How to solve the diversity problem in physics

8 Jun 2018

Image: Dr Jess Wade

Teachers, language, visibility and different perspectives are key to building more diversity in physics, according to Dr Jess Wade. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

Physics has a diversity problem, but award-winning scientist Dr Jess Wade is on the case.

The physicist, who is researching organic LEDs for more efficient screen displays, believes that supporting physics teachers, working with parents and increasing the visibility of the scientists she works with are key steps to making physics a more creative and diverse space.

“I work in the Experimental Solid State Group at Imperial College London and, as the name would suggest, we do a lot of experiments – I love that,” said Wade.

‘You can’t expect to solve a problem if you have a bunch of people who all went to the same school, think the same way and have been working on the same problem for 15 years’

“But, within the area, there are very few women, and that annoys me. It is such an exciting and interesting area of work. No two days are the same; no experimental result isn’t fascinating. So, apart from my research, the rest of my time is spent trying to get more women into science, to celebrate the ones that are already there and to try and change the culture of research so we value people from diverse backgrounds.”

jess wade wearing T-shirt that says girls can do anything

Image: Dr Jess Wade

Teachers are key

Teachers are crucial to encouraging more girls to study physics in school, according to Wade. “Physics and maths are subjects where we have a massive shortage of specialist teachers,” she said. “We need to be doing more to support the wonderful teachers we have, not changing the national curriculum whenever someone in Westminster changes their mind.”

She has been inspired by, and works with, the Stimulating Physics Network run by the Institute of Physics (IOP) in the UK. The IOP has been studying the participation of girls in physics for almost 20 years, and its Improving Gender Balance Project is going from strength to strength.

“[That campaign] has had an incredible impact. In the schools they worked with, they tripled the number of girls choosing A-level physics,” explained Wade.

“Unlike traditional engagement activities, the IOP found you couldn’t just work with girls or the science departments. Instead, you have to work with the whole school, and make sure that everyone from technicians to teachers and senior leadership are aware of the impacts sexist stereotypes have on young people. Around the country, schools are recognising they need to do this.”

‘As universities become more corporate and overwhelm local mental health services with tens of thousands of students, they should commit to their own psychological support rather than just building fancy new laboratories’

Mind your language

Communication also needs a re-evaluation in science more generally, she noted, and language can become an issue for students and researchers, too, when they travel to work in what is essentially an international subject.

“It can be a huge barrier for mental health,” said Wade.

“In scientific research, many of the students and researchers travel a long way for temporary contracts. They are torn away from their normal support systems, often isolated and under immense pressure. I am worried that they may not have the language, confidence or time to access the supports they need. I am very aware that we can’t keep shouting about the need for more diversity within the scientific community without trying to improve the community we’re in. As universities become more corporate and overwhelm local mental health services with tens of thousands of students, they should commit to their own psychological support rather than just building fancy new laboratories.”

A summer renaissance

Wade found herself learning a new language and culture in her own path to science, which started with a foundation course in art and a summer in Florence.

jess wade holding imaginary object in her hands with an amazed facial expression

Image: Dr Jess Wade

“Everyone was doing off to do gap years and find themselves in Thailand and I was always going to study science but I went to art school for that year,” she said. “Then, I went to live in Florence for that summer to learn about the history of art. It was a wonderful experience to explore churches and learn Italian. It embedded in me the idea that back in the Renaissance people could, and would, do everything. Renaissance workshops were full of artists and scientists, kind of like the current ‘maker movement’ but over 500 years ago.”

When Wade returned to England to study physics at Imperial College London, she found it hard to settle in at first. “I found the first few months quite challenging. The other people on my course seemed to be understanding everything; I just kept my head down in the equations,” she recalled.

“But, as I moved through the course, I looked around and realised there were not many women there. And that didn’t make sense to me, because we were learning about the coolest things in the universe – and the hottest – and we were being taught by the best researchers in the world. After everything physics and Imperial have done for me, I figured I could try and help change that.”

Visibility counts

That question led Wade to get involved with numerous initiatives to increase diversity and interest in science. While doing her PhD at Imperial College London, Wade established the Women in Physics community and helped to write the Department of Physics’ Athena Swan application.

She has worked with the IOP and the US State Department, she has engaged extensively with schools, and she has organised events at Imperial College London for school students. She is also intensely active in increasing the entries for early-career female scientists and role models on Wikipedia, and has recently been made a trusted editor.

Wade’s active approach to boosting diversity and interest in science has earned her many accolades along the way, including the IOP’s Jocelyn Bell Burnell Award, the IOM3’s Robert Perrin Award and a Julia Higgins Award for her outreach work with schools and support of women in physics.

“I mean, woah! Dame Julia Higgins and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell,” said Wade. “Obviously, I took my mum to both award ceremonies.”

Perspective boosts

In her research on ‘plastic electronics’, Wade is looking to develop new materials for low-cost, ultra-thin and efficient displays. “We use carbon-based (organic) materials, where the colour of each pixel comes from chemistry rather than filters. We can control the way the molecules are arranged to tune their electronic properties, whether that is making them more efficient or playing with the polarisation of light they emit,” she explained.

“Because organic materials are biocompatible, it doesn’t have to stop at television displays. Great researchers like Róisín Owens are using organics to interface with cells, which allows her to monitor cell health in vivo and develop sensors that can be implanted into the human brain to detect epilepsy.”

Art still plays a big part in Wade’s life, whether it’s illustrating the family Christmas card, innovating with SciArt projects or, quite simply, taking new approaches to problem-solving in science, adding to the diversity of thought.

“The best groups I have worked are the most interdisciplinary, international and diverse,” she said. “You can’t expect to solve a problem if you have a bunch of people who all went to the same school, think the same way and have been working on the same problem for 15 years.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication