Physics graduate initiates her own celebration of women in physics

22 February 2018

Recent physics graduate Natasha Wright has organised a Celebration of Women in Physics with a programme of talks by world-leading scientists – on her own initiative but with the backing of IOP.

Physics graduate initiates her own celebratation of women in physics

Natasha, who graduated from Imperial College London in October, has arranged the event on 10 March – two days after International Women’s Day – at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. Currently, the speakers include Professor Fay Dowker, a theoretical physicist at Imperial who completed her PhD on “space–time wormholes” under the supervision of Professor Stephen Hawking and will be speaking about her current research on quantum gravity.

Professor Anna Scaife, head of the Jodrell Bank Interferometry Centre of Excellence, will speak about the work she is leading in astronomy and Dr Yvonne Peters a Reader in particle physics at the University of Manchester who is investigating the Higgs boson at CERN, will talk on exploring the frontiers of particle physics. Also due to speak is Dr Jessica Boland, winner of IOP’s 2017 Jocelyn Bell Burnell Medal and Prize.

Natasha had the idea for the celebration after going to an IOP lecture in December. “I was quite surprised to find that very few of the people attending were female or in the younger age groups. I was disappointed that for a free, public lecture this was the case and after asking, I discovered that it was usually so.

“I've been an IOP member since sixth form and went to some of the public lectures put on then, which probably prompted me to think about doing a physics degree. I guess that's part of the reason why I was disappointed not to see more students –  especially female – at the lecture.

“I could understand why a low number of girls would attend, as it can feel intimidating, but the IOP monthly lectures are such a good opportunity to learn more about physics research that I wondered how I could make them more popular with younger, female students.

“I said this to IOP’s North West Regional Officer Hannah Renshall and she suggested that I put on my own event, so I thought an afternoon of lectures by female scientists would be fun. It just so happened that the week I was looking at coincided with International Women's Day. The afternoon has been organised on my own initiative, but IOP has been really supportive.

“I’ve never organised anything like this before so to find speakers I looked at the academic staff pages of university physics departments and emailed the women that I found worked there, particularly if I had seen they’d done outreach work before. I had such a quick, positive response from so many wanting to take part that I did have to turn a few down.”

Natasha is keen to help build support for women in physics. “I've always enjoyed maths and science but I think that most female physics students have it slightly harder than male students. You're surrounded by males, taught by males and taught about males most of the time.

“You can get used to this to a certain extent, but some things can still affect you,” she says, recalling an incident that happened to her when she was in the sixth form – “being in a classroom of boys and the male physics teacher telling you that females’ brains are not suited to study physics because they can’t think in 3D as well as men, so should stick to language-based subjects”.

She said: “Luckily for me, any comments like this that have been made over the years have only spurred me on, and hopefully, with more females going into STEM, archaic attitudes towards women in science will disappear.

Physics graduate initiates her own celebratation of women in physics

“I hope that my event will inspire some girls to continue their STEM education by showing that there is a supportive community of women in science and also lots of women at the forefront of their fields. I also hope that parents of younger students come along and learn about physics, because their support is just as important for encouraging girls to stay in STEM.”

Natasha currently serves on IOP’s Manchester Branch Committee and starts an MSc Physics in Germany in April. “After that I'm not sure what my plans will be, but I would like to continue doing outreach work in my spare time,” she said. “I may very well organise similar events in the future if this one goes well, though I think I'll need a break from event-organising first!”

Hannah Renshall commented: “It’s been a joy to work with Natasha – considering she only first got in touch about north west volunteering opportunities towards the end of November, she’s already done so much in working towards our goal of challenging the stereotypes of gender in physics for sixth-formers and their families across Greater Manchester.

“Skills required to organise events and manage partnerships well aren’t something that’s taught in physics degrees but all those soft skills are really important to succeed in any career path, and so she’s done a brilliant job in smashing negative stereotypes of physicists herself. On behalf of the local Manchester and District Branch, we’d like to wish her all the best for her master’s degree in Germany next year.”