Stories from women in science

STFC have pledged support for the government’s Your Life campaign, which aims to encourage more women to take up careers in science technology, engineering and maths (STEM). One of the ways we can do this is to share stories about STEM women – whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians. Here we take a closer look at some of our own women in science, and at how computing underpins modern science.

We have more stories from STEM women at STFC, and if you’d like to know more about working with us, head over to our careers section.

Professor Tara Shears, University of Liverpool
(Credit: Tara Shears)

I'm an experimental particle physicist, working on the LHCb experiment at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. At the moment, I use LHCb data to test the limits of the Standard Model, our theory of particle physics that we are sure must break down soon. Although LHCb was originally designed to investigate why matter and antimatter are different, it delivers data that can be used to learn more about every aspect of particle physics. My particular interest is the behaviour of W and Z bosons, the carriers of the weak force. I currently lead the LHCb group in the University of Liverpool. We constructed the LHCb VELO particle subdetector, which allows us to reconstruct particles produced in LHC collisions, and have special responsibility for running it and working on an upgraded version for the future, besides our physics programme, so there is plenty going on.

We generate huge datasets in particle physics, and then analyse them, so big data is important and necessary in our subject. The Large Hadron Collider generates 40 million beam-beam collisions a second inside each experiment, and our experiments record the electronic traces of the particle debris produced. Even though only a fraction of these can be recorded, the dataset is huge. In 2013, Wired magazine estimated that the LHC dataset is holds roughly the same amount of data as the videos uploaded to YouTube – about 15000 Terabytes every year. It is only possible to manage this through grid computing - a paradigm developed by CERN computer scientists. Particle physicists the world over install grid software on their computer facilities, which allows them to be shared and joined, so that the entire grid seems like a seamless supercomputer to the user.

I've always been interested in science, although I didn’t know that I wanted a career in it until I started a degree in physics. I was fascinated by the way physics made the universe simpler, by showing you the connections between phenomena that seem so different. I loved the idea that everything is made of the same basic ingredients, governed by the same fundamental laws, and that it was possible to describe them and predict what would happen, and then build experiments that could test this. I just wanted to know more about it. I took a PhD in particle physics, and haven't stopped trying to understand it since. I've learnt that science is all about wanting to know why things are, and being patient and stubborn enough to never stop trying to understand more.

Professor Sheila Rowan, University of Glasgow
(Credit: Sheila Rowan)

I am Director of the Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR) in the School of Physics and Astronomy in the University of Glasgow, which has 10 staff, around 20 research assistants and research fellows and about 20 graduate students. The research of the Institute is targeted at detecting and analysing gravitational waves - 'ripples in space-time' generated out in the Universe from events such as colliding black holes, or pairs of neutron stars spiralling in towards one another. The information carried by these gravitational waves should allow us to try to understand the physics of these exotic (and often violent) astrophysical events. The existence of gravitational waves was predicted by Albert Einstein, on the basis of his theory of general relativity.

We work on designing, building, operating and analysing the data from 'interferometric gravitational wave detectors'. Gravitational waves essentially stretch and compress spacetime - but only by a very small amount - so these instruments use laser light to sense changes in the position of mirrors. If a gravitational wave passes by the detector, it will cause the positions of the mirrors to move. (Many other things can move the mirrors too, so a lot of work goes into isolating the mirrors from all other disturbances). An international network of these detectors includes the UK-German GEO600 detector (which we jointly operate with our German colleagues), the US LIGO detectors (where we are partners in the current upgrade of the instrumentation), the French-Italian Virgo detector (also being upgraded), and the Japanese detector KAGRA (being constructed in the Kamioka mine), as well as studies aimed at a proposed space-based gravitational wave detector.

As well as looking after the overall running of the IGR my personal research currently includes studies of the properties of the materials for the mirror substrates and suspensions of these interferometric detectors and their optical coatings to try to ensure any noise coming from these parts of the instruments is minimised.

Looking forward, the upgraded LIGO detectors are due to take first data next year (with the upgraded Virgo detector to follow shortly). Plans are well underway in our collaboration (which covers more than 900 scientists around the world) to harness the computing power needed to do the data analysis - this requires a combination of sophisticated algorithms and computer power to extract the signals from the data taken. We don't know precisely when that first signal will be detected, but the next few years promise to be a very exciting time....

