Dr. Jess Wade is a physicist working on plastic electronics at Imperial College London. She is also a superstar in the gender diversity movement. In this interview for Girls in Tech Dublin, Jess talks about her research in organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), how the book Inferior changed her life, and the fabulous work she does to get more girls into science – including writing one Wikipedia biography about an impressive woman scientist every day.
Interview by Talita Holzer
Talita: Let’s start talking about the fascinating work you do as a physicist. Can you tell us about it?
Jess: Hi! My name is Jess Wade, I’m a physicist at Imperial College London and I work in the Centre for Plastic Electronics. In my job, we are trying to make new electronic devices out of carbon-based materials. We take materials that have typically been insulators, like plastics (chains of carbon atoms connected together), but these are clever kinds of plastics. They have a really cool bonding between each carbon atom and the electrons arrange in such a way that you have two of the bonding electrons connecting to carbon together and then you have one unbonded electron, which is a perpendicular, delocalised electron on every single carbon atom. ‘Delocalised’ means that it doesn’t really have to sit there. It can sit anywhere, it can spread out and it spreads all the way along this polymer chain.
So, you have a long chain of carbon atoms connected together, each one has this delocalised electron, and you have the ability to move that sea of electrons around. You can do that either by shining some light on these materials, so you optically excite them and these electrons get a bit of energy and start moving around and doing interesting things, or you can electronically bias them, so you can push charge in and then start to drive these electrons around. This is really unheard of in plastics that you can do this. For a long time, we thought that plastics were completely insulators, that these electrons were really impossible to move around. It was very hard to go from non-conducting to conducting. These materials are much more like semiconductors, some of the times they conduct, if we shine light in them and drive them and most of the times they don’t conduct.
Then we can start to do some really interesting physics because we can tune all of that ability to conduct or not conduct or the colours that they absorb with the colours that they emit by changing their chemistry. If we put in different kinds of elements or different structures, we can change the colours. We can also process them in a completely different way to what we usually use for electronics. In most of electronics, and certainly everything that people are familiar with, we use silicon, which is a semi-conductor. And that’s great, other than silicon in a crystal is really strongly bonded to other silicon atoms, so we have to take it to really high temperatures or pressures to be able to do anything with it. That means that it’s really expensive for one, but it would also be really hard to print it onto anything flexible because you’d melt whatever flexible surface you’re putting it on. So we have these really cool materials where we can control these electronic properties with chemistry, but we can also dissolve them in solvents and then print them onto flexible substrates. So, it’ll be a much cheaper, lightweight, ultra-thin roll up kind of technology that we can create.
In particular, I’m working on light emitting diodes at the moment, that can say that organic light emitting diodes, organic because they’re carbon based, OLED, if anyone has an OLED TV or mobile phone with that display. We’re trying to do some other things to the polarisation of the light that they emit, so that the light that comes out with these LEDs isn’t just unpolorised, like normal light. We’re interested in circular polarisation. So here, the amplitude of the waves of light that come out varies and twists. It can be twisted in a left-handed or right-handed way, and this has some really cool applications. We can either use it in photo detectors for biological molecules which are often twisted, or we can use it in quantum cryptography and also really ultra-advanced displays. It’s a super interesting area that combines physics and chemistry!
Talita: And what’s your typical day like then? Do you work with lasers and cool things like that?
Jess: Yeah, I’m working with lots of lasers! So, to actually look at these molecules to try and understand what’s happening to the individual chains from a polymer, if you’ve got your long wiggly spaghetti-like thread of carbon atoms and you want to understand how each of those carbon atoms are arranging, you have to shine a laser of a particular wavelength on it, so a particular energy laser. You make all the carbon atoms in that structure start to dance about and while they’re dancing about, because they’re in this laser, they start to scatter the light from the laser. So, the light that goes back won’t be exactly the same energy that it was before. You bounced it off the top, and it goes back up again. The majority of it is the same energy. Some of that energy has gone into making these carbon atoms dance and we can compare the energy before and after and start to get an understanding of what’s happening in this polymer chain. We start to understand how it’s arranged and that’s a technique called Raman Spectroscopy and I really, really love it and I do that a lot to try and look at structures.
We also do a lot of experiments which are much more like tinkering around trying to find the best recipe we can to get the best light emitting diode that will admit the most circularly polorised light. It’s kind of trial and error, like you have an idea about a material that might work, you have an idea about what kind of structure might work, you try it out, you go back, you talk about it. It’s very much working in a team, having these ideas, discussing them, trying them, meeting up to share results and then discussing that and planning where you go next. Then, as you get more grown up in science, you have PhD students and Masters students that work with you and help you come up with these ideas and then you have to have meetings because you’re grown up and it’s boring (laughs). I think the scary thing is that meetings aren’t boring anymore, which means I definitely either became acclimatised to them or got rid of all the kind of faffy ones, but it’s really fun!
Talita: What interests did you have as a child? Do you think any of them influenced your decision to become a physicist?
Jess: Yes, so my parents are both medical doctors. So, I guess the influence there was I didn’t want to work for the NHS but I still wanted to be a scientist (laughs). I think I liked mixing things around. I love cooking. I like being in the kitchen. It’s very similar to being in a lab, just much messier. I think I was just always brought up to keep asking questions that my parents knew that they’d never be able to answer. I think that’s something you see in parents now, they get freaked out and nervous that they can’t answer questions right and therefore the family doesn’t really discuss science. But in our family, no one could ever figure out what the answers were. Lots of science is super complicated. We’re always getting to a stage even in the system that I work with, which are just a few chains of polymers, where we come up with the best physical explanation we can do, but we know it’s not exactly right because nothing’s going to be perfect and I think we always had that in my family. It would be like the best explanation we can get at the time that you can go with when none more work. Then, the internet came and we’d be able to look things up quicker.
I love facts. I like knowing things. I really like the way physics gives you this, this ability to look at the world around you, characterise it and group things together and start to put together a process to be able to do any analysis. I think I knew that physics would have that in it. I also really loved chemistry at school, so my physics and chemistry teachers were my greatest teachers in school. I also had a great art teacher, so I was like, ‘what do I do?’. So I went to Art School in Chelsea for 1 year, and that’s also an area of my life that I think is really important. Creativity is very important in any job we have, whether it’s making a killer presentation that can convince everyone of your scientific results, or if you come up with a way to do an experiment or to measure something because you’ve got to think of that. No one else has done this before. You’re supposed to be the leader in whatever tiny little discipline you’re doing, but you therefore have got to do measurements that no one’s ever thought of. You’ve got to come up with structures no one has ever thought of. And I think having creativity there is so important. I was very lucky to have all of those three things when I was at school and then I just chose physics because I thought ‘if I get a degree in physics I can definitely keep the art up and I can go back and learn chemistry’. It’s probably harder to learn physics as a chemistry graduate than it is to learn chemistry as a physics graduate.
Now it sounds like I had a grand master life plan, but I never had a life plan (laughs)! I was just like, ‘I don’t want to leave home! I don’t want to leave school!’. Then when it came to the end of University I was like ‘I don’t want to leave University, I’ll do a Masters. I don’t want to leave my Masters, I’ll do a PhD!’ and now I literally can’t leave South Kensington, so I’ll just have to stay here or, like, work in the Science Museum (laughs).
Talita: Moving to your work advocating for women in STEM. Can you tell us a little bit about the initiatives that you’re involved in?
Jess: Obviously in the UK and globally we don’t have enough girls particularly taking things like physics and engineering. We don’t have enough girls choosing subjects like physics and engineering and Further Maths at school and that influences how many women there are later on in life. We have a really big challenge in schools in the UK and more broadly in that we don’t have enough subject specialists teaching different subjects. For physics, computer science and maths, we don’t have any physicists, or computer scientists or mathematicians teaching them because when you graduate in those subjects, there are so many careers you can have, the chances that you’ll go back and become a teacher are very low.
For a very long time, since Darwin onwards actually, women have been told that there are things that they are very different to men, their brains are different, they have different hobbies, they have different abilities and that has really impacted what young girls think of themselves. We bring up children now and we give them different toys and we dress them differently and we very much tell girls that subjects like maths, physics and engineering aren’t for them. Simultaneously, we have this really big shortage of skilled teachers who can convince students that they’ve put what it takes to be able to teach the subject.
We have this problem in the UK that we make people specialise very early. We make people choose what subjects they’re going to do at the age of about 14. So at 14 we say ‘these are the subjects you’re going to choose for the rest of your life’. The terrible, terrible, terrible thing there is that if you don’t choose to do physics and maths, you can’t do any kind of engineering. That’s a really frightening thing we do to people when they’re really young and when they’re not mature themselves and when particularly girls have been told the whole time, ‘you’re not as good as the boys’. Then, we give them these teachers who aren’t convincing. I could see through it in my teachers who I didn’t think were up to teaching the course and I could also feel what other people expected you to do, right? So if I wasn’t so determined and resolute to do these subjects, then I could have just gone and done a subject where I’d have fitted much in, the class would have been much bigger, there would have been a teacher who would probably have done a degree in that. And that’s where I think we’ve got a really big challenge.
The Institute of Physics in the UK do some really, really great work on trying to tackle that. They’ve done a huge amount of training for physics teachers and they’ve worked really well. To get non-specialist teachers (people who teach physics but have no proper qualification in physics) to feel confident enough and have the right resources to be able to teach it properly. That’s had a really great effect in increasing the number of people taking physics, but it’s increased boys and girls equally. The work to increase the number of girls in physics really comes down to working with the whole school and really the whole of society, because we all should be working together to get rid of these stereotypes. We all need to make sure that young women and young men know that they can do anything that they actually want to do.
When I started off my postgraduate degree I was doing a lot of going into schools and teaching, talking to schools and talking to young people. I think that is powerful and it’s great for your self-confidence. So, it was great for me. I had a great time doing it, but I don’t think it has the sustained impact on young people that I necessarily wanted it to have. So I think they might remember me for like a minute, they probably remember me at lunchtime, but they’re definitely not going to remember me when it comes to two years when they’re trying to decide what subjects to study. So, I’ve been working a lot more closely with the Institute of physics and trying to strategically think about how we can support parents and teachers so that they know to get rid of these stereotypes, because they’re the people who are with young people every day.
I do stuff with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) to try and support young women at Universities, so women in physics departments and in engineering departments, particularly trying to build networks, find mentors and support them into applying for talks and for prizes, really building the sense of community. It’s one thing getting girls into science, and I think that’s very great and very valid, but what we really need to do is make sure subjects like science and engineering are super great when they get there so that they stay. That’s about making this community a better place and one where we really celebrate each other. One way I’ve been doing that this year has been trying to make sure that women are better represented on Wikipedia. In the English-speaking Wikipedia, only 17% of the 1.5 million biographies are about women. It’s about the same in all languages. So, we have a very long way to go into making sure that women and people of colour in science are represented. I think that what I’ve been doing this year is trying to make sure that when young people are at home and they google things that the names who come up aren’t all just a wall of white men, because that’s what happens all the time. I’m definitely trying to build a sense of community inside science, but also project that community onto the internet. That’s what young people see.
Talita: You said before that there’s a lot of money going into those types of initiatives, but they simply don’t work. How can we change this?
Jess: At the moment, industry and academia and all of these different players in this whole diversity game have the sense that they have to be doing something and quite right, they have to be doing something. You know, if you’ve got 95% men and you’re paying men way more and you have all of these various things happening in your company, then you really do have to take a long, hard look at yourself and think about what’s going on. I think the quickest thing to do is assume you know the answer to whatever challenge it is. So, if you don’t have women in senior levels, it’s ‘oh, we know the answer and the answer is we don’t have enough women coming in as graduates’ and really that might not be it. It might just be that you’ve got such a horrible environment that when women are there, they aren’t staying. It might be that women aren’t ever returning when they go off to have children. It might be that you’re not promoting them because of crippling bias in your ‘promotions team’.
A thing that we don’t do, and what was very surprising for me, is that we don’t do enough sitting back and reflecting and analysing what the situation is and then acting on that. As a scientist, you see a problem, you come up with a theory, you test that theory, and then you act on that, right? You conclude, you evaluate, you report. But in all of these different education initiatives and especially the ones focused on girls and science, it’s like, oh, we know the answer, the answer is this really flashy video, or we know the answer, the answer is X. Instead of trying to come up with something that’s based on evidence, they just spend like £400,000 because that looks like a commitment and all it would literally take would be all of those private companies to invest in proper teacher training and proper networks and opportunities to support the women who were there. If they train teachers better in schools both to understand academic and industry science and engineering careers, but also to be able to deliver the content that’s relevant to everyday life now. It’s 2018, we don’t play with bricks or whatever we used to learn about in physics. It’s just not like that. So if we did that training from industry, supporting it for teachers, that would have a huge effect.
