Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Inspiring to speak out - two physicists who changed the world

2017 is to be the year advocacy. In January, millions took to the streets in the worldwide women’s marches. The new US president’s executive order which brought about a visa ban for citizens of a number of countries led to a number of airport protests. And now scientists are pushing back. Marches are being planned for 22nd April (Earth day). But, this move is not without its critics, some scientist would prefer for us all to keep our heads down in such times.

There’s no escaping that scientist are embedded into society (whether we like it or not) and I do rather feel for my climate science colleagues who are watching as we sleepwalk into future strife. This is of course is only one issue that relies heavily on scientific endeavours, and those who think science operates in a vacuum are deluding themselves.

In times such as these it can seem dangerous to put your head above the parapet, so I thought I would take a bit of a historical perspective and look for inspiration in those who have raised their voices. The two people I immediately think of, Kathleen Lonsdale and Ursula Franklin, are far from ‘rogue’ – Dame Prof Lonsdale was a fellow of the Royal Society and Prof Franklin held a prestigious chair at University of Toronto. But both did raise their voices against world and local events in their time.
‘Does the police come for one or do I just have to go to prison myself?’
In 1943 Kathleen Lonsdale, was convicted to a month in Holloway prison for her consciences objection to work supporting World War II activities. At this time she had already undertaken perhaps her most famous research, showing through the crystal structure of Hexamethylbenzene that the benzene molecule was flat, a controversial finding at the time. Understandably, she was reticent to go to prison, but to all accounts it turned out to be a pivotal event in her life.

Kathleen Lonsdale in 1968. Smithsonian Institution from United States

Senior colleagues petitioned for her to be allowed her scientific papers while interred, and she remarked it turned out to be a most productive time. She left prison writing to the governor with suggestions on improving the lighting and cleanliness, and followed up on her points by regularly returning (as a visitor). Her experiences led her to advocate for women prisoners in later years and it can’t be said that her researcher career suffered. In 1945, along with Marjory Stephenson, Kathleen Lonsdale was elected one of the first female fellows of the Royal Society.

Her seniority within the field of crystallography also meant that Kathleen Lonsdale became very well connected with international colleagues, and used those connections in her advocacy against atomic weapons and to break down cultural barriers. She strove to welcome Soviet and Chinese colleagues in a time where political distrust was at its highest, visiting Moscow in 1951 and the People’s Republic of China in 1955. One thing I find particularly inspiring was her determination that those scientists from developed countries had a duty to assist those in developing economies.

Ursula Franklin, who passed away last year, was a pioneer in archeometry and the first women to be appointed University Professor at University of Toronto. But it was her experiences of being interned in a Nazi labour camp as a young adult drove her passionately to passivism. Perhaps her biggest contribution was when she used her scientific expertise to into a strong passion for pacifism.

Ursula Franklin in 2006. Martin Franklin

It was as a member of the Voices of Women group, that she coordinated the collection of baby teeth in Canada in the 1960’s. The subsequent analysis that was undertaken of these teeth, showed that they contained radioactive Strontium 90, a result of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. This emotive piece of research was one of the key pieces of evidence that lead to the 1963 ban on atmospheric nuclear weapons testing.

Being a women researcher in the post-war period, she broke ground fighting to stay in her job after the birth of her children.
‘They had that bloody committee, and they went on deliberating. They didn’t appoint anybody, so I kept on working’
Even when retired Franklin kept on campaigning, joining a group of emeritus professors who filed a class action against the university of Toronto in 2001 citing that their female academic staff had been underpaid for years. They won.

In 2017, as we have to stand up and make our voices heard, I find the legacies of Prof Franklin and Lonsdale incredibly inspiring. Here are two physicists who use their scientific position and research to further a cause – I’d be interested in finding others who’ve inspired you.

The Conversation
Helen Maynard-Casely, Instrument Scientist, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

APPC-AIP conference – What did the Women in Physics group get up to?

The women in physics group doesn’t currently have our own meeting, so the biennial AIP congress is the main time we have to get together and discuss the state of women in physics in Australia. This year however we had extra opportunity, as the congress was held jointly with the Asian Pacific Physics Conference, giving us a fantastic opportunity to connect and network with our colleagues from the Asia Pacific region. The WIP group held a number of activities during the conference, which all occurred on the 6th December. This action-packed day was kicked off by the WIP breakfast event with Prof Nalini Joshi as our guest speaker, followed by a Plenary by Prof Youngah Park and then in the afternoon we hosted two conference sessions with invited contributions by Prof Evvy Kartini and Prof Kate Joliffe. 