I was (unusually) sure from a very early age that I wanted to be a physicist. I felt that there could be nothing more interesting and rewarding to do with your life than to spend it trying to understand the 'big' questions, such as “When you look out into the Universe how far does it go?”, “Where did it all come from...?”. I studied for my BSc in Physics and PhD in Glasgow, and then was lucky enough to spend time as a visiting postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, working on aspects of the lasers for GW detectors.

For several years I split my time between the University of Glasgow and the Ginzton Laboratory at Stanford University (1998-2003). That was a fantastic experience (although it involved a long commute!), being in the Bay Area right through the peak of the telecoms and internet booms and seeing not only some really great science in the labs at Stanford, but also first-hand how that translated into spin-outs. After that I was offered a Readership back in Glasgow and returned in 2003 and became Professor of Experimental Physics in 2006.

Dr Laura Kormos, University of Lancaster
(Credit: Laura Kormos)

I am an experimental particle physicist specializing in neutrino physics, working as a senior lecturer at Lancaster University.

I work on the T2K (Tokai to Kamioka) experiment in which a beam of one type of neutrinos is produced on the east coast of Japan at Tokai and aimed at a neutrino detector in the Kamioka mountains 295 km to the west.

Some of the neutrinos will interact in the detector, allowing us to determine whether or not they have changed type as they traversed the distance between Tokai and Kamioka.

Fundamental particles behave quantum mechanically, which means that we work with probabilities rather than certainties.  I can't tell you whether or not one particular neutrino will change type.  I can only tell you that if you have 100 such neutrinos, on average a certain number of them are likely to change type.  Due to this inherent uncertainty, particle physicists must create billions of particles and collect enormous data sets in order to obtain good precision on the probabilities that describe the ways in which particles behave.  Analysing these data requires large collaborations and thousands of fast computers per experiment.  In order to effectively share data and information, the World Wide Web was created by a particle physicist, and the worldwide computing grid is extensively used by particle physicists. Furthermore, computers are used for communication.  There are 500 T2K collaborators in 12 countries who hold regular meetings via computers and who communicate via emails.  It is fair to say that there would be no particle physics without computers, and that particle physics has always pushed computer technology to achieve more.

My interest in particle physics, although I didn't realize it at the time, began when I was 11.  My teacher told us that everything in the world is composed of particles much too tiny to see called molecules, and that these were composed of even tinier particles called atoms.  Later, she brought to the classroom some iron filings and a magnet.  I watched with amazement as the magnet caused the iron filings to align into beautiful, regular patterns, even though there was empty space between the magnet and the filings.

This demonstrated that the world was indeed made of particles too small to see, and they had a big effect on things!

Particle physicists study the fundamental particles that make up everything in the universe and the ways in which they coalesce to form larger structures.  The only way that we can measure the properties, such as mass, electric charge, or momentum, of particles, is if they interact in our particle detectors.  Unlike other fundamental particles, neutrinos travel almost unimpeded through the universe and almost never interact.

We must produce many billions of them so that when a tiny percentage of them interact in our detectors it will be enough for us to begin to understand them.  Neutrinos come in three unique types.  It took physicists a long time to understand their behaviour because, unlike other particles, they sometimes change from one type to another as they travel, even through a vacuum!

Dr Hiranya Peiris, University College London
(Credit: Hiranya Peiris)

The purpose of my work as cosmologist is to gain a fundamental understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe. My research involves a lot of mathematics and high performance computing, including data analysis and statistics. Some of this work requires me to work in small groups with two or three other researchers, but I also contribute to large global projects such as the Planck Satellite Collaboration and the Dark Energy Survey Collaboration, with several hundred people in many countries. Since cosmology is very international, I travel extensively, discussing research findings, giving talks, and running workshops and seminars. But I also enjoy sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with my undergraduate and postgraduate students at the university.

I value academic research, partly because it is impossible to predict where the next breakthrough is going to come from. It is extremely important for our society, and for humanity as a whole, to keep asking the big questions without regard to whether it is going to make someone money or wondering how it can be applied.

I find my work so stimulating that I will always be grateful for the influence of my parents, who encouraged my interest in science from a very early age, and to my excellent maths teacher in sixth form college, who both nurtured my interest in research and encouraged me to apply to Cambridge. Without this teacher, my early interest in astronomy would probably have remained a hobby. Instead, on completing my undergraduate degree, I undertook a PhD in Astrophysics at Princeton University in the USA, followed by fellowships at the University of Chicago and back at Cambridge, before embarking on my current role of university Reader at University College London.

