Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My Aurora Journey

My Aurora Journey - an editorial by me for APEX Women (a new outlet for "ambitious women") reflecting on my experiences attending the Leadership Foundation's Aurora Training in 2014/2015. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Women of the Future 2015 Nominations now open

The Women of the Future Awards are the platform for successful young women in Britain. Now in their tenth year, the awards continue to unearth and recognise the inspirational stars of tomorrow across diverse sectors. I was honoured to win the Science category of this award in 2014, and I am keen to encourage more engagement with the awards from women in STEM. Please feel free to contact me directly (karen.masters@port.ac.uk) if you have any questions/concerns about what these awards are all about. 

I personally view participation with this organisation as a great way to engage in outreach about STEM subjects with women in general. The low numbers of women in science means that we are often in a minority in a group of scientists, but also within a group of women. The young people who attend events organised via the Women of the Future: Ambassadors Programme (at which Award winners and shortlisted candidates are invited) are not seeking out discussion of STEM subjects as careers specifically, so this can be a great way to get outside the group of already engaged. And the Women of the Future Network provides the opportunity to network with successful professional women in the UK across all sectors (which is inspiring and interesting, as well as potentially useful). 

The Awards are open to all women aged 35 or under (candidates must be aged 35 or under on December 31, 2015) living or working in the United Kingdom (Mentor of the Year and Young Star Awards have different eligibility, see below). 

Award Categories which I think would of Interest to Women in STEM: 

Technology and Digital
This category recognises talented, ground-breaking young women from the worlds of digital and technology.

This category recognises a group of truly remarkable young female scientists, forging new ground in research and scientific achievement. Within this category, WoF are also seeking nominees with a career in the sciences who can demonstrate a track record of academic excellence in the field of science; and are showing signs of success in pushing through scientific developments to commercial application.

Mentor of the Year
This award, recognises active mentors behind the success of younger women in British life. Many successful women pay tribute to role models and supporters who have enabled them to flourish in business, professional life, science or whatever their chosen field. This award pays tribute to some of the most influential and unsung heroes and heroines in British life.
The award is open to men and women of all ages.

Young Star
This award acknowledges high achievers aged 16-21. It is for teenage girls showing exceptional promise within their industry, university or school.

Entry deadline September 4th 2015
Judging Day (central London): September 25th 2015
Awards Night (London Hilton on Park Lane): 27th October 2015

There are two ways to nominate (self nominations are welcome): 
1. Complete the application form (https://womenofthefuture.wufoo.eu/forms/women-of-the-future-2015-nomination-form/) - self nominations are welcomed.
2. Email candidate suggestions to info@womenofthefuture.co.uk (they will then be contacted and invited to fill in the application form). 

For more details: http://awards.womenofthefuture.co.uk, or contact me at karen.masters@port.ac.uk. 

Please pass this message on to any Women in STEM groups you are part of. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

What does a "Women of the Future" do?

Back in October last year I was honoured to win the Women of the Future 2014 Award for Science.
Women of the Future is  an organisation which aims to provide a platform, and inspiration for young women in Britain. As well as the Women of the Future Awards they run a Asian Women of Achievment Award, a Women of the Future Network (to which all shortlisted and winning candidates belong from the now 10 years this has been running) and a Women of the Future Ambassadors Programme (connecting sixth formers with the award winning women).

I was delighted to win the award, obviously on a personal level, but also I hope because of how I can use the opportunities it gives me to talk about science as an excellent career choice for any young person. Since I won the award people often ask me what I get from it….. well - the quickest answer is that I got a shiny metallic monolith to put in my office:

Showing off the shiny award, right after I won in October 2014!
But much more importantly, I also get lots of opportunities and invitations, and I get to meet lots of other amazing young women at all of them! 

My first opportunity in many ways was the acceptance speech I gave in front of the ~400 amazing women and supporters at the gala award ceremony. I tried to speak about the importance of science being seen as an important thing for women to do - that a female scientist is a minority not only in an average group of scientists, but also an average group of women, and that it's important we see science as part of our culture (for both women and men). 

The opportunities keep rolling in…. A couple of weeks ago, coincidently on two consecutive days I got invited with other "Women of the Future" to attend the Open of the London Stock Exchange, and to have tea with the Speaker of the House of Commons. 

Getting to London for the opening of the stock exchange meant a very early (and snowy) morning start from Portsmouth, but it was worth it to arrive (still in the semi dark you note) and see the Women of the Future logo on full display. 

The branding was very evidence inside too for the short (and very dramatic) ceremony. 


The was followed by speeches from the CEO of the London Stock Exchange, who took the opportunity to announce the launch of their own "Women's Network", and the commitment they have to equality and diversity. 

Then we had an unabashedly feminist speech from The Right Honorable Andrea Leadson, MP, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury (who actually opened the stock exchange this morning - we just all watched). 

More branding, and then me with it to prove I was there I guess! 

See if you can spot my ear in the official picture! 

Then the next day it was back to London (albeit at a more respectable hour) to visit Speakers House for a tea to be attended by the Speaker of the House of Commons (The Right Honourable John Bercow). 

The Speakers House is in the medieval part of the Palace of Westminster - it's obviously a stunning building, and full of UK history.

We got served very nice tea, and then waited quite a long time while the Speaker was delayed in Parliament. This was actually great as it gave us tons of time to network with all the other women in the group.

Oddly one of the rooms we had access to had this giant four poster bed in it. 

Pinky Liliani took this picture of me enjoying tea with one of the shortlisted candidates from the Technology Category (Jo York, Co-founder, Reframed.tv, a video tagging service)

Pinky then tweeted the picture, so I got a bit meta and tweeted a picture of her tweeting. 

The Speaker arrived, and was very apologetic about the delay, and then gave a speech were he called me out by name (he had handed me my award at the ceremony). 

We had a group shot, and then some more networking time. 

Here's a shot on the way out - again with Jo York, and also FenFen Huang (shortlisted for Arts and Culture, and Director of China Pearl - a company offering Chinese cultural experiences in the UK). 

More shots on the way out - it was really an amazing location to be invited too.

 The next event is even more important in my view - March 16th is the networking evening with sixth formers from across London.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Visiting My Old School

Last week I did a school visit that I hope might have a bit more impact that the average. I spent the day visit my old school in Coleshill, North Warwickshire (near Birmingham). I took my "Rainbow View of Andromeda" short talk, an IR camera (always fun) and templates to make CD spectroscopes.

Here's the report the school did.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Who Asks Questions at Research Talks in the UK Astronomy Community?

This past summer I was on the Local Organising Committee for the UK National Astronomy Meeting, held in Portsmouth.

In the run up to that I heard about this interesting project lead by James Davenport, tracking the gender of astronomers who asked questions at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Jan 2014.

I ended up discussing this via a Twitter conversation with Jonathan Pritchard (@jr_pritchard) and we decided running the same experiment at NAM would be really interesting. After getting permission from the LOC, RAS and some help from James Davenport setting up the data collection web form we were ready to go.

The first ever NAM Hack Day gave the project a kick start and collected some other co-authors. I'm delighted to be able to say that the results it was published in A&G this month (we plan to get it on the arxiv soon, and for now you can download the pdf here  download from the arxiv here).

As you'll see we got a great response to the call for data collection at NAM - we were able to collect data on questions asked in about 70% of the talks at the conference which was absolutely fantastic.

We did find a clear gender difference in the rate of asking questions, and below I reproduce my favourite plot from the paper, showing how particularly in the first question, men were much more likely to ask, but by the fourth question the questions came from men and women in proportion to their representation at the conference.

Plot from Pritchard et al. 2014, A&G

When you read the report you'll see we found similarities, but also subtle differences with the results from the AAS (allowing us to quote Winston Churchill "we are two nations divided by a common language").

I also really enjoyed the research we did placing out result in the context of wider social science research into the psychology of asking questions, and also that we decided to end with a set of concrete suggestions to help improve the gender balance of those asking questions at astronomy conferences.

Our suggestions were:

  • Younger scientists should be explicitly encouraged to ask questions (i.e. this should be stated in introductory remarks by the chair), and favoured if there is a choice of questioners.
  • If there is a choice between male and female questioners for the first question, a question from a woman should be given priority.
  • Questioners should be asked to identify themselves by name.
  • If possible, Q&A sessions should not be cut short before at least four questions have been asked (if they need to be ended early). To enable this, session organizers should schedule enough time for questions and speakers should not be allowed to run over time.  

In my view we also implicitly leave an action for male astronomers - especially those who typically ask a lot of questions, and ask those questions early. Perhaps if they were willing to give just a small pause - a wait to see if others might have questions before jumping in, they could help open up the scientific debate in our community to be representative of those within it…..

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A mentor of Ada Lovelace - Mary Somerville

This year for Ada Lovelace Day I want to write a little bit about Mary Somerville. I'm delighted to be able to say that a full article I have written on her will appear as a chapter in the next Women in STEM Anthology to be published by Finding Ada - the organisation behind the idea of Ada Lovelace Day. The book is being edited and likely to be available sometime next year.

So for this ALD2014 post I want to share a flavour of the fun I had learning about Mary Somerville in order to write that chapter. One coincidence - I happened to be in Edinburgh while I was working on the chapter, and so decided to visit Mary's portrait in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Sadly I couldn't manage a visit her childhood home in Burntisland, but I got a view of from a boat tour on the Firth of Forth.

Me and Mary - her portrait at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
Mary is such an accessible character, someone I think many women today could imagine being - I know I could. She was of a similar age to Jane Austen which probably helps. I'm a huge fan of Austen's books (and the many film and TV adaptations) so the environment in which Mary inhabited feels familiar even if very different to today. She was also a working mother (albeit presumably with a lot of help), which I can definitely relate to.

I read two versions of Mary's autobiography as I was writing the chapter, among other shorter descriptions of her life and work. The original "Mary Somerville: Personal Recollections from Early Life to Old Age, with selections from her correspondence" (available online from http://ebooks.cambridge.org/), was published not long after her death, and edited by her daughter Martha Somerville. Certain passages were removed which Martha felt reflected badly on her mother, so many claim the more recent "Queen of Science: Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville, edited and introduced by Dorothy McMillan is the better version. 

I decided to title the chapter: "Mary Somerville: Thoughts of what she might have been", based on a quote I found in Mary's 1873 obituary (published by the Royal Astronomical Society):
“We shall never know certainly, though it may be that hereafter we shall be able to guess, what science has lost through the all but neglect of the unusual powers of Mary Fairfax’s mind. We may rejoice that, through and accident, she was permitted to reach the position she actually attained; but there is scarcely a line of her writings which does not, while showing what she was, suggest thoughts of what she might have been.” 
Writing about Mary revealed to me both a story of great triumph (she was after all feted in her day - the first women to have a scientific paper read at the Royal Society, one of the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and an accomplished author of four popular science books on topics as diverse as calculus, physics, microbiology and geology), and great frustration. I found it too easy to hear in her own words the fury she felt at how difficult it all was for her and other women who wished to be educated. She was largely left unschooled as a girl (while her brothers studied, as was typical at the time), and it was only as an independent young widow that she could begin her proper training in the mathematics she loved. 
"I was intensely ambitious to excel in something, for I felt it in my own breast that women were capable of taking a higher place in creation than that assigned to them in my early days, which was very low. " - Mary Somerville
Many have focussed on the successes of Mary (which were exceptional), but I also felt her sense of loss at what more she might have done.

"I never made a discovery myself, [] I had no originality" - Mary Somerville
Although I think in that she was a bit harsh on herself (considering she invented the idea of physics as a combined subject, as well as bringing calculus to common use in the English speaking world). It seemed to me she was also frustrated by the pressure she felt as a successful science writer to cover topics she was less keen on than her favourite:

"Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind. If I had devoted myself exclusively to that study, I might probably have written something useful" - Mary Somerville
As a professional astronomer I also could resist this one last quote from Mary recollecting when she first discovered astronomy as a mathematical subject:

I perceived, however, that astronomy did not consist [of just] stargazing* - Mary Somerville
with the delightful footnote, expressing so common a sentiment among professional astronomers today: 

* "Many people evidently think the science of astronomy consists entirely in observing the stars, for I have been frequently asked if I passed my nights looking through a telescope, and I have astonished the enquirers by saying I did not even possess one."  - Mary Somerville.

Mary was more that 30 years older than Ada Lovelace, who she did know, and appears to have been somewhat of a mentor for. The two women met at a party held by Charles Babbage in 1833, and Mary at that time advised the then 18 year old Ada to study mathematics. Over the next 19 years Ada stayed with Mary and her family several times and wrote to her regularly until her death in 1852 (extraordinarily Mary went on to outlive Ada by 20 years). It's a pity there's no picture of the two women together (although I did find this comic book depiction of them).

Anyway my chapter is all finished and the book is in the editing process right now and expected to be published some time next year, so stay tuned for that.

If you want more (from me) about Mary before that comes out, I have also written about her online before as part of Ann Martin's Speaking Up campaign (which has now successfully pointed out to Google Doodles how few women they have profiled): Midpoint Series: Karen Masters on Mary Somerville. In fact it was working out who I wanted to write about for that series that introduced me to Mary in the first place.

Monday, September 22, 2014

UFOs in Portsmouth?

I'm quoted in the Portsmouth News and the Daily Mail this week commenting on a UFO (unidentified flying object) seen in Portsmouth. I sent my comments in an email to Portsmouth News reporter. What was printed in the story was this: 

' Given that the pictures show a dark object against a daytime sky it's clearly not an astronomical object. Many "UFO sightings" are actually the planet Venus, but this one can't be that.  
The distances in space are so vast that it's just not possible for aliens to be visiting Earth, so any interpretation suggesting this is an alien spacecraft is clearly wrong. '

So what were these statements based on? Here's some more extended explanation I sent to the reporter about the vastness of space: 

The nearest star is more than 3 light years away - meaning it would take more than 3 years to make the trip even at the speed of light. Most stars which are visible in the night sky are within about 1000 light years of Earth. That's considered close on astronomical scales, and that's a distance which takes 1000 years to travel even at the speed of light. 

 Most people don't understand just how fast the speed of light is. If they look at the length of one of their arms, light travels that length in 1 nano second (1 billionth of a second). It travels the distance between the Earth and the Moon (which took the Apollo astronauts 3 days to cover) in just over 1 second, and reaches the outer edge of our Solar System in about 5 hours (a spacecraft has been on its way there from Earth since 2006 and is only just arriving). 

 Light travels at about 10 million times faster than the typical speed a jumbo jet. 

 In order to make a spacecraft travel even close to the speed of light would take vast quantities of energy - many many many times more than any energy source we are aware of (including carrying entire stars along with you to power your spacecraft). 

Supposing you could accelerate your spacecraft fast enough - then any collision between such an object and even a microscopic piece speck of rock in space would cause it to explode. 

 Physics really tells us that interstellar travel is just not possible, despite how much fun the stories and films about it are. 

Here's the picture of the #pompeyufo people were sharing online. I still think it looks like a cloud based on this picture! 
People might (and do) object to these statements about it not being physically possible for aliens to visit Earth. In Science Fiction new physics is invented to get around the problems. The most famous example is warp drive (e.g. in Star Trek) which gets around this by warping space time so that the distance between two places is made much smaller. My problem with invoking this is that we might as well then invoke magic. We can imagine ways to bend our current knowledge of physics to get around the speed limit of light, but it doesn't mean it's actually going to be possible. The energy source is I think the biggest stumbling block - it's not like we just need to find something with a bit more energy than rocket fuel, it's something with billions and billions of times more energy, and which doesn't immediately disintegrate us at the same time! 

 If you are keen on aliens, the positive news about the size of the Universe is that there are so many stars in the Universe I find it implausible to believe we're the only life in it, but the sad thing is that the distances between stars, let alone between galaxies are so vast, that I also find it implausible to believe that any civilisation would/will ever be able to work out a way to travel between them. 

And if they did I think the last thing they would do is to buzz Portsmouth, UK and then disappear without trace. 

I still think it's a cloud. 

Update 24th Sept: I was wrong about it being a cloud - the whole thing was faked as a publicity stunt for a SciFi event happening this weekend in Portsmouth.