Breakfast event 

This great event was sponsored by EQuS, and we were very fortunate to have Prof Nalini Joshi as our guest speaker. Prof Joshi has been an instigator of the Science in Australia Gender Equality (SAGE) pilot that has been tremendously successful with 40 institutions currently signed up and seeking a bronze award in the approach to equity. She spoke on the motivations and need for such a pilot and outlined how all in the room could get involved and assist their institutions in making SAGE a success. The breakfast event also allowed us to thank a number of members for their support of the WIP group over the years, and to form a new committee for 2017/18. 

Plenary by Youngah Park 

After breakfast was done, we moved to the large theatre to hear Prof Youngah Park’s plenary lecture on ‘W-Leadership, Key driver of Innovative Engines’. Prof Park is currently President of Korea Institute of S&T Evaluation and Planning and has a very interesting, and almost unique perspective, as not only is she a senior scientist but she has also served as a member of the National Assembly of Republic of Korea from 2008 to 2012. So her duel perspective on the role and strengths of women in the physics workforces was particular insightful. In particular she outlined the large opportunities that gender innovation can give to a country at large, through sustaining economic growth and opening new markets.


As part of the conference we held two sessions, the first focusing on the state of Women in Physics in the Asian region and the second looking to how we can move forward from where we are. In our first session we heard from invited speaker Prof Evvy Kartini, from Indonesia’s National Nuclear agency about Women in Physics within Indonesia, her personal perspective on this as well as lots of very positive stories about how things are improving. For the remainder of the session we heard contributions from Japan, Korea and China and it was fascinating to see how the state of things are so different in each country. Though, the sad fact remains that in all countries a number of barriers have been identified to women participating fully in the physics world. 

In the session looking about how we move forward, we heard from Prof Kate Joliffe about the strategic mentoring program that has been instituted at Sydney university's chemistry department. After finding a dearth of women at band E (professional level) and determining that there was a lack of people putting in for promotion to this level – the department put in place a mentoring scheme . Now successful, they are implementing the scheme to lower levels, a very interesting case example of positive action. Also in the session Jo Turner reported on statistics she had gathered both from the conference diversity survey and also presented the picture of equity in AIP awards. Both revealed quite a lot about the community, with a very definite case for action – we’ll write a separate post about this.

Thanks to Sarah Maddison for the photos of the WIP events.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Lecturing position opportunity

A lecturing position is  available in RMIT university which our young  academic members may wish to apply.  From more info see link here

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Extended Deadline - can you inspire the next generation of Women Physicists?

The deadline for applications to be the 2017 Women in Physics lecturer has been extended to the 14th December.  

The AIP women in physics lecture program will be entering its 20th year in 2017, showing the long-standing commitment of the AIP to inspiring future women physicists.  This year we’re seeking a lecturer from Australia (we seek international lecturers in alternate years), to undertake a national tour speaking to school kids and the public.  This year’s lecturer, Prof Catalina Cureanu, spoke to nearly 2000 school kids in her whirlwind three week tour!   

To apply, head to the AIP website.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Grants for Women's leadership development

See below for details of an opportunity from Women and Leadership Australia:

In 2016 Women & Leadership Australia is administering a national initiative to support the development of female leaders across the sciences.

The initiative is providing women in science with grants for leadership development. More specifically, grant applications are open for women at three levels. Please click on the preferred program link for details. The deadline for expressing your interest for this funding in your sector ends on December 15th.

Senior management and executive level women leaders can apply for $8,000 part-scholarships to undertake the Advanced Leadership Program

Mid-level female managers and  leaders can apply for $4,000 part-scholarships to undertake the Executive Ready Program

Aspiring talent and emerging women managers can apply for $3,000 part-scholarships to undertake the Accelerated Leadership Performance Program.

Expressions of Interest
Register your interest by simply completing an Expression of Interest form.

Should you wish to discuss the initiative in more detail please contact Ian Johnson at the office of the National Industry Scholarship Program, Women and Leadership Australia on (03) 9270 9016 or via

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Connecting Women in STEMM - a great meeting by all accounts

Not all of us were able to make Women in STEMM Australia's inaugural meeting this month, luckily though, Samantha Hood and Sarah Lau have written a fantastic report of the symposium - do have a read!

There are many problems the next generation faces, such as climate change, rapidly growing energy, water and food demands, and increasing demand for healthcare with ageing populations. To solve these problems we need all hands on deck - we should all do our best to work to ensure that everyone who wants to be working in STEMM* can become the problem solvers the future needs. Fundamentally, the lack of women working in STEMM fields is a failure to harness all of the available talent.

Recently in Melbourne, we attended the inaugural Connecting Women in STEMM Symposium, hosted at RMIT. The first meeting of its kind in Australia, the Symposium supported networking for women in STEMM - and sought to address the lack of women in leadership roles in these fields. The Symposium’s attendees included people from both industry and academia who are working towards gender equity.

We are currently a PhD students studying physics at the University of Queensland, working within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems (EQuS). EQuS sent 7 members of the Centre to attend the Symposium and we are delighted that EQuS is being refunded by the ARC - their commitment to diversity and professional development is invaluable in creating wonderful physicists that keep Australia competitive in quantum science.

One of the best things to come out of this Symposium was the emphasis on developing professional networks so that we can learn from one another to implement best-practices. Retention of women in STEMM is complicated, and often over simplified. It’s not just childcare, unconscious bias, or a lack of confidence that holds women back, but a combination of these factors and so many more. Improvements in gender equity in STEMM fields is slow going, and the slow pace can be frustrating. So when we can find working examples of successful policies and practices we should learn from them.

The focus of the Symposium’s first session was the the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program. SAGE seeks to address gender inequality on a University wide level, by setting realistic goals and requiring institutions to critically assess their commitment to improving equity. SAGE recognises institutions improving their gender diversity with awards - the original program in the UK (Athena Swan) saw medical bodies requiring a certain level of diversity as a funding requirement. On a School/Faculty level, it’s really hard to make changes to the workplace to accommodate more flexibility due to bureaucracy and limited funds. This is one reason why this program is so promising. It was even more encouraging to hear about how the pilot is being implemented and accepted around Australia - the awards are currently unrelated to funding outcomes so that the problem of underrepresentation of women can be acknowledged and addressed for the right reasons without becoming a box-ticking exercise.

Best practices in the workplace was the focus of the Symposium’s second session. Panelists included Associate Professor MarnieBlewitt from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) of Medical Research and Professor John Carroll from Monash’s Biomedical School, discussing family practices and unconscious bias training respectively. WEHI has introduced parenting rooms for their employees who might need to bring in a sick child to work, and plan to improve their maternal and paternal leave, as well as have on-site childcare**. Prof. Carroll discussed increasing awareness of unconscious bias in his School by hiring a team to survey the staff, many of whom agreed that as a result of the training, they were more aware of inequality in the workplace. On a smaller scale, implementing harassment policies and codes of conduct for workplace meetings was a suggestion from the crowd that can be easily implemented, and shows that the employer cares about equity and supports their staff.

Another great thing about the Symposium was getting to see all of the amazing work happening across Australia (and internationally) to encourage high school girls in STEMM. These include mentoring, and passionate and inspiring outreach programs such as RoboGals and TechGirls. While the solution to the lack of women in STEMM is unknown, a good starting place is addressing attitudes and improving engagement at an early age, which is exactly what these programs aim to do.

At the other end of the spectrum, we found it really helpful as young scientists to have role models to look up to who have managed to navigate the system. In particular, there was one session dedicated to sharing the career journeys of various women in science. ‘Inspiring’ was the word heard all around the room at the end of the session, not only because of their perseverance in the face of many obstacles, but also how they demonstrate the possibility and value of women in leadership in STEMM.

There’s never been a better time to be a woman working in physics. Raised awareness of the challenges unique to women in STEMM fields has inspired international efforts to ensure that women are reaching their career potential more than ever before. Meetings like this Symposium are a great way to accelerate progress in equality by sharing ideas, and I am looking forward to seeing many more sessions in the future!

Samantha Hood and Sarah Lau

*Science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine

** While the support of flexible work environments was wonderful for many, it’s important to remember that not everyone wants children. Emphasising the importance of role models and support for the LGBTIQ community would be a wonderful idea for future meetings.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Be curious! Introducing Prof Catalina Curceanu our 2016 Women in Physics Lecture

We’re getting very excited about the arrival of Prof Catalina Curceanu to deliver the 2016 Women in Physics lectures.  She’ll be kicking off the tour of the 8th August in Tasmania and talking in each state and territory during her stay.  Check out when she is speaking in your state on the AIP events calendar.  

To get to know our 2016 lecturer a bit more, we’ve asked her a few questions about her life and work:

Q:What inspired you to become a physicist?

A: I was born in Transilvania (Romania), close to the Dracula’s castle. During holidays I visited my grandmother, who lived in the Medias town, in a house far from the city centre, rather isolated and without electricity. This was exciting for me as a child – we had light from gas-lamps, from the Moon and from… the stars! I was amazed by the stars and by the immensity of space since I was a little child and used to wonder how they work; why they are so bright? How far are they and “what’s life” over there? Physics is the perfect instrument to answers these questions and to discover the amazing Universe. This is what inspired me as a child and still does as a physicist. Of course, meanwhile I learned many things, I got fascinated also by other inspiring items, but the wonder of the night-sky is still genuine and the thrill the same as when I was 7!

Q: Who would you say your Physics hero is?

A: I do not have a hero, but I admire many physicists. Newton, Einstein and Feynman are on the top of the list, together with Nicola Cabibbo, Adam Riess and John Bell.

Heroes are those physicists who are facing extremely difficult conditions and even threats, in many countries, to do their work ad to contribute to the understanding of Nature, using science.

Q: What do you think has been the most exciting discovery of the last 10 years?

A: The detection of the gravitational waves emitted by collapsing black holes. This is the beginning of a new era: the gravitational waves astronomy and, since I was inspired by stars, I see it as a new opportunity to uncover the mysteries of the Universe. Why not, even to get an insight into the fascinating Black Holes. Moreover, the technology developed to measure these gravitational waves is amazing: LIGO measured stretches and squeezes of its arms by less than a thousandth the width of a proton! This is for me extremely exciting also because I am leading a team of scientists in the framework of the SIDDHARTA-2 collaboration aiming to study at the DAΦNE collider in Frascati processes involving the “strange” quark which might help understanding the inner structure (the heart) of neutron stars. Since binaries of neutron stars are emitting gravitational waves, it is expected they will be soon measured by gravitational antennae. So one can bridge the particle world with the gravity and learn more in both fields! The future will certainly be exciting.

Q: In your research you take on the 'big challenges' in physics - how do you approach such large and difficult questions?

A: Big challenges in physics should not scare us! I am working both in the field of particle and nuclear physics (see the question before and the research to understand the neutron stars) and in quantum mechanics – foundational issues, investigating fascinating physics items. In this last case I am leading a group of researchers crazy enough to try to discover “impossible atoms” (violating the Pauli Exclusion Principle) and modifications of the “standard quantum mechanics” (which has to do with the famous Schrodinger’s cat). In order to do this I proposed projects in various frameworks and won two important awards, one from the John Templeton Foundation and the other from the Foundational Question Institute, allowing to me and my team to pursue the research. Big challenges and questions are all around us – and even inside us, one only needs to carefully look and be curious. In the future I would love to be able to extend the items which I investigate to the “matter with life, matter with consciousness”.

Q: One question you ask in your lectures is 'Quo Vadis the Universe' - where do you think the Universe is going?

A: I do not know – that’s the reason for which I need the “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”. Fantastic book! Being serious, the Universe is expanding, with an accelerated expansion, the reason of which being assigned to the “dark energy”. We need to understand what dark sectors (matter and energy) in the Universe are made of to be able to dare answering the question. This might happen in the coming 10 years! But we also need to better understand the intimate structure of space and time, which has also to do with the quantum gravity (if any).

Q: Based on your experiences do you have any advice for aspiring young scientists?

A: Be curious! Explore the world and don’t be ashamed or shy to ask questions – there are no stupid questions (while stupid answers might sometimes happen). Be yourself and never give up. When failures happen (and they do happen), learn the lesson and go on. Follow your dreams, only they can bring you far. And, of course, study!

I would like to close with a poetry written by Feynman (The Value of Science, 1955) :
There are the rushing waves
 mountains of molecules
 each stupidly minding its own business
 trillions apart
 yet forming white surf in unison

Ages on ages
 before any eyes could see
 year after year
 thunderously pounding the shore as now.
 For whom, for what?
 On a dead planet
 with no life to entertain.

Never at rest
 tortured by energy
 wasted prodigiously by the Sun
 poured into space.
 A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea
 all molecules repeat
 the patterns of one another
 till complex new ones are formed.
 They make others like themselves
 and a new dance starts.
 Growing in size and complexity
 living things
 masses of atoms
 DNA, protein
 dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle
 onto dry land
 here it is
 atoms with consciousness;
 matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,
 wonders at wondering: I
 a universe of atoms
 an atom in the Universe.