as they whizz past, the audience realises is where the interesting and novel stuff actually was to be found.

For students and early-stage postdocs, often their turn to shine comes in the poster sessions. A novelty when I set out, in a well-run conference they can be more satisfactory than a brief 10-15 minute oral presentation. Nevertheless they tend to be the less sought-after slots. They are valuable because you get to engage with people who are genuinely interested in your work (or those who are on the panel to judge the poster prize of course). There may be only a couple of people, although hopefully many more, in this category but you get plenty of time to talk to them, take down their contact details so that you can follow up later and/or continue the dialogue in the bar. But you need a well-run and well-planned conference if this is to happen. Too often the sessions are held in rooms of inadequate capacity or, at the very least, the wrong shape so that perambulation is difficult. If you can’t get near the poster you want to see because the gangways between the boards are too narrow or you simply can’t find it, then the opportunity for interaction is lost. Not all locations lend themselves to success on this front as too often posters are crammed into unsuitable corners of a venue.

I am reminded of all these issues, not only because it has been the conference season but because, by pure chance, I associate Churchill College with two series of conferences I was heavily involved with. The first occasion I came to a meeting here must have been around 30 years ago shortly after I returned from the USA as a young researcher. I presented my work (on mechanisms of crazing in polymers) to the big international conference in the field which met triennially at the college. The meeting, formally known as Deformation, Yield and Fracture of Polymers, was always colloquially known as the Churchill conference because of its close association with the college.

My work was well-received, to the extent that I found myself invited onto ‘high table’ at the conference dinner, the first time that had happened. In time I joined the organising committee – I distinctly remember the call inviting me to take up what felt like a big honour came when I was on maternity leave, so that I panicked wondering how I was going to get to a committee meeting in London given a baby in tow. Many years later I took myself off the committee again when I felt my interests had diverged too far from its theme and that anyhow the big questions in the field had mainly been resolved. Nevertheless, I have many happy memories of a conference that saw much lively debate and much progress in the field.

Later, when I came to organise a multidisciplinary conference on Starch in 1996, Churchill became the location of choice because of its excellent facilities (with a second in the series also held there four years later). This conference was when I became aware of the problems a lack of visible clock can cause, to the extent that when, a couple of weeks ago I was walking around my new home, when I got to the lecture theatre my first reaction was to check if they had a clock now, visible to the speaker. They do.

I hope you’ve had a fruitful and satisfying conference season. If you haven’t, what are the faults you’ve identified in speakers and venues?



Posted in Communicating Science, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Who Isn’t an Impostor?

Last week I attended the last day of the British Science Association‘s Festival in Birmingham. There was a real buzz about the place and it had clearly been an extremely successful few days. I enjoyed hearing Ineke de Moortel – the Rosalind Franklin Lecture Award winner – talk about solar flares and sunspots in lucid and accessible terms as part of the lunchtime x-change conversation event, in which I also participated along with several others. Each of us were interviewed for about 10 minutes, one following the other in quick succession. I had hoped to talk about my science; I was firmly told I had to talk about gender issues. Robin Ince was another of the speakers, talking about why he has become so committed to covering science in his stand-up comedy routines. Robin and I seem to be stalking each other, having only met for the first time in London last week (see here for why, as we were honoured with honorary fellowship/ degree respectively) yet so quickly doing another sort of double act.

During the afternoon I watched Alice Roberts do her best to grill a very polished Greg Clarke, the new Minister of State for Universities, Science and Cities. It’s a curious combination portfolio, although Clarke did his best to defend its logic in the face of the questions. I also listened to Paul Nurse give his Presidential address explaining why science is the most truly revolutionary activity in the world and pointing out why it always has been so. And then we trooped off to dinner.

I found myself seated not only next to Robin Ince, but with another comedian on my other side, Steve Cross from UCL. His day job may be Head of Public Engagement at UCL, but he is also the founder of Bright Club and has just been named one of the 50 New Radicals by Nesta for his work setting up Science Showoff. Between this pair of witty gentleman I felt myself somewhat out of my depth – but then I think each of us did. And this is where I get to weave in ideas about impostor syndrome.