Dr Suzie Sheehy, STFC
(Credit: STFC)

My work involves designing and improving particle accelerators. People who design accelerators like me are known as 'accelerator physicists' and along with our 'particle physicist' colleagues we require some pretty hefty computing power. There are billions or trillions of particles in an accelerator 'bunch' and they are all jostling electrically against each other and interacting with the walls of the accelerator, the magnets, the accelerating cavities and all the other devices. Simulating these particles and their dynamics is something that my research group (the ASTeC Intense Beams Group at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL)) are experts in. A lot of our time is spent using computers to investigate how to design accelerators which can cope with more and more particles, and we use large computing clusters here at RAL and elsewhere to run our simulations. We've also recently started collaborating with a group in Japan to use a bench-top sized plasma device to simulate particle accelerators. It's a really useful piece of equipment and we call it an 'experimental simulation' because it's not a real accelerator, but it mimics one, so in some cases it's quicker and easier for us to run a small experiment than to include all the possible physics in a computer simulation.

During my university degree I studied physics and engineering and over time I got more and more interested in the physics questions which didn't have answers. I realised that the only way to tackle those unsolved problems was to become a researcher. I guess it was at this point that I knew I'd be a scientist, although I never really thought about the 'label', I just followed what interested me and what challenged me. One area which did that a lot was particle physics. It drew me in with its combination of almost philosophical questioning about the fundamental nature of matter and the incredible technologies that were being developed to answer those same questions. Somehow, it appealed to the thinker, dreamer and 'do-er' in me all at once. So after spending some time at CERN one summer I was pretty sure I'd do a PhD in particle physics. 

In fact, chance intervened and I was offered the opportunity to work on designing a particle accelerator for cancer treatment, so I moved across the world (I'm from Australia) to the UK to take on that challenge. It was the first experience I'd had to learn about these incredible particle accelerators being used for something other than nuclear and particle physics, and it really appealed to me. I am passionate about using my knowledge of physics to change the world, whether that's through furthering our understanding of the Universe or designing a machine which can do a better job of treating sick patients. I've since learned about all the other amazing things that accelerators can do from radiocarbon dating to developing new pharmaceuticals, they really are incredibly diverse tools. 

Dr Eleanor Schofield, The Mary Rose Trust
(Credit: STFC)

Since June 2012 I have been working as the Conservation Manager at the Mary Rose Trust. My job involves overseeing and contributing to the conservation of the hull. Given the timing of when I started, this initially involved preparing the ship for the new museum and its drying phase of conservation. I also manage the conservators who work on our many artefacts and some maintenance staff who ensure the correct conditions are maintained around the artefacts. Alongside this I set up collaborations with external research institutions to investigate various aspects related to our work from assessing artefacts to developing new treatments and characterisation methods. What I like about my job is being able to explore new scientific treatments/methodologies and seeing them through to being actually implemented in the museum environment. It is also good to be working on something in the field of science that is relatively easy to explain to lay people. Actually people are often quite surprised when you say you are a scientist at the Mary Rose Trust and it is nice to be able to let them in on the amount of science that takes place behind the scenes.

I guess I started on the path for science at school and in the A-levels I chose (Maths, Physics, Chemistry). I did enjoy other subjects, and actually had it fit in the time table may have dropped one of the science subjects for a language, but I enjoyed maths and science the most. Following on from this I spent quite a bit of time poring through university courses. I came across Materials Science which I had not heard of before and did not know anyone doing it. As it seemed to incorporate aspects of all of the subjects I was enjoying and I could see the practical application of it I pursued this for my undergraduate degree. During my last year I did a research project that I really enjoyed and which set me on the track for doing a PhD. My PhD was very much fundamental science, using electrochemistry to make porous metallic materials and then using synchrotron light to characterise the properties. Following on from this I used my knowledge of synchrotron light and materials characterisation to do two postdocs, the first on an environmental science project and then the second on developing treatments for archaeological wood. Whilst doing the latter I worked with the Mary Rose Trust and became very interested in the conservation.

Read Dr Schofield's article about science and the Mary Rose on the HuffPost Tech blog.

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