In my blog so far I have interviewed some amazing female scientists with biology and chemistry backgrounds. I follow loads of scientsist on Instagram, but a relatively small number of the women I follow are physicists or mathematicians. Within subjects like physics, maths, engineering, chemical engineering women are still in the minority. And this is reflected in classrooms across the country.
Like many young girls pursuing science at school I found myself as just 1 of 2 girls taking physics at A-level, and this is not an uncommon position for girls to find themselves in. But, why an earth is this the case? Physics, Maths and Engineering are all absolutely amazing and incredibly interesting subjects, however there are less women in these subjects than in other STEM areas such as Biology.
When you think of the typical Engineer or Astronaut who do you imagine?
So for this weeks “meet the scientist” its time to showcase some physics! I am excited to introduce you to a woman who is breaking down all the barriers, and inspiring kids to get into STEMM and dip their toes into the world of physics and mathematics: Dr Jackie Bell.
Jackie is a PhD graduate of the University of Liverpool where she studied Theoretical and Mathematical Physics, and is now the space and physics project manager at the UK Association for Science and Discovery centres. Jackie is also a future astronaut candidate, and in 2017 appeared on the BBC program “Astronauts: Do you have what it takes” (which is super cool!).
Note-Jackie very kindly answered all these questions for me in July, and due to my Thesis write up, I have taken forever to get this sorted out. A massive thankyou to Jackie, and I hope you enjoy reading this latest meet the scientist!
E: What drew you into the world of physics and mathematics?
J: I have always loved learning new things, particularly ways to explain how our universe works. As soon as I was old enough to go to school I was asking questions about our world and was fascinated by how far space went – how many planets were there? Could we go to the edge of the universe? Could humans one day live in space? I looked forward to each new school day to learn more and to be faced with new and exciting puzzles to solve. When me and my brother were very young my mum would keep us entertained by getting us to count everything we saw. I think this, along with my imagination, contributed to the way in which I always looked for more problems to solve, and helped develop my deeper interest in mathematics. I found that maths and physics where the two subjects at school that gave me a greater insight into the mechanics of everyday life and could explain the way in which our universe worked. I learnt very early on that every puzzle could be solved by maths – and I found that fascinating.
E: What was your PhD research focused on, and what exactly does Physics research look like?
J: My PhD was in theoretical particle physics. This is the study of the fundamental particles that make up everything we see, feel and know in our universe. Theoretical physics consists of many branches, all looking at the construction of our universe in a slightly different way. These theories include quantum theories, string theory, lattice gauge theory, multidimensional theories, etc. all of which could give us the answer to the question that mathematicians and physicists across the globe have been longing to solve – what is the ultimate theory of everything?
My branch of research was in quantum chromodynamics, in particular looking at quarks and gluons (the particles inside protons and neutrons) at really high energies – like the high energies reached in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.
As a mathematician I modelled interactions between these quarks and gluons in a range of mathematical fields, each of which imposed different rules on how the particles could behave. Using maths I was able to contribute to improving approximations to results we get experimentally.
My day-to-day research consisted of high level computing to aid the integration of hundreds of Feynman diagrams – it was a lot of maths and I very quickly had to learn how to code, but I guess research in physics looks different depending on what area you are interested in. Whether you are conducting experiments with instrumentation, working with really big machines like the LHC, or whether you are doing theory like me which can require a mix of pen and paper calculations and computer-aided modelling, there’s so many different areas of maths and physics that you can explore.
E: Why do you think there is a current lack of women continuing careers into STEM areas like engineering, physics and mathematics?
J: There is a lot more support for girls who want to study STEM subjects now than there has ever been thanks to government initiatives and organisational strategies that are slowly bringing about change and empowering young women to pursue STEM careers. These initiatives and collective approaches have enabled more young women to enter the sector, however there is still a huge lack of female role models within the sector and I think this is because the problem of retention lies higher up the chain. Women are choosing STEM subjects at degree level and even working up to PhD and Post-doc level, but due to the lack of support and understanding offered to them by their departments and the pressure that comes with being a female in a largely male dominated sector, extremely capable and brilliant women are leaving research careers.
I’ve known and met women in STEM who feel constant pressure to continually perform at a high level, going above and beyond with no recognition to prove to male colleagues that they are “just as good as the guys”. There is also the issue that once a female becomes a “role model” she is expected to participate in public engagement and outreach events with very little or no readjustment of teaching responsibilities (since this type of “publicity” is not seen as real work by some and can be frowned upon by other researchers). This lack of support and undervaluing of staff who are promoting their field is damaging and upsetting, and I think that until this is resolved we can’t really move forward. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the case everywhere and I wouldn’t let that put you off a career in STEM, it’s just that there are still some institutions that still have a way to go.
