Los Alamos-raised physicist says, ‘Let’s talk about science’

2 May 2014

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield, physicist at Trinity College Dublin

Dr Jessamyn Fairfield grew up steeped in science, and today she’s finding new ways to increase the visibility of women in science. Claire O’Connell found out more.

You could say there was a high probability that Dr Jessamyn Fairfield was going to be a scientist. Her mother is a mathematician, her father is a biochemist, and she grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the big employer in town is the National Laboratory.

So it’s hardly a surprise that today Fairfield, a physicist at Trinity College Dublin, is passionate about her work on nanowire networks and their ability to ‘remember’ information. And she’s not keeping it to herself: from DART of Physics to Soapbox Science, working with a comedy improv group and taking part in the upcoming Pint of Science, Fairfield is spreading the word.

Growing up with science

Looking back, Fairfield describes it as “a little strange” to grow up in the scientifically steeped environment of Los Alamos. Its National Lab goes down in history as being ‘site Y’ for the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, which led to the development of the atomic bomb. Today, the lab describes its mission as being ‘to solve national security challenges through scientific excellence’.

“My parents, my friends’ parents, they were scientists and engineers – so you grow up with a great impression of how important science is and you see there are lots of different kinds of scientists, different jobs, that scientists can be men or women, young or old,” she says. “And I didn’t appreciate that perspective until I moved away – if your view of science is informed entirely by what is in media and the movies, you can get this skewed old-white-man perspective of science which isn’t really true.”

Destination physics and chemistry

Fairfield left Los Alamos for the University of California, Berkeley, to study physics and applied maths. Then she had her heart set on doing a PhD, but she initially hit a speed bump when she applied to grad schools and didn’t gain entry the first time around.

“I was really sad about that, and I questioned whether this was for me,” she says. “But I really wanted it, I wanted to be a physicist, and I took advice from people, I re-sat tests and I re-applied the next year and I got accepted into several schools. I think it shows that if you really want something, keep going.”

Fairfield earned her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, where she discovered how the environment affects the electrical and light-absorbing properties of semiconducting nanocrystals. “They are really interesting for solar cells, LEDs and other optical devices,” she explains.

From there, she moved to Trinity’s School of Chemistry and CRANN, where she has an Irish Research Council EMPOWER Fellowship to study how networks of randomly oriented nanowires conduct electricity and build up a ‘memory’.

“The junctions between these nanowires can act as switches that can develop their electrical connections, much like our brains do,” she says. “So you end up with electronic material that can learn things, the connections strengthen and grow. There are lots of interesting potential applications here: one being that you could imagine it being used for artificial skin. If a part of the networks is damaged the nano material could ‘learn’ to grow around it.”

Let’s talk about science

When she started her post-doctoral work at Trinity, Fairfield and friend Erin Hardee in Scotland struck up a blog titled Let’s Talk About Science. In turn that involved Fairfield in the recent DART of Physics initiative to put short bursts of science on the Dublin DART to engage commuters and inspired her to make a short film about the weirdness of quantum dimensions.

Fairfield has also dived into the world of improvised comedy and is a member of Not the Eyes, who performed last March as part of the Fail Better exhibition in Dublin’s Science Gallery.

Fairfield has found that improv helps her out of ‘paralysis by analysis’. “Having done a lot of analytical work where you are constantly refining and figuring out what you want to get across, it is freeing to be doing something where you have to embrace whatever comes out of your mouth,” she says.

Flexing her improv muscles on stage has now encouraged Fairfield to step forward for initiatives, such as Soapbox Science in Dublin last weekend, where women scientists stood on soapboxes in Trinity College’s front square and regaled passersby with stories about research. And, later this month, Fairfield will be speaking about nanomaterials and the quantum world at Pint of Science, which will host talks in the setting of the pub.

Visible women in science

Part of Fairfield’s motivation to stand up and talk about her work is to increase the visibility of women in science, she explains.

“It’s so important for women and girls to see there are women in science, and that hard science isn’t incompatible with being a woman,” she says. “And I like science communication that takes science off the pedestal, that shows people it’s a job, it’s like other jobs and it’s one way of looking at the world. It’s not the only way, but it’s a really cool way.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland. You can nominate inspiring women in the fields of STEM via email to womeninvent@siliconrepublic.com or on Twitter to @siliconrepublic.

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