(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!