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Once a physicist: Lucy Heady

What sparked your interest in physics?
I have always been fascinated by how the world works and how counterintuitive it is. What really switched me on to physics is that all these things you think are true and obvious actually aren't. Intuitively, you would think that a heavier ball would fall faster than a lighter ball, but it doesn't, and although the world around us seems deterministic, quantum mechanics tells us it's not. I just loved this idea that the world isn't how you think it is.

How did you get drawn into the charitable sector? 
I did a PhD at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory on applications of density functional theory to biological molecules and towards the end of my PhD I started to get interested in how scientific results were being used. I did an internship with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology that gave me some insight into how people actually make decisions and how science can get incorporated into those decisions. As part of that, I just sort of fell for the whole area of social policy in general. I became fascinated by how people use all sorts of evidence – not just scientific evidence but also social scientific evidence – and I found economics appealing because you can work on very human problems, but with underlying mathematical models to help you explain some of the macroscopic phenomena you see. So I went to work for an organization called New Philanthropy Capital that is trying to get philanthropists and donors of all types to give money based on evidence. I had always assumed that that was how such decisions were made, but actually, it was the exception rather than the rule.

What was your role there? 
When I started out, I was trying to do quantitative numerical analysis to show where to invest your money if you want to have an impact, but it quickly became clear that there just wasn't the information to be able to say anything very certain around that. So I turned my attention to working with the charities and non-profits themselves to try to generate more evidence and data about what works to, say, reduce homelessness or improve exam results and so on.

Did you get a lot of resistance, or were the charities enthusiastic? 
There were some organizations that really wanted to do this, because they understood the benefits of knowing whether what they were doing actually worked. But there was (and still is) also a really strong sense in the UK charity sector that if you want to have a positive impact, then you will, and that measurement kind of undermines that. One person said to me, "Can you really measure love?"

What are you working on now? 
I work for Nesta, which is a charity that acts as an innovation foundation. The idea of the fund is to invest in small businesses that are trying to have a social impact as well as grow into successful commercial operations, and we're specifically looking for businesses where achieving a positive social impact will add to their commercial success. For example, one of the companies we work with provides online mathematics tutoring for primary school children. That company is only going to be successful if it can demonstrate to teachers that it improves exam results for children. My role as impact director is about vetting potential companies for the social impact we think they will have, and it's also about setting our fund strategy, as well as helping portfolio companies to measure their impact. Investing for social impact is a very new area. This idea that you can have a successful venture capital fund that will give a market level of return and create social impact at the same time – that's unknown, and that's what attracted me to the job.

How has your physics background helped you? 
In the social science sector, I've found that people often just want to get a big chunk of data, do some statistical analysis and see what correlates with what. But that information is often not very useful in terms of working out how to improve impact. So I think physics has helped me appreciate the importance of understanding the underlying mechanism, of having a model for the mechanism, and using that model to structure how you collect data. Physics also helped me to appreciate the imagination required to solve a problem – you need to attack it in several different ways, use lots of different theories and maybe even do experiments in several different ways to see whether you are getting consistent answers before deciding on the most promising avenue. Finally, in the sector I work in now there is a big drive towards having standardized approaches to aggregating data, and I can see why that's useful – my physics background makes me really uncomfortable with the idea that you would ever combine data that's collected in different ways without understanding the different levels of rigour with which it has been collected.

Any advice for today's students? 
Always do what you find most interesting. Be guided by that. After I had my first or second job, it was fantastic to be able to talk in job interviews about my experience and be genuinely passionate about what I had achieved. I think that what sets you up best for having a fulfilling career is finding experiences that will interest you.