Deadlines – often a necessary step to move things forward, but we need to talk about unnecessarily short windows of opportunities over traditional holiday and family times, and deadlines that implicitly encourage working through weekends. Of course there are some unavoidable short deadlines or deadlines constrained to a particular date, but here I refer to those deadlines where these is no particular time critical aspect. Short windows over traditional holiday times, particularly discriminate against those with caring responsibilities, especially those with school age children who are forced to take holiday actually LOOKING AFTER children during the school holidays. Whilst by no means exclusively affecting women, this may particularly discriminate against women, and against staff in certain age groups. Deadlines that seemingly encourage working over weekends or outside normal working hours are potentially more broadly damaging at a time when mental ill health is on the increase amongst University staff.

Some examples of, in my opinion, poor practice, include:

  1. an internal deadline for research proposals on the day that University and Schools return after Christmas. Whilst I know that these are set themselves relative to research council deadlines, in reality it means one of two things. Either you plan to get it done before the Christmas break (our University shuts down entirely between Christmas and New Year, and obviously some of us need to look after children during the School holidays even if that were not the case), or, you will be working over the Christmas break, squeezing in writing and editing around family or other commitments, and missing out on a chance for even the shortest of breaks. Some people will say the former is impossible due to teaching commitments. If your proposal involves multiple collaborators the latter becomes way more likely. There is of course a 3rd option, to decide not to apply, but this is a bold move given pressure to bring in funding.
  2. A similar internal deadline for internal promotion cases – given the relative under-representation of women in the professoriate, it is unfortunate that I know of several women for whom Christmas family responsibilities preclude working on promotion cases. There are doubtless men for whom this is also true, but I have not heard them speak about it explicitly.
  3. A research Council deadline for funding applications with the online application system only open for two weeks at the end of August. Despite notice being given, this short period of accessibility to the submission system discriminates against those forced to take holiday in the school holidays – the proximity to the bank holiday also makes this a popular holiday choice for many others. Holidays are often arranged a long time in advance and cannot be rearranged easily.
  4. A research council deadline for applicants to respond to the reviewers’ comments on their proposal, originally timetabled for the whole of August but subsequently narrowed to one week at the end including the bank holiday – similar problems to the preceding example – and interesting justified on the basis of needing to give the final panel at least two weekends to look at the papers (possible multiple problems here – but at least there is presumably a week in between the weekends!)
  5. Papers appearing at 4 pm for a 9.30 am meeting the following day OR at 4 pm on a Friday for a 9.30 am meeting on the immediately following Monday morning is also fairly unacceptable since it likely requires people to work in the evening or over the weekend or attend the meeting unprepared – a waste of time for everyone. For me working part-time, finishing at 3 on Fridays to do the school run – it guarantees I will not read them and therefore will not be able to contribute effectively to the meeting. Not exactly inclusive practice to enable diverse voices to be heard.

I am delighted to report that once attention was drawn to occurrence 4 above, positive changes were made. An email from one of the applicants resulted in an extension of the response period back towards the original plan, with reviewers’ comments being delivered as soon as they were received. In the case of 3, a solution is also under discussion. This willingness to reflect and react when the potential problems are pointed out is admirable and should be recognised. However, consider how much better it would be if organisations looked at their deadline setting through an inclusive lens from the get go.

Of course, no deadline will ever please everyone. But, there are perhaps some more obvious things to avoid:

  • Short windows of opportunity in August (admittedly England-centric view)
  • Deadlines immediately following significant national holiday periods
  • Deadlines on Mondays

If deadlines are justified on the basis of timescales need to complete process, then either lengthen or shift the entire process, or perhaps preferably, consider whether you can simplify and reduce the process or paperwork to speed things up.

And if you want me to contribute in an informed way to a meeting, I need papers at least 2 working days in advance!




STEAMing ahead


54805-kettle_teaserI have spent an inspiring couple of days at the Association for Science Education Conference held here at Reading, picking up ideas (and freebies) for my outreach work. A strong theme emerging across several sessions that I have attended is the potential for learning opportunities that could be gained by working across traditional “arts” and “science” boundary. The newest additional to my acronym dictionary is therefore STEAM, being Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Two sessions were particularly inspiring. Carole Kenrick @Lab13_Gillespie described her time as a “scientist/inventor” in residence in a state primary school, running Lab_13. Amongst the many fantastic activities and initiatives she set up during this time which included helping with curriculum and staff CPD, supporting students to run a science committee and doing some original research with the students that reached the national press, Carole also started a STEAM club. She described how this had evolved from Science Club, to STEM club and finally to STEAM, entraining and enthusing more and more children and parents as it made the transition. By bringing creative arts and science together through, for example, designing robot costumes, backpacks, growing and producing their own plant-based dyes and then using these to make textiles, children who “didn’t like science” began to involve themselves in it, and “science geeks” found new creative talents and skills. Carole has written this up for teachwire and as a blog.

The second STEAM themed session I attended was a keynote lecture by Marcus du Sautoy on The Art of Mathematics and the Mathematics of Art. In a well attended and thought provoking lecture, he focused on particular examples where mathematics is linked, either knowingly or unknowingly, to arts. Firstly music, considering the work of Oliver Messiaen who used repeats of rhythm and chords with different prime numbers in each to great effect in the piece he wrote for a prisoner of war camp quartet, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the end of time”) . Also in music, I was intrigued to discover that Indian musicians appear to have been aware of the Fibonacci sequence way before Fibonacci – it describes the number of patterns you can make with successive numbers of quaver beats for example. quaver

The connection between music and maths has often been made, but perhaps the other examples were less familiar. Firstly, in the visual arts, du Sautoy considered the success of Jackson Pollock paintings, attributed to them being fractals, and more than that, having similar fractal dimensions to those that we see in nature. This characteristic means that the level of complexity doesn’t change, no matter how much you “zoom in” to a Pollock painting, or in the natural world, trees. We also found out that to fake this you need to paint as a chaotic pendulum, one where the pivot moves as well as the pendulum. Apparently Pollock was able to do this through a natural combination of drunkenness and bad balance….

And finally to literature. The example used here was The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. Slightly different from the other examples, it is thought that this was a deliberate attempt by Borges to try to understand Poincare’s mathematics via literature. It dectorusdescribes a library “that some call the universe” and discusses whether it is finite or not, some of the most challenging questions still being addressed in science today.

To my mind, science is already a creative subject. What could be more creative than dreaming up hypotheses, designing experiments, designing technology and equipment to deliver them and making visualisations of our data and results? Recent emphasis on novel visualisations of climate data for example have attracted much attention and featured in Olympic games opening ceremonies. But it is probably true that the majority of people beginning their science journey don’t see it this way. The explicit A in STEAM could help us to demonstrate that aspect and perhaps attract some new interest. It might also encourage the creative side in career scientists, although many of them already demonstrate this.

So, are you ready to put the A into STEM?





Getting on my soapbox

At 12 noon exactly I stepped onto my soapbox and surveyed the vast expanse of unpopulated concrete between me and the River Thames. 3 boxes to my right, another female scientist had already pulled in an audience with her flagella balloons. With a deep breath I lifted my empty water bottle high and started “Who can tell me what’s in this bottle?” Some people drifted in my direction, and I was off on my SoapboxScience adventure.

SoapboxScience involves 12 female scientists taking shifts on soap boxes on public thoroughfares talking about their research and their love of science. Sort of science street theatre. WITH NO POWERPOINT. In fact no power either. The project aims to raise the profile of science and female scientists amongst the general public via the style of public debate and discussion. For the past 4 years there has been an event in London, but this year there were also sister events in Swansea, Dublin and Bristol.


My event was Sunday June 29th 2014. Our soapboxes were set up at Gabriel’s Wharf near the Southbank Centre in London. It was a beautiful sunny day, at least to start with! Sharing the first hour slot with me were experts on cheetahs, evolutionary biology and Mars exploration. My job was to spread excitement about particles in the atmosphere and their effects on weather and climate. We’d been told to prepare 10-15 minutes of “stand-up” material, with props if we wanted, and to expect people to stay listening to us for anywhere between 2 and 20 minutes. These are a few of the things I learnt from the experience:

  • Your opening pitch is really important to draw people to you.. asking a question that seems to have a simple answer but doesn’t worked well. As did a giant picture of jam donuts as a metaphor for coated soot particles (Thanks to @willtmorgan and his European Geophysical Union blog )
  • The prop that was the most useful was the one that I thought I would only use in an emergency – a set of 4 scanning electron microscope images of different aerosol particles. I got people to “pick a card” and asked the group to guess what it was. Then I spent 3 mins talking about that type of aerosol, making sure I included the main points (aerosols scatter sunlight and aerosols make clouds) in every case. However, this also meant people stayed to see all 4 pictures which meant the “dwell time” was at least 10 minutes.
  • Don’t make audience participation too contrived. I tried making an aerosol chains and balls out of humans to demonstrate the aging and coating process but it didn’t work so I dropped it after one attempt. I have an idea how to improve it for the future though so watch this space.
  • People will ask questions of all levels of sophistication – be prepared to tailor your answer appropriately
  • I prepared props that would work in the rain, but not in the wind – without my dedicated soapbox volunteer I’d have been in trouble

The scariest part was trying to stop people just walking past without stopping, but I think I talked to around 80 people in the hour I was on the box and there weren’t too many awkward gaps. The first time I looked at my watch was 45 minutes into my hour long slot, and then it was over way too soon. I’d do it again tomorrow if I could.


Sponsored in the past by L’Oreal UNESCO For Women in Science and ZSL, the two dedicated research biologists women who started it, Seirian Sumner and Nathalie Pettorelli have been successful in securing government funding for Soapbox for the next few years, and plan to put on events in other cities. Possibly even Reading…

Breadth vs depth

I am feeling envious. Envious of those researchers, or research leaders, who have found a particular niche area, and who are able to spend the majority of their time there. I am at a project meeting for one of the 4 projects I am involved in at the moment. It so happens that the work my group does at the moment concerns 3 distinct geographical regions: the Sahara, the Brazilian rainforest and the South Asian monsoon. In each case, my interest is in the role that aerosol could play in driving regional weather and climate, but in each case the background is very different. On days like today, I am having to catch up with the basics of biomass burning and all the previous literature before I am even on the same page as those who are working more continuously on one area.

It ultimately comes down to the old breadth versus depth argument. Ever since I started winning research funds I have always had quite a few different strands of research on the go at any one time. This is interesting and exciting, but can be exhausting to keep up with. At one point I had people or myself working on 7 different topics. I felt like I was constantly behind on all fronts, although all projects were interesting. In the end, I breathed a sigh of relief when one or two of the projects ended. For me, breadth has worked so far, but at moments of low self-confidence I sometimes wonder whether the broad approach that I sort of fell into (possibly related to inability to say no?) was the right decision.

Breadth versus depth is an age-old discussion at all levels of education, in all fields. To me it seems necessary to have some degree of flexibility in terms of research area since the very process of doing research opens up new questions, and more pragmatically, sometimes funding is easier to come by in some areas than others.  Again, opinions amongst colleagues are divided between those who “chase” funding, and those who stick to a narrow area even if it means research grants are hard to come by (not all institutions will be totally happy about this given the way research funding is used as a metric). Most of us are somewhere in between. This variation regarding the importance of breadth vs depth has unfortunately reared its heard in discussions of potential academic hires –  in one case that I was witness to a long time ago, the breadth appeared to be valued differently depending on whether the candidate was male or female – in the case of the male, breadth was viewed as positive and creative – in the case of the female it was discussed as “lack of focus” etc. Not our finest hour…

It’s a question that I get asked by postdocs and more junior academics very frequently, not just in terms of research area, but also the balance between research, teaching experience and other academic activities. It’s also something that varies between graduate programmes in different countries , as discussed in this article by Robert A. Segal for Times Higher Education. My usual response is to say that it varies and point to examples from within our department of those who are incredibly narrowly focused, and those with a broader portfolio. There is success in both cases (but then everyone’s definition of success is different too!).

When I was a junior lecturer, my line manager at the time Prof Alan Thorpe, now Director of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting, asked me to draw a map linking my various current research projects together and to identify 2 to 3 common science questions or themes. Then, each time a new opportunity presented itself, I was to use this to consider whether it was either central to one of my themes, or developing a new theme that I had in mind to expand at the expense of something else. At the time it was useful in clarifying that there were some universal themes across all 7 projects. For a few years it was helpful in giving me a reason to say “no” to some requests. I periodically review and revise this map of my strategy and still find it a useful process. I don’t think its giving too much away to show the version as at 2012 with the projects that were running then. I still have lots of things going on, but can see that at that point there was more emphasis on modelling than work with observations – perhaps a reflection of being a parent and not wanting to go away on fieldwork quite so much. Looking back at earlier versions its interesting to see how some things have evolved (the balance of modelling vs fieldwork whilst other aspects have remained more constant (the use of idealised experiments to understand processes). I wonder what future versions will look like?



Ada Lovelace Day 2013: Which female scientists inspire us?

Ada Lovelace, 19th century British mathematici...

Ada Lovelace, 19th century British mathematician (1836). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is Ada Lovelace Day* <> which aims to raise the profile of women working in STEM
subjects across the globe.

I emailed my list of women scientists whom I have admired, or from whom I have drawn inspiration to my work colleagues, and now I’m posting it here. Each of them are admired for different qualities or acheivements, and by no means do I admire 100% of any of many of them. Also, I do draw inspriation from male scientists and engineers and from non-scientists, but I list the women here in honour of Ada Lovelace Day. I have added in purple suggestions sent by my colleagues in response to my original email. Thank you!

The fore-runners
Laura Bassi
Rosalind Franklin
Marie Curie
Dorothy Hodgkin (recommend excellent biography by Georgina Ferry)
Lise Meitner
Rosalind Yalow
Mary Anning (
Beatrice Tinsley
Caroline Herschel ( )
Elisabeth Mann-Borgese
Marie Tharp (
Emmy Noether

Todays women
Athene Donald  her blog is great
Uta Frith
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Georgina Mace
Ann Druyan

And in my/our fields:
Joanne Malkus Simpson
Jerri Nielsen
Julia Slingo
Lesley Gray
Susan Solomon
Jo Haigh
Gabi Hegerl
Ulrike Lohmann
Dorothy  M Koch (not the one you find on wikipedia)
Liane Benning
Dian Seidel
Karin Labitzke
Helen Byrne
Sarah Waters
Kathryn Gillow
Diane Maclagan.

To contribute to the Guardian’s celebration of women in science, see

Also, several people pointed out that Wikipedia entries for female scientists are generally a lot less extensive than those for men. Projects to remedy this such as that at
Brown University

try to redress the balance.

Finally, there are also voices  questioning whether historical figures should be used in this way, e.g.

*Ada Lovelace was a leading 19th century mathematician, daughter of the poet Lord
Byron and described herself as a “poetical scientist”. She is often described as the first computer programmer, although this is a matter of debate. She has left a lasting legacy as a role model for women around the world working in
science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). And  in 2012 she was
honoured by a Google doodle

Thank you IPCC

These facts and figures from the IPCC process struck me:

3000: The number of nominations received by the IPCC for authors

831: The number of  lead authors across the 3 reports (259 for WG1), 60% of these new to IPCC

9200: The number of scientific publications from which material was examined, 2/3rds of which had been published since 2007 (the last IPCC report)

54677: The number of review comments received from 1089 Expert Reviewers from 55 countries

6 in 52: the number of hours sleep the IPCC WG1 co-chair Tom Stocker has had recently

I know from the many colleagues that I know who have been involved in the IPCC, what an interesting but challenging and tiring process it is. For this dedication and commitment I salute and thank you all. Now it’s my job as a  climate scientist to go forward and improve our understanding and prediction of climate still further.





Proud to be a climate scientist

I really should know better than to discuss my job in public. Admitting to being a climate scientist tends to result in lengthy discussions of why we are told to reduce our carbon footprint when it’s developing nations that are “the problem”, why we think we can predict the climate in 100 years time when “tomorrow’s weather forecast is wrong”, and more recently defending our scientific integrity.

In fact there isn’t a typical “climate scientist” (leaving aside the generic “scientist” with his grey beard, white coat, socks and sandals that is!). Every one of my colleagues works in a very different way towards understanding the building blocks of our atmosphere and oceans and how changes in these affect day-to-day weather and year-to-year climate. My work concerns how particles in the atmosphere affect the way in which radiation from the sun reaches the ground. These “aerosols” are very small droplets of dissolved sulphate and nitrate chemicals and specks of soot from fossil fuel burning, desert dust picked up by Saharan winds, microscopic debris from volcanic eruptions and even sea salt from bursting bubbles on the ocean surface. One hundred times smaller than the droplets you might spray from an aerosol can, each one of these tiny particles suspended in the air has the potential to scatter or absorb radiation from the sun, preventing it from reaching the Earth’s surface and therefore potentially cooling the ground. Some of them can also attract enough water to spark the growth of cloud droplets – indeed without them it would take so long for enough water molecules to get together and grow that we’d never see clouds at all!

I fly through pollution plumes in the Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurement BAE146 aircraft. In recent years colleagues and I have measured aerosols from European pollution, African biomass burning and desert dust, and volcanic ash. Once I know how big the particles are and what they are made of, I use computer simulations of sunlight bouncing off them to calculate how much of the suns light is prevented from reaching the surface. I can also tell colleagues what characteristics they should give these particles in their global climate model so that they can simulate their impact on climate change. If I venture to the coffee room I can learn about glacier melt, ocean current modelling, how to extract useful data from satellite instruments, the physics of hurricanes, the impact of road transport or supervolcanoes on surface temperature, or changes in African rainfall over the past decades. Other colleagues will be in laboratories, recreating constituents of our atmosphere or ocean in a controlled environment, while still more will actually be out in the weather making observations of atmosphere, ocean, land or ice. There are so many exciting ways of probing our earth-atmosphere system, but whichever one an individual climate scientist chooses, we all have the same goal – to understand the processes that make up our earth-ocean-atmosphere system. This will help to improve the quality of those climate (and weather) predictions.

So, I think overall I’m proud to say that I am a climate scientist. It’s just as well really, my only other option is to say that I am a physicist and that tends to result in a glazed expression and an abrupt end to the conversation. Hmm…. wait a minute, that could be useful…..

This article was originally published in theWeather magazine of the Royal Meteorological Society in 2010