Physicist Jessica Wade on Gender Imbalance in Sciences
Jessica Wade is a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Centre for Plastic Electronics at the Imperial College London. She is also on the young women’s board of Wise, a UK-based organisation which enables people in business, industry and education to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
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Her parents are both doctors, so Wade grew up surrounded by people who were curious about the world around them. Her folks didn’t mind what she studied at school or university, as long as she was happy. So the physicist grew up loving cooking and art. Before studying physics, she went to art school (Chelsea School of Art & Design) where she completed a foundation course in art. She lived in Florence and studied History of Art and Italian, before returning to London to study undergraduate physics at Imperial.
“When I realised physics is responsible for so much of the technological innovation in medical imaging and health care, I was hooked: the same techniques we learnt about in physics are saving lives every second.”
Elaborating on her love for science and Physics, in particular, she says, “Physics is the most elegant way I have found to interpret the world, using equations and mathematical relationships to describe the very big (solar system) and the very small (nanoparticles). I loved chemistry too, the rules and order of hydrocarbon interactions that look so random and chaotic in a test tube. I had incredible teachers at school who provided context for what we were learning outside of the curriculum. My dad was always coming home talking about MRI scans, but could never tell me much about how they worked. When I realised physics is responsible for so much of the technological innovation in medical imaging and health care, I was hooked: the same techniques we learnt about in physics are saving lives every second. The Nobel prize for medicine in 2003 went to an English physicist for the invention of MRI. The more interdisciplinary science becomes; the more fascinating I find it. Discoveries are rarely made by lone ‘genius’ individuals, but the efforts of teams and international collaborations. It constantly amazes me.”
More than the society ever imposing on her that Science is not a woman’s domain, Wade has found that the most difficult person to convince was herself. Imposter Syndrome – the feeling that you aren’t as good as the people around you and don’t ‘deserve’ to work or study where you are, cripples many young scientists with insecurity and anxiety.
Science will not get anywhere unless we all work together!
She adds, “I am one of those. My university (Imperial College London), first supervisor (Prof Ji-Seon Kim) and true mentor (Sebastian Wood) have always been incredibly supportive of me – letting me move at whatever speed I like and always guiding the way. Where I have seen cases of people being discriminated against or being ignored, I have tried to stand-up for and defend the ‘victim’. Science will not get anywhere unless we all work together!”
Gender Parity in Sciences
In simple words, Wade works with a team which makes cheap, ultra-thin, roll-up, lightweight electronics with tunable functionalities dependent on the chemistry of the organic molecules. She feels that it is important to inspire all young people into careers in physics and engineering because there is a shortage of people working in these areas in the UK. The focus is primarily directed at girls as they are underrepresented, so just increasing the numbers of women in these areas would solve the country’s skills gap overnight.
She elucidates, “In its current guise, education isn’t fair: the most facilitating A-levels and highest paying careers have the most terrible gender balance. For students without many opportunities to learn about science or visit museums/ science centres, mentorship and inspiration is priceless. I genuinely believe it is through the stories and experiences of others that we develop confidence and resilience in ourselves.”
And no, we are not even close to having any kind of gender parity in the field of science, even though it has become increasingly fashionable to talk about gender balance, without efforts to evaluate or rethink engagement activities, she informs that we are unlikely to permanently increase the numbers of girls in physics and engineering. Wade feels that the science community needs to work harder to identify the needs of undergraduate women so that they feel confident enough to apply for postgraduate positions.
“We need to look after the women who are already on their way so that when the going gets tough, they know where to turn to for advice and feel comfortable in whatever environment they work in.”
“We need to look after the women who are already on their way so that when the going gets tough, they know where to turn to for advice and feel comfortable in whatever environment they work in. If we can recruit more PhD graduates to post doc positions and encouraging them to apply for fellowships, lecturer and reader jobs, we’ll make significant headway. Recruitment and promotion panels need to overcome their own unconscious biases before interviewing for senior positions. Frameworks need to develop to help women returning from maternity leave. I’m particularly impressed by Imperial’s support for parents; from onsite nurseries at every campus to childcare vouchers and flexible working,” she says.
How Doodling Inspires Her Imagination
Wade is not just a stellar scientist, but she is also great at doodling. It all started with her wanting to find new ways to communicate what she was learning. She states a 2006 study – half of all academic papers are only read by their authors and the journal editors – and 90 % are never cited at all. She for one learns by studying and recalling images.
“I have always doodled in the margins of notebooks, finding new ways to memorise complicated equations by playing with fonts and simple graphics. There is something incredibly rewarding about illustrating lectures. It helps to consolidate what you have heard, which is especially important when you are exploring a new discipline. It can personalise your interpretation before you share it with the wider world: quotations or ideas you found particularly important, and how they inspired your imagination.
Most importantly, they look awesome – for Christmas this year I gave my dad a collection of all the lectures I have attended this term. Discoveries require imagination: we would not have detected gravitational waves, discovered the Higgs Boson or re-designed the hair dryer without equal parts creative insight and theoretical understanding.”The PhD researcher says that she’d love to be a lecturer at a university, finding new ways to teach and support undergraduates and trying to manage my own research in plastic electronics. She says,
“My dream job would be an academic position at Imperial- but the staff there are geniuses and it is going to be tough. No matter where I am, I’ll keep doodling, and keep supporting underrepresented groups.”
The PhD researcher says that she’d love to be a lecturer at a university, finding new ways to teach and support undergraduates and trying to manage her own research in plastic electronics.