#InternationalDayofWomenandGirlsinScience

11 February is the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science (which has an inexplicably long official hashtag), so I did a bit of tweeting to mark the day – you can see the results of my efforts in this Twitter Moment: https://twitter.com/i/moments/962779916814008320

Amongst the women featured in the thread were three NPL scientists that I interviewed back in 2016. This was part of a freelance project for the lab, which aimed to showcase some of the remarkable women who work there. However, only short excerpts from those interviews made it onto the official NPL page, so I thought I’d share all three here (with links to the official NPL profiles – all images courtesy of NPL). Please note that these interviews have not been updated since 2016, so the details of Ling, Louise and Helen’s current work may be a little bit out of date!

Professor Helen Margolis – Fellow, Optical Frequency Standards and Metrology: http://www.npl.co.uk/people/women-in-science-engineering-technology/helen-margolis

As a child were you interested in science? Was it encouraged?
I liked practical toys, like Lego. I also enjoyed just making things, not necessarily scientific, but I was developing skills that are useful to me now in the lab. My parents were both maths teachers – so I branched out a little bit – and when I showed an interest in scientific stuff, they really encouraged me.

How did you end up at NPL?
I studied physics at Oxford for my undergraduate degree and was particularly interested in atomic physics. I was offered a DPhil position there too, and my research attempted to test the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED) by spectroscopy of highly-charged ions. I didn’t actually get as far as that, but I did some interesting work along the way! I stayed on for a post-doc, and that’s when I started to build links with NPL – we were both part of a collaborative project that also involved a research group in Japan. When my position in Oxford came to an end, there were vacancies in the Time and Frequency group here, so I applied and joined in 1998.

Tell me about your work
Across the wider group, we are developing a new generation of high accuracy optical atomic clocks based on laser-cooled trapped ions and atoms. The part of the work I’m responsible for are the systems we use to measure optical frequencies, known as femtosecond combs. The common thread to my work is the challenges we need to tackle before we can redefine the second.

One of the things I’m doing is coordinating a European project called International Timescales with Optical Clocks. As part of this, in 2015, we ran a major clock comparison campaign via satellite that included optical clocks in four European labs. The second big experiment of this project aims to show that we can use optical clocks to measure differences in gravity potential (thanks to general relativity). This involves comparing a clock inside a mountain in France with one in Turin. The height difference between the clocks is about 1 km, so that should result in minute differences in the frequency of the clock. We’re trying to measure this right now, and to show what the levels of accuracy achievable with optical clocks can actually do for you.

What do you enjoy about being here?
The first thing I like is the feeling of achieving something that’s difficult. Also, I like that what I do every day is, to a very large extent, determined by me and my scientific colleagues. We are the subject experts, so that comes with a level of autonomy. One thing I particularly like about the frequency comb work is that they essentially link everything together within the group. I get involved with a very broad spectrum of the group’s activities – I’m not focused on making one specific optical clock better, I’m comparing various clocks, and helping everyone to join the dots.

Any top tips or advice to girls who think that science isn’t for them? Or for girls who want to work in science?
Science is not for everybody, but don’t be put off doing it by other people’s impressions of it. Something I’ve learned is that you don’t always achieve what you set out to do, but if you’re asking the right questions, you’ll still do valuable work. So, if you’re interested in science, I’d say that the way to succeed is to set yourself ambitious goals that motivate you. But don’t get hung up on achieving just the big goals, enjoy and learn from the smaller steps you take along the way.

Are things getting easier for Women in STEM?
As I’ve progressed to more senior roles, I’ve become more aware of the difficulties facing people. I think it very much depends on what research area you’re in and what level you’re at. A lot of more junior women don’t really feel themselves in the minority, which is positive. Later on, though, you may be the only woman in the room! NPL are really making an effort to improve the situation. We signed up to Project Juno from the Institute of Physics, which aims to address the issue of under-representation of women in physics and to demonstrate improvements in the working culture for all staff. At the top level, the management are very committed to it, but we need to make sure this commitment filters through the whole organisation.

I think it’s important for young women to see other women out there, doing science and know that it’s a possibility for them. But it shouldn’t be all down to the women to do this – we need to get men involved too, to show that science is something that women can do successfully.

Professor Ling Hao – Principal Research Scientist: http://www.npl.co.uk/people/women-in-science-engineering-technology/ling-hao

As a child were you interested in science? Was it encouraged?
Yes, science but not physics. My family includes lots of medical doctors like my mum. So I wanted to be a famous doctor or surgeon in China. In high school, I had a very good physics teacher, and I started coming top in in the subject. My teacher gave me lots of extra physics reading… it became my favourite topic, the one I really loved, but for family reasons I still wanted to be a doctor.

At that time, less than 1% of people could go to university. I worked very hard, so when I got my exam results came, they were so high I could choose any university I wanted. But the very best medical school only offered places to the top student in each of the 24 provinces. I came second, so I couldn’t go. I spoke to my parents and said that in my heart I wanted to do science, so they agreed. I was awarded the top place in physics at Beijing Normal University.

How did you end up at NPL?
During my BSc I took another set of exams to get onto the MSc (only three people got it in my year). My supervisor has worked in Europe and America and that opened a door for me to the West. I also started to theoretical physics in the MSc, and I found it very interesting. I got two papers published in the Journal of Physics, and was offered a position in America to do my PhD.

But China was not like it is now – I was not allowed to leave. I had to stay working in the country as a lecturer. Later my husband was offered a job at the University of York, and I was allowed to follow him. I did my PhD at the University of Strathclyde, and joined NPL after that, almost 20 years ago.

Tell me about your work
At NPL, scientists don’t have to focus on just one small area. I mainly work on superconductivity – especially NanoSQUID (Nanoscale superconducting quantum interference devices) for single particle detection, but I’m also looking at microwaves, as well as carbon nanotubes and graphene. I love to explore new areas.
Graphene is very interesting to industry, but it is difficult to measure because it’s only 1 atom thick. We’ve done lots of modelling on it, and we’re now using microwaves to measure the sheet resistance of graphene. We can do it very quickly, and because we don’t touch it, we don’t damage it. This will be a very important measurement for developing flexible devices.

Another thing we’re looking at is proton therapy for cancer. It causes very little damage to surrounding tissues, so it is really good for patients. But there aren’t many sensors that can measure how much energy is delivered to the cell each time. My superconducting device can do this, and we have funding now to develop it. This work lets me indirectly work on improving the treatment of patients, so I’m very happy.

Any top tips or advice to girls who think that science isn’t for them?
Maybe there are some advantages to be a woman in science! Normally we are quite good at multitasking and communicating – both very important skills for collaborating, which you always need to do in science. Of my PhD students, half are women. Gender is not a factor in the quality of their research, but they definitely have a different, complementary approach to their work… this is why it is essential to have both in any research group!

If you have that hunger to learn new things, then science is a good option for you. Physics and engineering teach you to think in a particular way. You benefit a lot from the training you get – you carry it with you, no matter what you choose to do in your career. For me, good scientists are artists in their mind. Instead of colours to draw things, you use equations and experiments – science is very creative.

Are things getting easier / have things changed for Women in STEM?
Sometimes, when you are at a conference you’ll find some men think that you’re ‘just’ a woman… until you talk about what you do and it’s clear that you know your stuff! But in general, lots has changed in the 20 years that I’ve been here. There weren’t so many women here when I joined, so the environment is much better now. And NPL in particular is a flexible place to work, which is good if you want to have children – lets you balance your research with your home life. It is still hard when you take a break from research to have a family – you definitely need to catch up. Science doesn’t wait, and that will always be a hurdle.

Louise Wright – Mathematics, Modelling & Simulation: http://www.npl.co.uk/people/women-in-science-engineering-technology/louise-wright

As a child were you interested in science? Was it encouraged?
Yes, definitely. Both of my parents had a science background – they met at university when they were training in chemistry. They both hugely encouraged me in science and maths, and in the exploration of knowledge in general. I didn’t get easy answers, I was always told to go and investigate it myself. It was teaching me research skills! I was interested in Lego and Meccano and had a microscope and a nifty optics kit that you couldn’t set anything on fire with (unfortunately).
There’s never really been anything that made me think “ooh girls don’t do that”. I went to a mixed school, but I can’t ever recall feeling discouraged. I can recall feeling surprised that there were only three or four other women in my A-level class, but I never felt that I was wrong.

How did you end up at NPL?
I did A-levels in maths, physics, chemistry, further maths, and general studies at a further education college rather than a 6th form. This made a huge difference for me – it taught me to work on my own, so it was a great route into university. I studied maths at Cambridge, and in the summer holidays I did mathematical modelling at the company my dad worked for. That experience made me realise that that’s what I wanted to do with maths – to apply it to real-world systems. I went to Oxford for my masters and could have gone on to go a PhD, but I was reluctant to study a single topic for 3 or 4 years – I’m more of a multi-tasker.
I got a job at the Transport Research Laboratory, and then spent 3 years modelling processes for a firm that made roof tiles. I left because I was getting further from the maths, so I applied to NPL. It was a great fit for what I’m good at and what I was interested in – the ideal job for a (generalist) mathematician like me.

Tell me about your work
I’m lucky because I get involved in a huge range of things – it’s not just fluid dynamics, or solid mechanics, it’s also electromagnetism and multiphysics, and at all scales. One of the things I’m looking at now is a piezoelectric transistor memory device, which is important for increasingly small electronics. I’m also working on modelling a nanoparticle sizing system.

What do you enjoy about being here?
I didn’t have a grand vision of what being a scientist actually involved, but I’m very happy with how my career’s going. I’m good at science, and it has a use too. I get to work on a constant flux of new, interesting problems. I get to determine my own research focus and get funding for it, but I also get to collaborate with excellent people with really interesting problems… I am never bored. At heart, I am a problem solver and as a mathematician, I have the benefit of being able to do my science in my head while I’m supposedly listening to other people!

Any top tips or advice to girls who think that science isn’t for them?
If you love science but you feel like you shouldn’t, you are not in the wrong – society is! Don’t just rule yourself out of it. Also, if you’re in a classroom, the chances are no-one knows more than you do. Everybody else is just keeping their mouths shut just like you are. If you don’t understand something, ask a question. You are not making yourself look stupid, but if you don’t ask, you are certain to remain ignorant.

Are things getting easier / have things changed for Women in STEM?
That’s a difficult question. At NPL, the number of women within our group has rocketed, and in general, there are more women here now – that needs to carry on. I think our confidence is improving, we are realising that we are supposed to be in places like this, that it’s not a closed world to us, and that we don’t have to put up with the rubbish. I still go to conferences where I’ll walk into a room and it’s all middle-aged men in suits, but on the other hand, the interactions I’ve had with Oxford (at the Centre for Doctoral Training) shows that the gender balance is about 50:50.