Female professors: still a rare breed

Physics World
September 2000, page 8

Women rarely make it to the top in physics. Sharon Ann Holgate spoke to a few who have, and asked what can be done to encourage more women to follow in their footsteps

    When people ask Susan Cooper, head of particle physics at Oxford University, what her job is, "the reaction is usually astonished silence," she says. Cooper is in fact one of only a handful of women physics professors in the UK. Women hold only about 2% of physics chairs in Britain, a stark indicator of how difficult it is to attract women, and girls, into physics.

    "I think peer pressure has a lot to do with it," says Athene Donald, professor in soft-condensed-matter physics at Cambridge University. "As long as boys say - whether or not they believe it - that physics and maths are not for girls, some girls will not want to contend with the hassle. Single-sex teaching may help in some cases, but is not a cure all," she says.

    Ruth Lynden-Bell, professor in the atomistic simulation group at Queen's University Belfast recommends "more publicity about women scientists, and more work persuading schoolgirls to do physics" as a remedy. This sentiment was also expressed by an international panel of physicists who carried out a review of UK physics earlier this year.

Attracting schoolgirls into physics

    The fact that only one in five physics undergraduates is female represents "a significant, unrealized potential", according to the panel's report. It also recommends that a special effort should be made to attract 12-14 year-old schoolgirls into physics. Christine Davies, head of theoretical particle physics at Glasgow University, believes that this is a good age group to target, "but I don't have any magic recipe for enthusing them about physics," she says. "Physics is a very broad subject and means different things to different people. I think you have to be careful not to imagine that everyone will be turned onto physics by 'gee-whizzery'. I was always more interested in the neat theoretical ideas."

    By contrast Gillian Gehring, a professor of condensed-matter physics from Sheffield University feels that it would be better to concentrate on 15-16 year olds. "There is a real window of opportunity that we should take with the new A-level scheme," she says, referring to the fact that from this month students in England and Wales will take five AS levels in their first year of post-16 education, and three A levels in the second year. "We should try to campaign to get a higher fraction of able girls to take AS physics and maths in the first year of the sixth form," suggests Gehring.

    Such ideas may ultimately increase the number of female undergraduates doing physics, but as the international report points out, it is equally important to retain qualified women within the physics community. Indeed, the fraction of women within physics departments decreases the higher up you go, with women only accounting for 7% of lecturers in the UK.

An international problem

    The difficulty of retaining women at senior levels is not just a problem in Britain, however. A recent report from the European Commission shows that similar situations exist in many European countries. This is backed up by a report recently produced by the American Institute of Physics that says the number of women in US physics decreases "with each step up the academic ladder".

    Norna Robertson, a professor in the gravitational waves group at Glasgow University, says she was disappointed that the international panel of physicists reviewing UK physics did not include any women. "I think that says something about the global situation," she adds.

    France, however, fares better than most, with women making up 9% of physics professors. "It's definitely a cultural thing," says Sandra Chapman, head of space and astrophysics at Warwick University, whose involvement with the Cluster space mission requires regular trips to Orleans in France. "There are lots of science magazines in France that you would not find in the UK, and you have intellectual discussions on TV where scientists are allowed to discuss developments in the same way philosophers are, rather than getting a three minute slot on Horizon," she says. Chapman feels such attitudes definitely influence the numbers of women going through to attain senior positions in physics. "It's just part of being an accomplished cultured woman, which is a valued thing in France. My impression is that science there is seen in the same way as literature or history," she adds.

    In contrast, one British female undergraduate who was leaving physics for media studies asked Chapman how she could feel happy working in such a male-dominated subject. "Some women who are strong feminists may say you're engaging in a male power structure. They see it as a kind of 'sleeping with the enemy' thing," Chapman explains. Some female students have also raised moral objections about the subject, including the use of physics in defence and concerns about environmental issues.

Career support

    For those women who do remain in physics, there can be problems trying to balance their home life with their career. "Things would change if there were more academic jobs available in physics," says Christine Davies. "The job situation has been very bad for many years and this has made it particularly hard for women I think. They are often less able, for family reasons, to hang on in post-doc positions waiting for a job to appear."

    "Long-term postdocs, such as the research councils' advanced fellowships, are particularly important in this regard," she states. Davies' advanced fellowship from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council allowed her to take two periods of maternity leave, and work part time for six months after the birth of her first child. However, many women feel strongly that childcare issues should not be seen as a problem solely for them.

    "I am getting fed up with this narrow focus," says Athene Donald. "It shouldn't be assumed that children are only one parent's responsibility.

    In the meantime, what tips for the top would the professors give to budding female physicists? Both Davies and Chapman suggest applying for personal fellowships rather than a postdoc on someone else's project. "If you're looking to establish yourself it's a question of visibility - who goes and gives the papers at the international conferences, and whose name goes first," explains Chapman. She feels personal fellowships have helped her succeed by giving her more control over the kind of work she was doing, and when and where she did it.

    Some women suggest female mentors can help, but Susan Cooper disagrees. "I certainly never had a female mentor, and I never felt the lack of it," says Cooper, who does not feel being female has made any difference to her own career progress. At the end of the day, anyone with a strong interest in the subject would do well to take Ruth Lynden-Bell's advice, which is simply: "Do it!"

© IOP Publishing Ltd. Reproduced with permission.

Science museum seeks to inspire

Physics World
September 1999, page 11

In the age of the Internet what do museums have to offer? Sharon Ann Holgate discovered that London's Science Museum is taking a new approach to presenting science to the public

    Next summer the Science Museum in London is due to open its £48m Wellcome Wing. The new wing will be unlike anything seen in the museum before. An entire wall made of blue glass will complement exhibition floors suspended from a steel framework. This futuristic setting is part of a new philosophy, explains Alan Morton, acting head of the museum's physical sciences and engineering group. "In the past we saw ourselves as teaching science", he says, "but now we want to inspire people".

    On their way to the Wellcome Wing, which is being largely funded by money from the National Lottery and the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical research charity, visitors will pass through a gallery that will include famous items of science apparatus in an almost reverential setting. Making the Modern World will contain more than 3000 famous historical artefacts, with 150 of them highlighted in the centre of the gallery. "We are almost inviting the sort of reflection on the objects that you would get in an art gallery," says curator David Rooney. The setting will be stark, with white walls, a stone floor and objects on plinths or in showcases. Rooney says the 2700 square metres of exhibition space will relay "the cultural history of industrialization over the last 250 years".

    Among the exhibits on display will be Joule's paddle-wheel apparatus, which demonstrated that mechanical work can be converted into heat, and one of the earliest cathode-ray tubes used by J J Thomson to discover the electron. Also included will be part of Cockcroft and Walton's accelerator (the first device to split the atom), early thermionic valves, and the first atomic-time standard. The labels will avoid detailed scientific explanations, exploring instead the applications and cultural impact that each object has had. There are also plans for a drama company to provide costumed actors, who, says Rooney, will be able to "tease out some of the human stories behind the exhibits".

    Morton hopes that such exhibits will inspire the public and so ensure that the Science Museum remains an experience to be remembered, something which he believes new media such as the Internet will never be able to match. "We will always be unique because we provide the romance, the impact, the associations of the real thing, whether it is steam engines or the first atom smashers."

    A fresh way of presenting the news about science and technology will be provided by the Antenna project, says manager Stephen Foulger. Some exhibits on show will present the day's news while others will cover research that has not been reported in the mainstream media, or look at headline science from new angles. Topics of on-going public interest, such as genetically-modified food or the potential problems with mobile phones, will be on display for several months.

    Foulger wants to "reflect the depth and breadth of science and technology" by covering not only engineering and technology but also fundamental science. As such, teleportation and charge-parity violation in B-meson decays, which could explain  why there is more matter than antimatter in the universe, would feature in Antenna. There is no point in repeating stories covered by existing media, says Foulger. He is therefore keen to display more than "just a newspaper on the wall", by making use of artefacts and hands-on items. But he appreciates that it won't always be easy to incorporate such features into daily news items, and he intends whenever possible to take advantage of time-tabled events, such as space launches, to prepare exhibits in advance.

    Physics will also feature within the Wellcome Wing's permanent exhibitions on biomedical science and digital technology, and looks set to play a large part in the new Energy gallery. The first phase of the gallery will open in 2001, with the remainder being unveiled in 2003, although the museum is still seeking sponsors for the project. The gallery aims to relate energy to people's everyday experiences – from seeing the Sun rise in the morning, to charting the development of the National Grid. One potential project would link schools across Europe to discuss the use of renewable energy in their respective countries.

    Industry, academia and the research councils are all being consulted during planning of the new gallery. And in an effort to ensure the public will like the contents, the museum has been asking focus groups, visitors and schools to evaluate potential exhibits and gallery concepts. Morton, who is project director for the Energy gallery, says that while the precise contents are still being discussed, the "gallery will use both scientific and historical insights to help our visitors understand present and future technologies". Interactive computer displays, rather than text on a wall, will supply visitors with in-depth scientific information.

    Such computer-based interactives are welcomed by Colin Humphreys, former fellow in the public understanding of physics at the Institute of Physics. He also agrees with the Science Museum that it is important to stress the relevance of science to people's everyday lives, but he warns that other areas should not be neglected. "We really want to attract top students to science, so it is important to emphasize excitement and intellectual challenge too," he explains.

    Making the Modern World also draws mixed views from Humphreys. "I think it's a good idea in concept," he says," but my feeling would be to intersperse it with some hands-on things so that people get more involved in it." Graham Durant, manager of science, exhibits and education at the Glasgow Science Centre disagrees that all exhibitions need to be so active. "Visitors behave differently in different settings, and a mix of quiet contemplation and vigorous activity can work well in the same institution." He says that focusing on a selected number of objects without the background "noise" of a fully developed interpretative exhibition is an excellent idea.

© IOP Publishing Ltd. Reproduced with permission.

How to combine physics and a family

Physics World
April 1999, page 11

Women can find it hard to return to research after a career break. Sharon Ann Holgate investigates some of the options academia and industry offer to help women get back to work

    One of the major problems for women working in physics is how to have a family and still sustain their career. This is a problem experienced by many professional women, but it is particularly acute for those working in science. When they eventually return to the lab they can find that their research field has advanced, and they may be confronted with new experimental techniques and methods of data analysis.

    In the UK, the Daphne Jackson Trust helps scientists to return to work by allowing them to retrain. The trust, set up in 1992 as a registered charity, offers two-year fellowships to those who have had to leave work for at least three years to look after their family. Fellows take up a flexible part-time appointment at a university, retraining under a supervisor in their chosen research area.
    "I think the Daphne Jackson Fellowships provide an essential service, as it is very difficult to return to science after a career break, "says one former fellow Dorothy Duffy, a physicist now working in the chemistry department at Reading University. "The training aspect meant I could become familiar with new concepts and techniques with less pressure to produce results", she explains.

    The training is also praised by Alison Vinnicombe, registrar of Lucy Cavendish College Cambridge. The college is one of the trust's many benefactors and also plays host to fellows. Vinnicombe is delighted when fellows return to the level of research skill they had before taking a break.

    Yasmin Robson, an astrophysicist and Daphne Jackson fellow at Oxford University, feels her fellowship has made a "huge difference" to her career. "I can do my research and still bring up my children," she says. However, she warns that the application procedure is complex. "It's not easy to apply – you have to make the link with the university, get a supervisor and write-up a research proposal. If you have been away from your field of research then it is hard to write a proposal for it."

    In a similar scheme, "Curie" fellowships are being offered at Copenhagen University in Denmark. "[This scheme is] specifically for women who have been away from research to have children, or have moved with their husbands," says the dean of science Henrik Jeppesen. The university offers three stipends each year across the sciences.

For those who have taken a break for family reasons, but are still in the early stages of their careers, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK allows students to carry out a PhD on a part-time basis for 5 years, with two further years to write-up their thesis. Meanwhile in the US, the Alfred P Sloan Foundation – a non-profit institution – is piloting a scheme it hopes will make family-orientated career breaks the norm in academia. Their fellowships will be used to take full or part-time paid leave, assist returning after leave, or both. Half of the money for each fellowship will come from the applicant's institution, with the rest coming from the Sloan Foundation, which says it is expecting its first applications soon.

In some countries, however, career breaks are not a major issue. Silvana Luyckx of the Witwatersrand University in South Africa knows of no special schemes for women returning from leave, but says that "in South Africa it is probably easier that it is abroad to find part-time employment". Luyckx's former head of department allowed her initially to work for three hours a day and then increased it to four hours, and so on. "Colleagues abroad have told me that this would have been very unusual in their countries," she says.

It would certainly be unusual in Australia, according to Anna Binnie, one of the founders of the Women in Physics group of the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP). "Because the cost of living is so high in Australia, most women seem to juggle full-time work with young children in childcare," says Binnie. Although this does not allow mothers much time with their children, it is one way to keep their career intact. Indeed, a survey carried out two years ago by the AIP found that while some female physicists had experienced some adversities during their employment, they were by and large as happy as their male colleagues.

    Back in the UK, child-care facilities often lag behind those on offer abroad. Duffy at Reading says that while fellowships help women get back to work, problems remain once the fellowship has been completed. "The big problem of finding suitable employment in a convenient location with flexible working hours remains," she says. Age, as well, is a problem, since some research fellowships are only available to applicants under the age of 40. In addition, those returning to work may find themselves at a disadvantage when competing for permanent research posts and lectureships, simply because their age pushes them further up the salary scale.

However, women working in industry may find things a little easier. Companies who have trained staff are generally keen to hang on to their investment. AEA Technology, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL), British Telecom, the National Physical Laboratory and the UK AEA Fusion all offer the possibility of flexible part-time work after childbirth. Bill Anderton, a spokesman for BNFL, says that his company would consider people returning to work on a part-time basis, as long as their line-manager agrees. The firm's only requirement is that the person returning to work must fit in with the business needs of a particular project. But other than that, says Anderton, there are no restrictions.

Helpful employers and back-to-work schemes clearly make a difference to women who have a family, but there are still many barriers to be broken down. Not least is the problem of perception – many feel that "part-time science" lacks commitment. As Yasmin Robson says, "the idea of mothers and people who have taken a career break returning to science is a strange concept, certainly in physics, and it will take some time before it is accepted as normal."

© IOP Publishing Ltd. Reproduced with permission.

Physicists paint a clearer picture

Physics World
July 1998, page 10

Scientists and artists have traditionally viewed one another with deep suspicion. But as Sharon Ann Holgate reports, physicists can make an impact in the world of art conservation

    Physics is probably the last thing on our minds when we're admiring a beautiful painting, but it plays a large part in determining if our great-grandchildren can enjoy the same experience. Art conservationists have for some time been using various physics-based techniques to help them in their work. Raman spectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy and X-ray diffraction can help them to identify the pigments in a painting. Meanwhile, lasers are being used to show cracks in the surfaces of sculptures, and could help to clean statues and paintings.

    The latest technique to cross over from the world of physics is electronic speckle pattern interferometry. When used with a tensile tester, this method can shed light on how paintings decay. "We want to understand how cracks develop," says Christina Young, a physicist who divides her time between the conservation department at London's Tate Gallery and the mechanical engineering department at Imperial College, London. She is using the technique to predict the onset of cracking in paintings, so that the problem can be minimized by altering the environmental conditions in which the paintings are stored. Young is co-ordinating the project, which for the first time brings together scientists and conservationists from the Tate, Imperial, the UK's National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute.

    Trying to work out the best storage and hanging conditions is a complicated problem, as paintings are surprisingly complex systems. Canvases are usually covered by a layer of glue, also known as the "size layer", which is in turn covered by a primer, usually a neutral-coloured paint. Various layers of paint are then built up on top of the primer. Light and pollution can cause the paint to fade, and cracking results from changes in temperature and humidity.

    Each layer of a canvas is also affected by humidity. In dry conditions, the size layer loses moisture and contracts, making the canvas tight. On more humid days, the layer gains moisture and expands. And since paint gets brittle with age, cracks can start to appear. Similar problems are caused by changes in temperature, as the layers of paint expand and contract at different rates.

    The extent of cracking can be assessed visually by recording digital images of the painting using visible light or by taking an X-ray photograph. However, paintings decay so slowly that such images say little about what is actually causing the cracks to occur. What is needed is a map of the changes in the strain distribution in the painting, and it is here that electronic speckle pattern interferometry (ESPI) comes into its own. The technique allows curators to study how a painting responds to changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity.

    So how does ESPI work? To prevent the artwork from being physically damaged, a "model" of the painting is first created - usually a small piece of canvas containing a copy of one section of the painting. The model is placed inside a small environmental chamber, which allows the temperature and humidity to be changed. The tension on the picture is then altered using a biaxial tensile tester, which consists of a set of clamps that stretch the painting in four directions. This mimics the loading on real paintings, which are pulled on all four sides by a stretcher. Load cells on each of the clamps measure the tension in the painting.

    The ESPI optics, which consists of four diverging beams of laser light that cover the whole canvas, are mounted about one metre above the model. Each point on the surface of the painting acts as a point source for coherent scattering. A charge-coupled device (CCD) camera records an image of the interference fringes, or "speckle pattern". The tension, temperature or humidity is then changed, and another image is taken. The final result is a map of the difference between the two interference patterns, which shows the deformation. The map is directly related to the strain on the canvas, and gives conservationists a clear and accurate picture of movement in the painting under different conditions.

    According to Young, the tensile tests have shown that the loads in the paintings are not uniform, and the ESPI has revealed that there can be some very high strains on a canvas. She has also found some unexpected compression forces at the corners of paintings - just where many cracks occur.

    But as with any new conservation technique, it will take a while for the art world to build up confidence in ESPI. As a general rule, most techniques are first tested out on model paintings or damaged pieces. More famous works of art are left alone until a technique has proved its worth. However, if a painting comes in for restoration and there is no other way of approaching it, a new method can suddenly find itself in the limelight. It is hoped that ESPI will soon be playing an important role in trying to slow down the deterioration of the Tate's collection of William Blake paintings.

    Young hopes to begin using ESPI to look at a real painting by the end of the year. "We will be able to compare its strain map with those from the model paintings and see how the behaviour correlates," she explains. This will help her to check whether the process that is used to model the paintings is successful. She also hopes that ESPI will allow conservationists to assess paintings quickly both before and during restoration.

    An important feature of the ESPI system - which is funded by the Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851, an educational grant-awarding trust - is that it is portable, allowing paintings to be monitored in situ in a gallery. And since the technique is non-invasive, it should prove to be popular with conservationists, who are wary of techniques that could damage their works of art.

    Young is one of a handful of physicists working in art conservation in the UK. David Saunders, a chemist who works for the National Gallery, says the usual way for physicists to become involved is by suggesting that their technique could be useful. If a gallery also thinks this is the case, they can end up doing a project together. "We have worked collaboratively with several university departments on projects of mutual interest, and often have undergraduate and postgraduate students," he explains.

    If you like the idea of working in this field, but don't have a new technique up your sleeve, there are other options. In the UK, for example, the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, the Royal College of Art (RCA), the Courtauld Institute and the Hamilton Kerr Institute all run postgraduate courses in conservation. As Alun Cummings, course director at the RCA, says: "We are definitely interested in people with scientific degrees." Maybe one day your descendants will have you to thank for preserving their favourite works of art.

© IOP Publishing Ltd. Reproduced with permission.