Friday, September 29, 2006

Seven Year Itch

At the end of September 1999, almost exactly seven years ago, I left the shores of Great Britain for Geneva, Switzerland. To start a PhD at a university I had barely heard of, in a city whose image produced two polarised reactions, either extremely dull, or thrillingly international. I left behind a family that had given me the courage, or foolhardiness, and sense of adventure to set off on my own like that, a university that had filled my head with facts, instilled a boundless yet not entirely solidly founded sense of self-confidence, but never properly taught me how to actually do anything, or even really how to live.

While I've been away I've missed out on most of the New Labour government, Big Brother, Ken Livingstone, Pubs finally being allowed to open late, Chav culture, the new Berliner Guardian, and tuition fees (only just - jammy bastard that I am). I've a feeling that Britain has changed almost as much as have, i.e. a lot, and also not so much. Of course these days what with the internets and all, it's pretty easy to keep up to date with things. I still wonder how much of a culture shock it will be when I finally come back "home" (that is still my plan, though slightly postponed for administrative reasons. Will I like it? Will I want to stay? Can I still go skiing regularly? Will I keep talking to everyone like they are a child?

I had written a paragraph about being a scientist here, but it was a bit predictable and I just lost it by foolishly pressing the back button. Anyway, I've been doing this science malarky for nigh-on 11 whole years full time, and I still love it and couldn't imagine doing anything else. That may just say something about my lack of imagination, but my grasp on reality is sometimes somewhat weaker than my imagination is, so I think I made the right career choice. Whether I ever discover anything worthwhile is another matter, but so long as I train then follow my instincts I can at least try to follow in the steps of the great scientists of the past. There can't be nothing worthwhile left to find out after all.

I'm writing this while my experiment slowly warms up (its now at 1.5 K), and it might soon be ready to let me go home and do its thing all by itself. This computer logging the data has been causing us no end of trouble, but we finally figured out that propping it up so there is a space underneath (its a laptop) and directing a fan to circulate air round it seems to stop it from crashing (fingers crossed).

Anyway here are a few of the highlights of the last seven years (update: this is mostly for my own sake, its getting pretty long):
  • My first day at work being the start of a two-day outing to the Great St. Bernard Pass in the swiss Alps.
  • Finding a beautiful wooden-floored spacious apartment in Geneva for a very reasonable rent.
  • Working with one of the most talented people I've ever met.
  • Spending ten days on lake Como at an Enrico Fermi summer school here.
  • Learning how to do experimental physics well.
  • Skiing.
  • More skiing.
  • Helping run the international students' association and helping a lot of newly arrived foreign students feel welcome and to make friends.
  • Getting lessons (for free!) from one of the best oboe teachers I could ever imagine.
  • Playing first oboe in the huge and grand Victoria hall in Geneva with a great wind orchestra.
  • Playing ultimate frisbee against teams from all over Europe.
  • Loving and losing (but surviving all the better for it).
  • Going to Japan for the first time in 2003, eating spectacularly well, and producing a paper which may well be the highlight of my career (downhill from there!).
  • At a conference in Bordeaux, drinking three bottles of wine between five of us, as recommended by my very oenologically knowledgeable colleague, each worth around fifty euros.
  • Getting a PhD! This is way more fun than the UK version, you get to give a public talk, your grandparents are there sitting behind the jury ready to give them the evil eye if they ask too difficult questions, and then a huge party afterwards.
  • Deciding it wasn't time to go back the UK yet, and getting a prestigious fellowship to Japan.
  • Getting a new type of measurement working in my new lab in Japan. It was really tricky and took ages, but I got it to work even better than in my old lab!
  • Winning the 2005 Tajima ultimate frisbee competiton.
  • Being invited to speak at a big international conference, and using Roobarb and Custard-style animation to describe my handwavy arguments. Not being laughed off stage.
  • Being asked to go and work at a Very Well Known British University. Now if only they'd find some money to pay me!
  • and lots more...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Institutions Hinder Female Academics, Panel Says

NY Times
Women in science and engineering are hindered not by lack of ability but by bias and “outmoded institutional structures” in academia, an expert panel reported today.

Full report here.

I went to a session on women in physics at a recent conference (attendees: 1900, of which 99 were women). It was very interesting and there was a lot of passionate discussion, much more so than in any of the talks about quantum phase transitions, funnily enough.

I do think this is an important topic, both for the sake of the field of physics missing out on otherwise productive and talented people, and for those women who feel unable to continue in what is a very rewarding and stimulating profession. It does seem though, that things will not improve on their own, and a concerted effort is needed to change the situation. On the other hand, the steps needed (from concrete things to do with childcare, to general changes of attitude), should benefit the quality of life of everyone, male or female.


More discussion chez BitchPhD.
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