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 DA╬ŽNE 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.

Opportunities and News June 2016

Volunteering Opportunity in Perth

On behalf of Evelyn Chuk, President of The Innovators' Tea Party:

We are looking for some engaging women working in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) fields to volunteer at our event The Innovators’ Tea Party on Saturday September 3rd in Perth. This free event aims to inspire high school aged girls to consider a career in STEM by allowing them to interact with a diverse range of mentors.

The event will be run like ‘speed-dating’ where mentors will have 5 minutes to engage with each student (or pair of students) before moving on to the next. Mentors are expected to talk about specific projects they have worked on, what they studied at university, challenges and successes they have faced in their industry and their career progression so far. The day will be split into four 1.5 hour sessions, and volunteering mentors can opt to attend for the morning, the afternoon or the whole day.

This is a wonderful one-off volunteering opportunity for any woman in STEM who is interested in giving back to the community. It is also a good way to network with others working in STEM industries and meet some of the young women who we will one day be working with! Coffee, tea and sweet snacks are provided throughout the day.

If you are interested in getting involved, please find out more at our website https://innovatorsteaparty.wordpress.com/volunteer/ 

News - SAGE symposium

Readers may be interested to know that on Friday 24th June Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) held a symposium at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney.  The speaker list was nothing short of stellar, and it is definitely worth catching up on proceedings via the #SAGEpilot hashtag.  

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

What's the 'Gold standard' for conference diversity approach

There's much debate currently on how to increase representation of minority groups at scientific conferences.  It's essential that the scientific community gets this right, as conferences are where many careers are made and by dis-advantaging one section of our community we are making it poorer.

So what's the best approach?  Is there a current gold standard that conferences can aspire to in order to maximise their representation of the diverse community that drives them?  This post is inspired by Jenny Martin's PLOS paper, and the hope has been to interpret it into actionable items for organisation committees.

Have a conference policy - A stated commitment by the conference organising committee to achieving representation of the whole community published before registrations open.  This should be disseminated and upheld by all involved in organising sessions and inviting speakers.

Have that policy underpinned by a code of conduct - Often now covered by the code of conduct of a sponsorship organisation, but good to have explicitly stated - what is the expectation on behavior within the conference, where can abuses of this be reported.

Collect and report the data - This is key to tracking and understanding issues in the community and to see if you are meeting your policy goals.  A continued commitment to this, supported by sponsor organisation, will enable long-term trends and improvements to be monitored.  Report gender statistics on Kat Holt's site gathering statistics for all Australian Conferences.  

Have a statement on accessibility - How accessible is your conference and venue to those with disabilities? Are there any special considerations that need to be made for a sector of your community?  Have you given them a contact to flag if they require additional assistance.

Provide childcare bursaries and funding for accessibility needs -  Budget for grants to increase participation from parents of young children and for any needs flagged by those requiring special assistance in attending the conference.

Provide networking session for minority groups - Where identified, provide networking session for those advocating for a particular minority representation.

Provide time in conference schedule for discussion of diversity issues - Diversity representation is a concern of all of the community and time in the main schedule should be made for discussion of these issues, update on progress and approach.  This may be in the form of a workshop session, or if appropriate through abstract submissions.

So would covering all these represent a 'gold standard' in a conference's approach to diversity and inclusion?  Or are their other things that could be included, please do add these to the comments below.  Are there any extra action items, for instance, that perhaps are only applicable to the physics community?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Make a list!

I'm getting a bit tired of all-male or male-dominated speaker lists.  My own field (neutron scattering/high-pressure) has a good number of high-profile of women and a growing number further down the ranks and yet we are still under represented in the conferences I attend.  The same can often be said about overall diversity too.

I'm not going to spend this (short) post talking about why having a diversity policy for your conference/workshop/school is important (Jenny Martin has written an excellent post about this) but I want to urge you all to take positive action:

  1. Make a list of women speakers in your field.  
  2. Keep it, and add to it.
I guarantee it will be useful, to yourself - to your colleagues - or even to pass it on to a conference organiser that may have been remiss in not knowing about them.  A number of communities are setting up webpages for such lists - for instance the 'Women under High-Pressure'


Posted by Helen Maynard-Casely - Chair of the Women in Physics group

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Awards season in upon us!

The following AIP medals and awards are now open for nomination:

·         The Harrie Massey Medal for contributions to physics made either by an Australian physicist or by a physicist working in Australia
·         The Alan Walsh Medal for significant contributions to industry by a practising physicist in Australia
·         The Walter Boas Medal for excellence in physics research in Australia (in the past five years)
·         The Education Medal, which recognises significant contributions to university physics education
·         The Bragg Gold Medal, which recognises the student with the most outstanding PhD thesis in physics
·         The award for Outstanding Service to Physics for exceptional contribution to the furtherance of physics as a discipline
·         And the  inaugural early-career research award, the Ruby Payne-Scott Medal, which recognises outstanding contributions made by a physicist who is just beginning their career.

More information aip.org.au. Nominations close 1 June (Bragg Gold medal 1 July).

Thursday, 28 January 2016

New year, new challenges for Women in Physics

Gender issues are set to take centre stage in 2016, already this January we have seen strides taken to address sexual harassment within the Astronomy community. It is my hope that what has happened (mainly in the US at present) will send waves through other communities – and persuade them to revisit their policies and procedures when dealing with it. I urge you all to look up the procedure for dealing with sexual harassment complaints in your own department, and hope dearly that you never need them but you may be able to help someone who does.

So, onward from that somber note, 2016 will see the pilot members of Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) forum put together their applications for the equivalent of the Athena Swan Awards. With the awards due to be handed out in 2018, this will set the new standard for policies of gender equity across science institutions in Australia. Elsewhere, WiSENet have merges with Women in Science AUSTRALIA – hopefully making for a louder voice in advocating women in STEM subjects.

Looking forward, in December we have the joint 13th Asian Pacific Physics Conference and 22nd Australian Institute of Physics Congress happening in Brisbane from the 4th-8th December. We are hoping to have a similar program of Women in Physics sessions, and are looking for suggestions of invited speakers for these. It’s a really exciting opportunity to discuss our issues with our colleagues from Asia.

Other articles of interest Meg Urry’s comment in Nature on Science and gender – why we all must work harder for gender equity. 

The University of Arizona has put together an information sheet about how to avoid gender bias in reference writing. Find that at this link.

An interesting paper in Physical review special topics – physics education research, on 'Factors that affect the physical science career interest of female students.'

And this just made me smile.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Women get a much needed boost in research funding gender equity plan

Sarah Maddison, Swinburne University of Technology

Women make up 44% of Australian academics, but just 24% of professors. One of the contributing factors for this disparity is that there are fewer women applying for research grants than men, even though women are just as successful at winning grants as men.

Given that research grant success is a key promotion criterion at most institutes, this hampers the ability of women to reach senior positions. So if we can encourage more women to apply for grants, then this could help increase the number of women professors.

This week saw the Australian Research Council (ARC) announce its Gender Equality Action Plan. This includes a range of actions aimed to ensure equal opportunity for men and women to participate in its National Competitive Grants Programme.

The ARC has already included maternity and paternity leave for all grants, and part-time options for early and mid career researchers with children or other carer responsibilities. It has also extended the eligibility criteria of some grants to account for time out of research for maternity leave and carer responsibilities.

Previously, the ARC would rate research output relative to the number of years since PhD completion, which would disadvantage women who had taken time out to start a family. Now research performance is based on the opportunity the researcher has had to do research.

The ARC has also introduced two prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowships specifically targeted for outstanding women.

The ARC Gender Equality Action Plan collects all these initiatives into a single document, along with new initiatives such as improving the gender balance of ARC selection committee members, raising awareness of parental leave entitlements and part-time options, and monitoring the impact of recent changes to eligibility and leave provisions.

ARC Centres of Excellence will also be required to develop and implement an equity plan.

It will also consider unconscious bias training for grant assessors and the ARC College of Experts, who are the people who ultimately decide who gets funded and who does not.

Why change is needed

These initiatives are long overdue and whole-heartedly supported by the academic community.

While there is still debate over whether parenthood decreases productivity among academics, various studies show that the rate of research output drops for women returning from maternity leave and their research output is affected until their children are teenagers.

This effect is also far greater for mothers than fathers. A recent study of 10,000 economists found the research productivity of mothers dropped by 17% compared to 5% for fathers.

Targets and quotas make some people uncomfortable. But such actions are probably needed to create the disruptive change required to re-balance gender inequities. While differences in the grant success rates for men and women are relatively small, there are enormous differences in the numbers of men and women applying for ARC funding across almost all disciplines.

In the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas, between three and seven times more men than women are applying for grants. In the HASS (health, arts and social science) areas, this drops to one to three times more men than women applying. There are more women than men applying for ARC grants in only two fields of research: education; and language, communication and culture.

This is why the two targeted Laureate Fellowships (one in STEM and one in HASS) are accompanied by additional funds to support ambassadorial activities by the recipient to promote women in research and to mentor early career researchers.

Now that research output is judged relative to opportunity, career breaks and non-research tasks (like heavy teaching and administrative loads) can be taken into consideration.

Going forward

The ARC has no control over the employment conditions or workplace culture in universities, but it does control the research funding. Because ARC grants are generally paid to organisations rather than to researchers, they can put conditions on the funding. The ARC requires research institutes to comply with the Workplace Gender Equality Act 2012 when signing funding agreements.

The ARC also expects institutes to have a gender equity policy in place. If the ARC wanted to push the issue, it could require institutes to hold a Workplace Gender Equality Agency Employer of Choice for Gender Equality award, for example. Or it could require institutes to participate in programs like the Science Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative.

The Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering recently launched this pilot of the Athena SWAN Charter, which aims to improve gender equity and increase participation of women in STEMM (the second “M” is for medicine). The SAGE pilot is strongly supported by the ARC.

The Athena SWAN initiative began in the United Kingdom with the aim of encouraging and supporting women in STEMM careers. Since 2011, UK medical research institutes have been required to have an Athena SWAN award to receive research funds.

Will the ARC head in that same direction? There is no doubt that funding drives behaviour. And if the ARC Gender Equality Action Plan can drive good behaviours, then it will be a great success.

The Conversation

Sarah Maddison, Dean of Science, Professor of Astrophysics, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.