This month thousands of students will turn over their maths and physics papers in State examinations. Are we doing enough to encourage young minds, and particularly young women’s minds, to engage with the subjects and study them at third level and beyond? Theoretical physicist Prof Sinéad Ryan believes that more role models could particularly encourage girls to get involved.
Ryan, who is head of the School of Mathematics at Trinity College Dublin, has seen first-hand how few girls have traditionally chosen her career path.
“My own experience was that there were almost zero women when I did an undergraduate degree in physics in University College Cork, then going through my PhD in Edinburgh and post-doc stage I still had very few female colleagues. But I think it’s important for young students to see that women have done this and it’s not impossible to have a career in maths or physics.”
Her area of research is in high-energy particle physics, and how particles in atoms such as quarks and gluons stick together.
“These are the fundamental building blocks that the world is made of,” explains Ryan, but she notes that their behaviour can be a bit tricky to figure out with pen-and-paper calculations.
“As you pull these quarks apart the strength of the force between them increases so you require increasing amounts of energy to pull them apart. That means we need to do huge numerical calculations.”
To power the number crunching, Ryan and colleagues get time on some of the world’s largest supercomputers and run simulations to predict new and exotic particles and where they might be.
“We look at early universe physics, trying to see what happened just after the Big Bang,” she explains. “We look at what melted, what survived – it’s pretty cool to find out how all this stuff works.”
So how can we encourage more people to engage with the field? One aspect we need to tackle is the attitude that having poor maths skills is acceptable or even funny, according to Ryan.
“It’s a huge issue, this notion that it’s OK to be bad at maths,” she says. “On the radio or TV in interviews it’s considered acceptable and even hilarious to be bad at maths, and it’s giving this message about being not interested. I think it’s terrible. If you imagine you are a child, this is a message that is reinforced from a very early age, that it is fine to be bad at maths.”
Yet for those who do study maths, it can be a passport for many different types of career, she notes.
“If you come out of college with a maths degree you can do anything – finance companies, hedge funds, computer firms would snap you up. That’s because of the skills you learn, you can think through problems.”
Despite the challenges, Ryan is starting to see some encouraging signs – more students are taking honours-level maths in the Leaving Cert and turning up in the courses she teaches. Plus, she says she is hopeful about the new Project Maths curriculum in secondary school, which puts the focus on problem-solving.
Recent out-of-school initiatives have also caught her attention such as CoderDojo, where children and teens learn to write code, and she notes the emergence of girl-focused Coder events such as CoderDojo Divas and CoderDojoGirls. Perhaps a similar model could work for maths and physics too?
“There’s something to be said maybe for encouraging girls specifically to do these subjects in workshops and meetings where they can come along and do some maths and physics, see that it is all fine and meet some role models and find out what they do,” she says.
“I think we need to encourage girls to believe they can do maths and physics, there is no biological reason why they can’t and there should be no societal reason. It’s there for them to do; it might not always be easy, but it’s worth doing.”
Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s year-long campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths