CUWiP 2016 (part 1)

(That’s the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, which, as you’ll learn, I attended last month from Thursday 17th to Sunday 20th March.)

I have a slightly weird relationship with the concept of being a “woman in physics”. I think the main reason for this is that I’m aware that, in many ways, I conform to the stereotype of a female scientist being unattractive, masculine and more than a little socially stunted. This means that I escape a lot of the sexism lots of other women experience and what I have experienced on a few occasions (being ignored, talked over or having my points dismissed, sometimes to hear them applauded when spoken by someone else) could be interpreted as the result of lacking confidence in my communication. I think my socio-economic background and mental ill-health have held me back a lot more than my gender ever has. I also have issues with a lot of the campaigns to get girls into physics – which could, and probably should, form a blog post in their own right – so getting involved in those hasn’t really appealed. Even if it had, I worry that getting involved could be counter-productive because I conform to that stereotype so closely, at least until I explain a bit more about my path.

It was with this complicated bunch of thoughts in my mind that I came across CUWiP. It started last year and aims to bring one hundred women studying physics in the UK and Ireland together to hear lectures, attend workshops, tour laboratories and connect with each other. It’s run by the Oxford Women in Physics Society and, at least this year, was extremely over-subscribed. Their aim is that every woman studying physics at undergraduate level should get to attend CUWiP once during their degree. This year, I was one of the lucky one hundred, having heard about the opportunity through an OU mail-out and one of our myriad Facebook groups. As part of the application I had to write a personal statement; here’s what I wrote:

I started a physics degree at Imperial College in 2009, but experienced difficulties due to ill-health that eventually led to me withdrawing at the end of my second year. I transferred to the Open University in 2014, where I decided to take advantage of the Open Degree system and select a range of Level 2 modules that reflected some of my other interests. I am currently studying Level 2 planetary science and Level 3 relativity and quantum physics and am due to complete my degree in June 2017.

When I am not studying I work for Mind in Harrow, maintaining its website and online directory, and as a science activity mentor for Exscitec. I have been involved in science communication since I was in sixth form in a number of capacities, including as a STEM ambassador, both supporting activity days and developing my own. My original goal after completing my studies was pursuing research in neutrino astrophysics, having completed a Nuffield Bursary-funded project on this topic. However, due to the difficulties I have mentioned I have lost confidence in my ability to pursue post-graduate studies and research.

There are a number of reasons I am applying to CUWiP. First, I think it would really help me to decide whether a future in physics is for me. The personal development aspects of the conference would also help to boost my confidence regardless of what decision I make. Another attractive feature is the opportunity to meet lots of other women either studying or working in physics, one disadvantage of distance learning being the lack of face-to-face interaction. Finally, I would love the opportunity to spend a few days immersed in physics along with other women who are just as enthusiastic about it as I am, which CUWiP would certainly provide.

I thought that explaining the challenges I’d faced and the uncertainty I felt would be a good course of action, as it would show how useful the opportunity to attend CUWiP would be. Apparently it worked! I arrived at Lady Margaret Hall on Thursday evening (having taken a spin round the nearby Pitt Rivers Museum) feeling rather apprehensive. I battled with myself about attending the evening reception and vaguely titled “social activities”, but managed to leave my room while assuring myself that I could leave if things weren’t going well. Thankfully, after a bit of awkward standing around I was encouraged to join a group and things got going. The “social activities” turned out to be a quiz, which those of you who remember my fifteen minutes of fame know are something I quite enjoy, despite not being that great at them (unless they happen to include a female physicist picture round, in which case, boo-ya).

I came to the first full day of the conference (Friday) feeling a lot more comfortable. I should mention at this point that the food, which was all included with our registration fee, was really tasty. We were very well looked after by the staff at Lady Margaret Hall and the Physics department. There were plenty of tea/coffee breaks scheduled throughout the day as well, which gave us a chance to chat to each other and to some of the more senior women in attendance. Much of Friday was given over to visiting the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell, Oxfordshire. I actually stayed there back in 2009 when I did a week of work experience in the neutrino physics department, but everything on this visit was new to me.

The day started with a talk by Julie Kirk about her career and journey in physics (she is part of RAL’s ATLAS group), then a Skype link-up with Victoria Martin, who is currently working at CERN, also on the ATLAS experiment. After these short sessions came a careers panel consisting of:

  • Lorraine Bobb, a beam diagnostics physicist who did her PhD at CERN
  • Hayley Smith, an accelerator physicist who joined RAL’s graduate scheme after finishing her integrated masters course
  • Androula Alekou (one of the CUWiP organisers!), who is a postdoctoral research assistant at Oxford
  • Branwen Hide, a biologist by training who founded a science policy thinktank while working on her PhD and now works as an EU research support officer at STFC
  • Sarah Beardsley, head of the Space Engineering and Technology Division in RAL Space, a role that involves a lot of project management and working with people across disciplines

I really enjoyed the diversity presented on this panel in terms of the women’s backgrounds and their career paths. It really showed that there are lots of opportunities within science to tailor your career to your own interests, as well as different routes you can take. I also liked the women’s positive approaches towards the issue of balancing a career and a family – even though I’m not going to have children, I still intend on continuing a relationship with my boyfriend and maintaining a good work-life balance. RAL definitely seems like a place that allows its employees to do this (among other things it has a generous holiday allowance and can accommodate flexible and part-time working arrangements). I’m definitely considering applying for its graduate scheme.

We also got the chance to tour some of RAL’s facilities. I visited the Central Laser Facility, which was good despite not being a particular interest of mine. I also liked seeing their space technology area and learning about the many different tests that have to be done before a piece of equipment can be sent into space. Finally, I got to visit the scientific computing area. I expected this would involve learning about programming, but actually it was an area where actual physical computers are kept. I found it fascinating to learn about the masses of data stored on VHS tapes and collected using robotic arms, as well as the applications of the supercomputers and the practical aspects of keeping them all running. I was also interested to hear that our two ‘tour guides’ were an OU graduate and a current OU student!

After a quick group photo we returned to the Oxford physics department for a talk on nanotechnology in medicine by Sonia Trigueros. I really enjoy learning about the medical applications of physics and this talk was no exception. Her work shows how important it is for people in different fields to collaborate and learn from each other; she originally studied structural biology, but has gained a lot of physics knowledge through her work and is now using her expertise to create potential treatments for cancer.

This evening’s activity was a Café Scientifique, which I decided to miss just because I was so worn out and my brain so saturated with interesting things. Other than that I took part in all the social activities, which I was quite proud of myself for doing. I also asked questions in about half of the talks/panels and made a point to speak to a couple of the professors after their lectures, even though those are both things that are quite difficult for me to do. The world didn’t implode, no one laughed at me and I wasn’t kicked out for being too stupid, so perhaps I should do it a bit more often.

There was meant to be a part 2, but unfortunately I left it a bit too long and can’t remember what I wanted to say. Overall the conference was an amazing experience that really did show me that I had a future in physics. I met lots of great people, learned a lot and came away feeling great. I would highly recommend it to any female physics undergraduate!

Securing the world’s food

[This is my third post for the Medway Science Centre Partnership blog.]

Note: while this post is about food security, it’s not the type that involves tips on how to stop your flatmates stealing your cheese.

The world’s population has passed seven billion and is continuing to grow at an alarming pace, demonstrated by this website, which ticks along showing the rate at which people are born and die around the world. While some predict that this growth will eventually level off, there are and will be a lot of mouths to feed. As well as considering how much food we need, we also need to consider the impact this could have on the environment, whether new technologies need to be developed and how humans both impact and are impacted by food production. The idea of food security is at the root of all of these questions.

What does food security mean, exactly? The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines it as being “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. Access isn’t just a case of giving people food, as occurs when poorer countries receive foreign aid; in a truly food-secure society citizens can either produce their own food or have the economic means to purchase it. This food should meet their dietary requirements, as well as reflecting any personal preferences (for example, being halal, kosher or vegetarian). It should also be available consistently even during periods of instability and, of course, be safe to eat. Education can help people to keep themselves more food secure through teaching them about topics such as agriculture, sanitation and food preparation and storage. As is probably clear, food security encompasses issues that include the environment, nutrition and many areas of politics. This article will concentrate on some of the scientific and technological aspects of the topic.

Two examples of new technologies that may help us towards global food security are the so-called “super-spud” and climate resistant beans. The first of these is a genetically modified (GM) potato that, if successful, will withstand blight, be protected against nematode worms, bruise less and be less likely to produce harmful acrylamide chemicals when fried, making your Friday fish and chips just that little bit healthier as well as, perhaps more importantly, increasing yield. This will involve placing genes that control these traits in other types of potatoes into one that can be grown in the UK. The technology behind climate resistant beans is less high-tech. While they are an excellent food source due to being high in protein and low in cost, beans are susceptible to many diseases that can significantly affect their quality and yield. The creation of beans that can resist these diseases, as well as survive in drought conditions or hot climates, has relied on cross-breeding different types of beans. As a result, they require fewer insecticides and can be grown in areas affected by climate change.

British trials of the super-spud are expected to be announced soon, timing possibly due to the recent General Election and voters’ feelings about genetic modification. In fact, 40% of the UK public feel that the government should not be promoting the adoption of GM technology in the UK, according to a YouGov poll. Almost as many are undecided and only half as many support the adoption of GM technology. Is this negative feeling warranted? There are extreme views on both sides of the argument: proponents of GM technology see it as the natural successor to centuries-old experiments with cross-breeding to create crops with desirable characteristics (as is done to create climate resistant beans), while opponents see it as irresponsible tampering with our food at the cost of both the environment and our health. Many negative stories about GM technology in the media have been found to be inaccurate, as this Sense About Science guide to GM technology shows (note the link leads to a PDF file). There is nothing to suggest that GM foods have caused harm to anyone thus far and many of the arguments use by those who oppose them are based more on emotive ideas like “Frankenfoods” or tampering with nature than evidence. Many also rely on the appeal to nature, which is a logical fallacy stating that anything “natural” must be good, while anything “artificial” must be bad. As the Sense About Science report shows, there have been a number of success stories that could have saved lives and contributed in other positive ways, such the vitamin A-rich Golden Rice, but whose potential has been stunted by political objections to GM technology.

However, that isn’t to say that GM foods should be treated as purely positive and without risk or that all critics should be ignored – to do so would be unscientific! This article from Scientific American demonstrates that some scientists have reasonable objections to GM foods that may be ignored due to vocal non-scientific opposition to GM technology. They express concern over the long-term effects of GM that may not be easily detected, as well as how changing single genes may affect the whole organism in different ways to the more wholesale changes of previous cross-breeding practices. They also raise the issue of testing and say that GM foods should be more rigorously checked for safety before being put into wide use. While so far the science has indicated that fears about GM technology are unfounded, as with any technology, the possible negative impacts have to be considered.

GM isn’t the only technology that could help us achieve global food security. As food security is a complex issue, many different areas of science must be involved in tackling its problems. One of these involves tackling climate change, or at least learning to live with its effects, as changing temperatures and rainfall patterns create areas of both drought and flooding. Innovations such as climate-resistant beans could help with this, but agriculture will have to adapt on a grander scale as well, with both farmers and governments shouldering the burden of tailoring farming practices to each region and the challenges they face. For example, an area facing problems with drought can use crop rotation to make the best use of the water that is available, as well as using different crops. This is an old technology, brought into the 21st century through advanced weather forecasts.

There are lots of projects currently working towards ensuring global food security. One of these is looking to manipulate the behaviour of rodents who, having been driven out of their homes by flooding, often take up residence in farm buildings. Of course, they eat the grain, meaning farmers face a much poorer yield. Rather than control these pests with poison, which would most likely damage the local ecosystem, a team has been looking into how to use scent signals to manipulate rodents’ behaviour. Another is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed storage facility containing the widest collection of seeds on Earth. The aim is to preserve as many species as possible even in the wake of large-scale catastrophes, making it like a backup for global agriculture rather than your computer. There is even a project looking to manipulate photosynthesis itself, the fundamental process of how plants convert light energy from the Sun into chemical energy to fuel themselves.

Of course, none of these technological advances will be able to ensure food security on its own. Without the correct political infrastructure, we will still face the same problems. As the World Health Organisation (WHO) points out, there is a huge amount of debate surrounding the issue of food security. Many believe that we do have enough food in the world for everyone, but that it isn’t distributed correctly, meaning that rather than new food technologies we actually need fairer political systems. Global conflict is another problem that may affect food security, both in terms of trade and a country’s ability to produce its own food. Technology may be able to help solve this by allowing countries to grow food even in hostile climates, but this can’t be the whole solution, particularly if people are displaced during periods of conflict. There are also concerns about whether positive changes will trickle down to those who are impoverished and may be living in isolated rural communities, rather than solely being enjoyed by thw richest. Finally, while technology can help address problems associated with climate change, those solutions will be treating the symptoms of climate change rather than stopping it altogether. Food security has to become a political priority before technologies can truly make a difference.

Food security will clearly be a key research area in bioscience as the world grows bigger and the environment changes. While scientific innovations will be a key part of work towards a more sustainable future, political disagreement threaten to overshadow it and cancel out any positive contributions. However, big steps are being made that will hopefully ensure the world of the future does not run out of food. Whether societies will take advantage of these is another matter.

My “Speaking of Science” interview

A little while ago I was invited to be interviewed on “Speaking of Science“, a site containing interviews with lot of different science communicators, most of whom are a bit further along in their careers than I am. I was asked to take part because of the website I recently set up, though I mention some other things I’ve done as well, plus various opinions that thankfully people seem to have agreed with so far. Hopefully it will help spread the word about New To Sci Comm!

You can read my interview here.

The science of getting spooked

This was my second post for the Medway Science Centre Partnership blog.

It’s the time of year when things get a bit scary: yes, Hallowe’en is here. The holiday finds its origins in both pagan and Christian traditions, but these days it’s more of an excuse to dress up, carve pumpkins and gorge yourself on sweets. I could dedicate this piece to calculating the number of houses you’d need to visit while trick-or-treating to burn off all those candy calories, but I decided a less terrifying idea would be to get to the bottom of exactly what is happening inside us when we get frightened.

Being afraid is important if you want to survive for as long as possible. In fact, since those who feared dangerous things lived longer, they passed on their genes and eventually natural selection meant fear was an essential human trait. The changes that happen to our bodies when we are afraid are collectively known as the fight-or-flight response. They are caused by two systems in our bodies, which, having been activated by our brain’s hypothalamus, use our bloodstreams and nervous systems to create a reaction as fast as possible. Hormones flood our system and prepare our body to either defend ourselves or run away, doing things like increasing our heart rate and flowing blood away from our skin towards other parts of the body that need it more (which is why we sometimes go pale and feel cold when we are scared).

When we sense something scary, lots of parts of the brain help us to interpret and react to it. As well as the hypothalamus, the sensory cortex interprets the data the brain is receiving from the sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, skin), while the thalamus decides where the data needs to be sent. The hippocampus stores memories and provides context.

Parts of the brain called the amygdalae have been found to play a vital role in fear. These are two almond-shaped clusters of nerve cells (neurons) buried deep inside the brain, one on either side. We know this partly because of people like SM, a woman who suffers from a genetic condition called Urbach-Wiethe disease. This condition destroyed her amydalae and other parts of her brain when she was a child, resulting in her being unable to experience fear. While this probably sounds brilliant to those of us who faint at the sight of blood or jump on a chair every time we see a spider, it’s not as great as you might think. After all, fear tells us when something might be dangerous and therefore that we should avoid it. Take that away and you’ll find yourself in all sorts of risky situations, as SM has – she has been held at knifepoint multiple times with barely any reaction. While she is only a sample size of one, SM’s case shows that the amygdalae, while not necessarily the “fear centre” of the brain, are still involved in making us feel it. MRI scans of people watching horror films have also shown the amydalae lighting up at scary moments.

The position of the amgydalae (red) in the brain.

Lots of us enjoy watching scary films and visiting supposed haunted places, particularly around this time of year. So, why do we seek out things that will scare us if they activate the danger circuits in our brains? This question has been called “the horror paradox”. It turns out that the fear we experience when watching a horror movie is the same sort of fear we’d experience if these things were happening to us in real life, due to our more primitive functions not having adapted to the relatively new technology of films.

Why is this a feeling we willingly induce in ourselves, though? It has been theorised that watching scary movies is a modern form of ancient rituals, designed to give us the power to master a dangerous situation and the resulting thrill. Compelling ourselves to aware of a danger, even a fictional one, may also be a protective measure on the part of our brains. Another idea is that watching violence and gore is an outlet for us, helping us confront fears and give us the catharsis that prevents us acting out any violent impulses.

There is a negative side to this paradox, though. Studies have shown that watching horror films can make people more hostile, rather than less. A large proportion of people report lingering effects of scary images, such as phobias and sleep disturbance, particularly if they saw them as children. These effects can even be severe enough to equal those produced by real traumas as the memories are stored in the amygdalae. As films get gorier and gorier, there is also the potential for people to become desensitised, not just to fiction, but to real violence. The question remains: how scary is too scary, and will science be able to help us decide?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this primer on fear and aren’t feeling too spooked. Have a fun, safe, but above all scary Hallowe’en!

Pumpkin Pi - lights off