The three of us were cosily packed together at the dinner because we were each being awarded Honorary Fellowship of the British Science Association. Each of us admitted sotto voce to the others that we had forgotten we were supposed to be saying ‘a few words’ as we were presented with our certificates by Paul Nurse. Those words turned out to be going to be suitably amplified for the large company present at the dinner. Robin and Steve both got busy with pens, scribbling on the back of their hands (Steve borrowing my pen), but I eschewed such prompts, knowing full well without putting my glasses on I couldn’t have read anything anyhow.

Steve was summoned first – before the starters – and snuck in the fact that he felt like an impostor almost as soon as he started speaking. I felt that my thunder had been stolen: at UCL the week before, the orator at the honorary degree ceremony had singled out my early post about impostor syndrome as he talked about my writing. Certainly a suitable topic to talk about to graduands about to set out for the murky world of life beyond university, and one that encouraged a couple of people to come up to talk about it with me afterwards. But Steve had got there first and, as I munched my way through my starters, fielding comedic interventions from right and left, I tried to find a new angle. Twitter tells me I said ‘I want to make sure that academics understand that talking about their science is something that everybody must do’. I’m sure that’s correct, but the trouble with not having written a speech in advance is I only have vague memories of what I came up with on the spur of the moment.

Robin drew the short straw, in that he had to sit there with whatever impostor-like feelings he was suffering from and restraining himself from knocking back the wine until we got to the third course. Robin is of course famed for his double act with Brian Cox on the Infinite Monkey Cage, to which Paul Nurse referred in his words of introduction. And perhaps the most illuminating manifestation of impostor syndrome of the evening was contained in those words. Paul, with just about every accolade to his name from the Nobel Prize down, expressed anxiety about his appearance on the programme. Paul, who always seems so fluent, obviously didn’t fancy his chances as a comedian.

The reality is, and this was something responses to my original post showed so very clearly, most people feel like an impostor at least some of the time. If you end up being President of the Royal Society (and, on this particular night, President of the British Science Association as well) it means that, at the very least, you’ve learned how to cope with such feelings and not to let them get in the way. But it doesn’t mean that you’re somehow exempt. The more the topic is talked about, at least to my ears, the more it seems that those who don’t suffer from impostor syndrome are the rarities. This is why I think talking about it at a graduation ceremony is so appropriate (although you could argue this is already 3-4 years too late). People should not be left to suffer in silence thinking they are the only ones who felt when they get admitted to university/get an honorary degree – or even, for all I know, when they get rung up about a Nobel Prize – this must be a mistake; they didn’t mean me; they’ve got me confused with someone else and this is just a clerical error.

This week in Birmingham, the belief that the three of us Honorary Fellows shared was – why us, what am I doing here? It didn’t paralyse us so that we couldn’t say our few words to the assembled masses, it didn’t mean we weren’t delighted to accept the honour, but I believe for most people much of the time, that sneaky internal voice will continue to pop up and say ‘there’s a mistake here’. The advantage of advancing years is that you have a better chance of being able to say to that voice ‘shut up‘ and so get on with life.

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Fresh Start, Fresh Anxieties

This is the time of year when anxious students-to-be – and their parents – are contemplating their future. Having established that they have got into University X once A level results are known, they have to work out what the shape of their future life will be. Where will they live? What will their accommodation be like? What will be provided by the institution/landlord and what must they rush out and buy? Maybe it’s mugs, cutlery, duvet, towels and a new laptop, but it may also require some furniture purchases too. Until you know where you’re living these questions can’t begin to be answered.