E: Did you ever think that you would end up as a potential astronaut candidate?
J: Never in a million years! I had always dreamed of becoming an astronaut and going to space one day, but I never even knew how to go about pursuing a career within the space sector. Just being selected from over 3,000 applicants to take part in the BBC Two documentary in 2017 was a huge achievement for me, and something I am extremely proud of.
Taking part in the show and undergoing astronaut selection training made me more confident in myself and my abilities, and although I didn’t get to the final I became more self-aware and learned to value myself and my abilities. This confidence and drive to one day achieve my dream has helped me when applying for jobs and opened doors to so many opportunities. I still keep up the training alongside my job with the hope of one day going to space!
E: What is the best thing about the work you are currently doing?
J: As a project manager at the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres I get to do a whole range of things. Within a month of starting I was managing two national STEM programmes.
The first programme, Explore Your Universe, is in its third phase and helps young people, school children and families engage in and understand physics concepts such as the electromagnetic spectrum, elementary particle physics, and other topics linking to top research happening right here in the UK, funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Explore Your Universe specifically targets communities and people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those in rural settings who would not choose to engage with physics. It is a project that I am really proud to be part of and it has already engaged over 380,000 people across the UK.
The second programme I manage, called Destination Space, is in partnership with the UK Space Agency and has so far engaged over 800,000 people across the UK. As with Explore Your Universe, both programmes are delivered to the public by science centres and museums. The best part was that I got to do all the fun physics and space-related content research and development, creating a unique set of hands-on equipment, schools workshops and space activities that are now being delivered in science centres and museum across the UK. I also get to meet people from all over the country, even getting to go to places like CERN, and share the amazing science that I love with the public!
E:What advice would you give to young people who would like a career in science?
J: I would say go for it!
For me, every day is different and I get to learn new things all the time – there is never a dull moment. Even though I’m not formally studying science anymore I still get to do research, it’s just that this time I get to research the newest science across all areas of physics and space and come up with creative ways to share that science with the public in a way that everyone will find as exciting as I do. In terms of advice, I would say choose to study a topic that you are passionate about and keep on the lookout for opportunities within industry and other organisations to get some hands on experience during school holidays and summer breaks. Not only does this look great on your CV, it also gives you an insight in to the diverse roles and careers you can have as a physicist, engineer, mathematician or scientist.
E: What is one thing you wished people knew about Physics and Maths?
J: With maths, the one thing I wished people knew is that there are lots of different strands of maths – not just the maths you learn at school and might think is boring! A large number of people across the country seem to grow up with a really negative perception of maths, and that makes me so sad. Maths underlies everything in our universe. Everything that has happened and everything that is about to happen can be described by mathematical equations. Think about the orbits of the planets, the way in which supermarkets use mathematical barcodes to identify foods, the scheduling of tv programmes, trains and more. It was maths that enabled space flight, sending the first rockets into orbit. It was maths that enabled engineers and architects to build bridges, boats, trains and aeroplanes so that cities and countries across the world could connect, and it is even maths that controls our traffic lights. A lot of people also don’t realise that a lot (if not all) physics concepts are build upon the strength of tried and tested mathematics – where only the theories that can be proved mathematically end up sticking.
E: Finally, lets finish on a astronaut and space question- what was the highlight of the Astronauts process?
J: I loved every moment of the astronauts experience, but for me I think the best thing (besides the amazing friendships I built and the fact that I got to meet Cmdr Chris Hadfield!!) was driving the Mars rover Bridget. We were each given the challenge to drive Bridget in to a cave, simulating a mission on Mars, and see if we could find hidden clues drawn on to random rocks in UV paint. Bridget is a prototype for the first European Mars rover and it can see in both the visible spectrum and in Utraviolet (UV). We had 20 minutes to explore the cave, ensuring that we were back out again before the timer stopped. I really enjoyed this task as I got to use my problem solving, maths and IT skills – all the things I had developed during my PhD, and it paid off! I scored 100% on the task, finding every clue and getting out of the cave just in time. Tim Peake, our first British ESA astronaut, also got to do this test as part of his training (controlling Bridget from the International Space Station) and so I was really excited and proud that I had got to do something a real astronaut had also done!
Thank you so much to Jackie for this interview, I hope you find her as inspiring as me, and has made you rethink what you know about Phycis and Maths!! Make sure you follow Jackie on Twitter: @sciencesummedup and Instagram @drJackieBell
Links for the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres STEMM programs are below: