There’s a lot to hate about Twitter, for sure. But one of the things I love about it is the chance to follow and get to know thousands of intelligent and clever people. Especially for women in higher education, Twitter has been a way to learn, share and connect. On occasion I will search Twitter for women in academia that do fascinating things – especially in the sciences. I am a social scientist, but I have at times secretly desired to be a chemist, or geologist, or astronomer, or biologist. This must be why I elected to earn a Bachelor of Science in political science rather than a Bachelor of Arts.
As an undergraduate pursuing my B.S. degree I took about every science class I could, but one subject eluded me – physics. It is something that I regret, and I’m hopeful that one day, perhaps in retirement, I will take an introduction to physics class and learn more about the behavior and motion of matter throughout space and time. Because of this hidden interest of mine, I have searched for and come across a few fascinating and outspoken female physicists on Twitter – and Dr. Suzie Sheehy of Oxford University is one of them. She is an incredible scientist AND public speaker. I recently spoke with Dr. Sheehy about her work as a particle accelerator physicist, the challenges facing women in the sciences, and her advice for those starting out in the field.
Could you tell us a little bit about your background (where you are from, where you went to school, etc.)? What are some of the foundational experiences you had growing up that led you down a path toward science?
I’m originally from Melbourne, Australia. I was born on the edge of the desert in a place called Mildura, but my parents moved us closer to Melbourne for education and work opportunities. I went to school at a state primary school, where I had a wonderful science teacher who would run little weekly competitions to build/engineer/design something. In my last year of primary school, my identical twin sister and I both won scholarships to an all-girls grammar school for our secondary education. My school was right on the beachfront and as I grew up with so much sunshine, I was pretty interested in solar energy. For years, I took part in a competition to design and race miniature solar powered cars, which got me into building stuff in the workshops, learning basic electronics and thinking about engineering. I suppose that was a formative experience, but really I just did it because it was fun and I like a challenge. I was interested in lots of other things –many of my high school friends thought I might study performing arts when I left school, as I’d always had a love of drama, singing and dance.
Why study physics? And for those of us that don't know a thing about physics (me), what is a "particle accelerator physicist"? Which just sounds amazing, by the way!
I started out at University thinking I’d be a structural engineer, and took physics to back that up – but when I learned more physics I started asking questions like “but how does that work?” and when I found the answer was “no one knows,” I think that really hooked my interest. Physics describes how the world works at the most fundamental level. I love that as a physicist I can look at a system or a phenomenon and try to break it down into its most important parts, figure out the forces at play and try to build up an understanding of how it works. Seeing the same basic principles of physics pop up over and over again on different scales and in unexpected places is fascinating and elegant. For example, the concept of resonance crops up everywhere from building bridges, to the sound a wine glass makes when you clink it, to the stability of particle beams in particle accelerators. Leonardo Da Vinci said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” I see physics in this way, as the most basic of the sciences using mathematics and physical concepts to build up our understanding of the world.
The other side to physics is its application. I’m very driven to use my understanding of physics to solve real world problems. As a particle accelerator physicist, my job involves understanding and designing particle accelerators – atom smashers, often enormous machines designed to manipulate subatomic particles. At the moment my research focuses on trying to understand how to develop more intense accelerators, quite literally to fit more particles into the machine, when they are all electrically repelling against one another. This field brings my love of basic physics together with the capability for real world applications. I’ve been involved in designing accelerators for cancer treatment, for next-generation energy sources and for new scientific facilities.
Who or what has been your inspiration?
I have so many people who have inspired me over the years, including some great maths and science teachers, and a lecturer who took me under his wing and mentored me as an undergraduate. I remember reading books about astronomy and cosmology, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and just being wowed at how mind-expanding it was to think about the universe on its grandest scale. I’m lucky enough to have had inspirational mentors and role models throughout my career. My PhD supervisor was also an inspiration, and I think it is a very powerful thing when someone sees you as the person you’d like to be and gently pushes you beyond your comfort zone until you realize you are capable of more than you gave yourself credit for.
I imagine your discipline is fairly male dominated. Have you faced any challenges as a woman studying science, and more specifically, physics?
Yes. There are fewer than 10% women in my field and I am actively working to change that. Like any other woman studying science, unfortunately I have faced challenges that are specific to my gender. For example, I have experienced sexual harassment repeatedly throughout my career. I openly admit that these things happen in academic science, but they also happen in almost any other career. Thankfully, they are getting less prevalent. The most important thing has been to educate myself about gender differences (or lack thereof), subconscious bias, harassment, etc., and to make sure that I am informed enough to counter ridiculously outdated stereotypes or sexist behavior.
As I have moved up the ladder, I have also worked behind the scenes to support many other women experiencing these issues and instigated the inclusion of an anti-harassment policy at the biggest conference in my field. For me, it has taken years of reading about the issue and a lot of self-reflection to be willing to open up and tell people about my experiences and ask for change where I see it is needed. However, I also recognize that it can take a lot out of me to act on these issues, time and energy that could be better spent on my research and teaching. As the issue is such an emotive one, I frequently take breaks from engaging on issues of “women in science,” as I now see that it is an unfair burden on my time and willpower to have to work to correct this.
As the underlying issue stems from society itself, it is not the job of women alone to fix it. It is not my role to inform and educate my male colleagues about these issues, but I will encourage them to do their own research and reading and discuss it with them. In my research group, the male group members now openly call out instances of sexism and are some of my strongest allies. They have even helped me problem-solve responses to inappropriate behavior, and I believe involving them in this way has helped them realize that this stuff really happens, and how emotionally draining it is to constantly deal with it alone. Of course, I’ve known them for almost 10 years and this makes a difference too!
The most common advice I give to women who would like to make a difference is to engage their male colleagues. When a man learns for the first time of the experiences of his colleagues, especially sexual harassment, they often say women must “do something about this.” My advice is to turn it back on them and say “No, if you truly believe this is a problem, YOU must do something about this.” We can only change the environment in which we work if everyone is on board. I only have anecdotal evidence to go from here, but it has worked for me.
On the other hand, have you had any benefits being a woman of science?
It is well known that diversity brings value to any group, so I believe that having people of different genders, backgrounds and nationalities makes a team more productive and innovative. My success as a scientist is down to my science, not my gender, but I do recognize that being in the minority means that colleagues and collaborators are more likely to remember my face or name, and this has helped my networking in the field. However, even this is a double-edged sword, as it also means I am frequently asked to speak at events, which takes time out of the lab and away from my research. It can be hard to say no, but it is a skill I have had to develop! Nowadays I often “pay it forward” and pass on speaking invitations to more junior colleagues in order to give them opportunities for professional development and networking.
What advice do you give young women and girls today who might be interested in science/physics, and what advice do you offer for those entering the field to conduct research and teach? Any experiences you can pass on that would be helpful to the next generation of female physicists?
My main advice is to be yourself. If something really fascinates you, go for it! There will be pressure from people’s biases and stereotypes, but that is their problem, not yours. You will find that your particular skills and strengths are different form other people’s, so the sooner you can learn to work with your strengths rather than against yourself, the better! When I finally realized that communication and speaking was a strength of mine, I started to realize that this was part of my role in the team. I appreciate those who would prefer to sit at their computer all day and explore nitty-gritty details, but realizing that this wasn’t necessarily for me has been very valuable. At the same time, make sure you challenge yourself. The first talk I gave on my research as an undergraduate, I was terrified and it was pretty awful. Now, I present science on TV and have won awards for my public engagement activities. Give yourself a chance.
I understand that you are a foodie and a long distance runner. Are these the things you do to stay balanced – to give your brain time away from work? Is there anything else you enjoy doing that keeps you well rounded?
Yes, I have many other interests outside of science, and I think these help keep me balanced and make me a more well rounded person. I started running after my PhD and never thought I’d do more than 5 km, but since 2011 I’ve run three marathons (London in 2017 will be my fourth), countless half marathons (my best time is 1 hr., 38 min., which I’m rather proud of) and even two ultra-marathons (30 miles and 50 miles). Running keeps my body in shape, which helps keep my mind healthy – it’s a virtuous cycle! I also meditate and do a bit of yoga. When I find I can’t make time for these activities, I know that I’m working too much. The mind needs downtime to process and to be creative. I learned to look after my mental and physical health the hard way during a stressful period in my career. Nowadays these things are non-negotiable for me. The experience has certainly helped me in having discussions with my students about expected working hours and to encourage them to prioritize their own health. u
Dr. Suzie Sheehy is a physicist at Oxford University in the UK where she leads research on high power hadron accelerators. She is passionate about the promotion and communication of science, and is an award-winning public speaker and lecturer. You can learn more about Dr. Sheehy and her work at suziesheehy.co.uk, and you can follow her on Twitter @suziesheehy.