Other sources of anxiety will be focussed on finding the way around a new campus or town; establishing the precise set of lecture courses that need to be attended, or which the student wishes to select out of a smörgåsbord of choices available; and dealing with the harsh realities of living away from home, such as doing one’s own laundry. But, for many students, there is the additional fear of the unknown when it comes to people. The need to establish a friendship group is often paramount in terms of a support system and contributing to well-being, but fear of failing to do so, or of not ‘fitting in’ may feature high up the list of anxieties at this time. I well remember, as a fresher, feeling that sense that all around me there were these fascinating people but I had no idea how to find the ones with whom I could have a wonderful interaction in the months ahead, and not just get lumbered with bores.

Many of the fears mentioned in the last paragraph – though not the ones about lectures or laundry – feel very close to home for me right now. As I move into my new role as Master of Churchill College (formally I start next month), I am facing similar challenges of a new home, a new dramatis personae list of characters in my life who are going to feature significantly, I hope for a good long while. Additionally, since there is a large fellowship and staff I face the challenge of rapidly needing to remember names and faces. I must master, as it were, the routes around the college and know which room is which. I have been working hard reading biographies of Churchill himself so the names Jock Colville, Cockcroft and Tizard are familiar to me as well as the roles they played in his life, but it doesn’t mean I know where the rooms associated with the names are located.

However, in the immediate short term, my preoccupation is working out where I’ve put things in the Lodge. It is a gorgeous house, refurbished for us by the college and newly released by the contractors so still with a few minor tweaks needed (no blind in one of the bathrooms, for instance, and my keys seem annoyingly temperamental probably because they are new). My study has a wonderful view over the greenery of the Fellows garden and if I peek across the corridor there is what we are terming the ‘bamboo garden’, though sadly lacking a panda. Unlike most students’ accommodation, the Lodge is extensive in size, but equally I have had a lifetime to accumulate stuff that I have to fit in. We are adopting the motto you cannot possibly have enough bookshelves and, with many books still to move across from our old home, we are doing a fine job of filling those provided for us.

New term, new life: for students and for me. The anxieties may have similarities, but one thing that undoubtedly gets easier with age/time is having confidence that you’ve survived difficult situations before and the likelihood is that you’ll survive them again. Not for me the angst that I will use the wrong implements at some fancy meal because, even if in a temporary lapse of concentration (or due to a poor upbringing) I do, I’ll just laugh it off. Ditto (she says hopefully) if I pour a glass of red wine down my white shirt or commit some other social faux pas. My poor memory for names and faces worries me more. I have already introduced myself to at least two people who have pointed out that we’ve met previously during the last week, and that’s before I’ve got to grips with more than a handful of the people who work and live in the college. However understandable my mistakes may be – after all they only have to remember me and my husband, whereas I have well over a hundred, perhaps nearer two hundred, unfamiliar people to get to grips with without even starting on the student population – I still feel it is a sad failing of mine.

Once term starts I am very much looking forward to meeting all the students, undergraduate and postgraduate. It will be the former whom I expect will be the ones who come up to Cambridge full of life, expectation, hopes and fears. It isn’t so hard to remember the excitement I felt when I first arrived at Girton College an unbelievable number of years ago; the feeling that wonderful things might be just around the corner and you never knew when you were going to make a friend for life. And that feeling that you were entering the world of grown-ups and your education was going to make you wise.

Not all of these hopes were of course realised, and wisdom is perhaps relative, but Cambridge has remained close to my heart ever since. To what extent I can keep up with this blog it’s too early to say. I do know that I am greatly looking forward to my new adventure

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Men are Parents Too

Another shocking headline graced the pages of the Daily Telegraph this week, albeit apparently only temporarily before removal. ‘Mother of 3 poised to lead the BBC’ it shrieked, a sentence curiously reminiscent of the way Dorothy Hodgkin’s Nobel Prize was celebrated 50 years ago. Back then the Daily Telegraph announced “British woman wins Nobel Prize – £18,750 prize to mother of three“. But that was 1964 and you might have thought things had moved on a little since then. Apparently not. The Observer at the time was little better, writing in very much the same vein “affable-looking housewife Mrs Hodgkin” had won the prize “for a thoroughly unhousewifely skill: the structure of crystals of great chemical interest“. Surely they wouldn’t be so crass now?

Laura Bates argues (as it happens, in the Guardian) that the ‘fertility’ of a woman such as Rona Fairhead, the subject of the current storm, should not appear in the text at all. In some respects I agree with her position. As things stand this is indeed an appallingly sexist way of proceeding because, as she points out, no man would be described in a comparable way when news of their appointment to some senior role was described. But where I differ from her is in thinking, not that women’s family status should not be mentioned but that men’s should be. Men are parents too. Indeed many of them are deeply caring parents who put huge amounts of time and effort into childcare and housework. Not all men, by any means, and the evidence is strong that on average women do a disproportionate amount of both types of ‘chores’ even when their partners make a valuable contribution. Nevertheless, men do and of course should, contribute. If we sweep the fact that work-life balance matters to both sexes under the carpet we aren’t doing anyone any favours, especially the next generation.

Children are too often seen as the mother’s ‘problem’. Be it in headlines, in job interviews or in everyday conversation, this assumption is in general made. Actually giving birth may be down to the hard work of the mother alone, with the partner able to offer little more than encouraging words, or possibly a whiff of gas, during that labour (in all senses of the word). But by a few weeks after the birth there is little that the father can’t do other than breastfeeding, and with modern pumps that is much less of an issue than at any time in the past. So, let us never forget it takes two to make a baby (I’ll leave out the quandary of when three are involved) and it should take two to bring them up. We should therefore make a point of reminding the world that men have children too, even if, as yet, the reality is too often that they aren’t around enough to do their fair share of the fetching, carrying, chauffeuring, homework, mopping noses and all the other thousands of tasks that modern parenthood entails.

If we sanitise all articles about people of both sexes so that parenthood is taboo, we deny our young the chance to work out how they might want to balance their own lives. Young girls want to know whether it is possible for them to aspire to be senior professionals in whatever field and have children. Young men should be thinking about this too. Maybe we should push the media to have more stories about high-powered men who are dab hands at nappy-changing and the school run rather than berate them for mentioning the fact that a senior woman has given birth at some point. After all, unless they actually interview the woman and find out whether or not she had a professional live-in nanny and a string of other domestics from two weeks after the birth, the mere fact she is the mother of X children isn’t in fact very informative. It just looks as if it is because we make assumptions that being a mother necessarily means doing the mothering.

I say let’s have equality of parental descriptions in these stories of senior management in whatever field; but let’s also remind our own children that men work around the home (or at least they should) and can play their role in parenting way beyond the moment of insemination. In my happier dreams I imagine that the changing law about how parental leave can be shared will make a genuine transformation (in the UK at least) in how families tackle parenting from the first few weeks after a birth onward. That would be one way of liberating both members of the couple, and with luck will lead to well-balanced children for the next generation. But let’s not forbid the mention of children from success stories in the media in the meantime.

Posted in Equality | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

Whose Responsbility? It’s too Easy to Say ‘Not Mine’

Despite the news being full of stories about how minorities are disadvantaged in larger or smaller ways, it is far from obvious that rapid progress is being made. The articles I read are full of appropriate shock at everything from the gender pay gap to the lack of women in the board room and misogyny in social media, yet are the organisations that publish this stuff actually doing anything about it? The media hardly has a good reputation when it comes to promoting women. Whose responsibility is it? It’s a question that’s just as pertinent to higher education and I recently read two very different articles in quick succession that threw into sharp focus some of the problems we, collectively, face. Should we expect the young women just setting out on their academic careers to change the world in which they move, or is that completely the wrong way of setting about things?

The first piece I’d refer you to is a post written by a PhD student in astronomy in the US. Her title “‘Women in Science’ Groups as Instruments of Change” immediately tells you what her point of view is. She is someone who is clearly walking the walk and trying to effect change in her organisation. She says that such groups

‘play a critical role in the scientific community, using mentoring, networking, and personal and professional development to bring about a new culture. They serve to change the system from the ground up, demonstrating that diversity breeds excellence and paving the way for even larger initiatives.’

She also recommends them as ‘present[ing] unique opportunities for personal growth, professional advancement, and cultural change.‘ I can’t disagree with any of that, but I am not convinced that it can ever be sufficient to have a bunch of women banding together to discuss the problems, even if they take them to Deans and Heads of Department. It is only if the people in power themselves walk the walk that change will really come about. Otherwise I fear you don’t get beyond window dressing, a place that universities have been for far too long.

I reflected recently on how I saw my own university changing from a place where women banded together to identify the problems they faced to one where those at the top, from the VC down, feel responsibility for making that change. And it is that progression that, I believe, is crucial, a view reinforced by an article (by Sara McCelland and Kathryn Holland) I came across recently. In this paper an analysis of interviews carried out with senior academics and administrators in a single US university who had received funding from NSF’s ADVANCE Program is presented. (The ADVANCE programme, which aims at ‘increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers’ provides substantial sums of money competitively to assist institutions in progressing towards this goal.)

McClelland and Holland identified different sorts of responses to the questions they asked the interviewees, made up of men and women (though predominantly and unsurprisingly the former due to the make-up of the senior team at the particular institution studied). There were clear differences between those who assumed high levels of what was termed ‘personal responsibility’ and those who took the view that the problem lay elsewhere. For this latter group, doing nothing was OK; they were content to note passively that women did tend to drop out more than men, or that they were penalised for speaking out in ways men were not, but their observations did not move them to do anything to alter the situation.

The authors also analysed who each person thought should have responsibility for any change. Many, too many, seemed to take the line that it was up to the women themselves to change, not recognizing that there were endemic issues within the system and its practices. In particular this group believed that women made choices about having children, almost as if this had nothing to do with men. This position is summed up by the quote ‘having kids is a choice. You have to pay the price for having them‘, a statement I find inconceivable could have been said about male faculty, even if some of them do feel they are paying a price (e.g. by not travelling) and willingly paying it. The reality should be that careers in academia do not make this an either/or choice of career or family for anyone, whatever their gender, and yet systemically that presumption is too frequently and casually made.

This group who felt no personal responsibility for doing anything also felt that if there was a lack of support for a female faculty member it was up to her to seek out such support (‘aggressively’ as the article put it) and not an institutional problem that such support was not automatically offered. I’m sure each reader will recognize colleagues who fit this low responsibility position. The deficit model that it is the women who need to be fixed underlies a widespread assumption about how things work. Only if those at the top – so likely still to be men – accept responsibility for effecting change will enduring improvements occur. The women in science groups can do their bit by offering each other support (hugely important of course). They can identify the problems their members face, highlighting issues that may not be immediately obvious to the powers-that-be about recruitment, promotion or simply the daily culture in a department, but on their own they will often be up against a cohort who simply don’t recognize that the problems lie within their own behaviour and expectations and who will consequently be unlikely to act to improve the situation.

I think this recent publication – albeit it seems to be based on interviews that took place 10 years ago; it isn’t clear why it has taken so long to be published – provides valuable insight for those who want to point out to their senior management why they, the managers, are often the ones who need to take action. Now. It is too easy, for instance when a department is putting together an Athena Swan advisory group, for the Head simply to turn to some young, keen recent female hire and tell her it is her responsibility to move things forward. It is easy, but also unfair, unreasonable and unlikely to be productive for her or the department. Senior management step up please. Take on the responsibility for ensuring your systems genuinely translate into equality for all: that unconscious bias is teased out wherever it lurks and is ultimately eradicated; that the uncertain but talented are supported; and that workloads are shared out fairly and not lazily dumped onto those who don’t complain. That is the way to ensure that women thrive, but equally so do the deserving men and not just those of either sex who are jerks, loud-mouthed and/or selfish, but not necessarily academically all that smart.

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