If we also worked on this community so that we didn’t have things like sexual harassment against underrepresented groups in science and engineering. If we didn’t have the really big bias that happens both in peer review and also in grant allocation panels and various things like that, that really affect women in academia. If we had a much more clear framework to support women before they go on and when they return from maternity leave, so that you could put a grant on hold, so that you could have your lab keep going, so they could keep getting access to science papers, so you wouldn’t be spoken about weirdly if you didn’t want to go out drinking on a Tuesday night. That’s why I really think science as a whole, the whole framework of it, is built to support one kind of person and that one kind of person is a white man. A white man who has no commitments to their family. Even if you’re not supporting kids, but you’ve got parents who are older or something like that, we really need to upgrade what the system is, because we’ve got younger people coming in and I think now scientists contribute so much more broadly to society than they ever have done before. You know, they comment, they work in these papers, they write books, they do popular lecture tours, they might have a startup on the side, they have that whole lab group who they want to be happy people, but they want to do their research, they have to teach, and I think we really haven’t got any way to recognise that. Wikipedia pages are really great because you really can tell those stories there, but I think that’s something that Universities and society have to get a proper hook on.
Talita: On that note, you’re organising an event called Game Changers for Diversity, right?
Jess: Yes, I think this is going to be great! On the organising team, we have a great post graduate fellow at Cambridge, who works in neurosciences called Sarah Morgan and Hannah Williams, who is a post-doctoral student at Imperial working with Cold Matter Physics. All of us have got a bit bummed out with all diversity initiatives in the UK, that have just spent maybe £5 million a year, and are not showing any results. We also know that going on all around the UK and more broadly, there are a huge number of initiatives that are trying to get more girls, young women and people of colour, underrepresented groups into science. Everyone’s working separately, everyone thinks they know the answer and they go ‘I’ll just do it’ or ‘we’ll do it over here and really quietly’. No one’s really thinking about how we can work together to do these things.
What we want to do is bring all of these people, or as many as we can, into a room for two days and get them working together on problems. Not everyone will be working on their own problems, some of them will recognise another problem that would be fun to work on or want to work on a team. After these two days of working, they’ll present their ideas to people who have really serious money to invest in them. To say ‘here’s a bunch of evidence, this is our idea that we’ve come up with based on it’ and we’re going to invest in it and support you. Then, proposals from inside the scientific community will go forward rather than just a bunch of CEOs sitting around the table thinking they know the answer. We’ll get it from people who are actually doing.
We’ve got so much money for travel costs and accommodation and childcare, and I think that’s really cool. Most of these activities, especially when they happen in the UK, are very London-centric, so it’s all in London. It’s prohibitively expensive to stay in London, it’s very hard to get childcare and if we can help in any way to mitigate that, then we definitely will. We have to be in London because the venue that we’ve got is in London, but with we’ve put money in to support people from outside London to come in.
Talita: Going back to the Wikipedia entries, you’ve done about 300 since the beginning of the year, right? That’s really impressive! How did this interest begin?
Jess: I think that Wikipedia is incredible. It’s the fifth most accessed website in the world, about 30 million accesses a day. Everyone goes on Wikipedia, whether they want to admit it or they don’t want to admit it. Whether they want to say they found their sources there or not, everyone uses it as a first point of reference and for a long time I thought it was great and they’re really reliable results. Then, I went to an edit-a-thon, held by my friend Alice White, who works at the Wellcome Collection, and she was doing this edit-a-thon with the Women’s Engineering Society trying to get that archived content of the Woman Engineer, which is a journal that they’ve had for 100 years, onto Wikipedia, and she showed me how biased it was. Obviously the majority of content is contributed by volunteers and on English-speaking Wikipedia. About 90% of those volunteers are men. As a result, they create content that they’re interested in and familiar with and to come out of that and have only 17% of the biographies be about women, I think it’s really terrifying. It’s not like they don’t know women. It’s not like they don’t see women’s contributions to society.
There are funny things in Wikipedia. You have to be relatively notable to have a page, to have a biography about you. Notability criteria are very dated in academia, it’s basically the number of citations you get and whether you are a professor. As we’ve already discussed, that restricts women basically because of all the biases involved in getting promoted to professor. So, it’s a really interesting dilemma that you have basically men editing it. You have these prosaic notability criteria ruling women out from being able to do it.
So, I realised I could actually change this. I did a few edits last year and I found it really fun. Then, over Christmas, I was just like, ‘I’m just going to make one every single day and then we’ll see how it is’. The great thing now is that a lot of people are editing them too, so a lot of other people are making pages both in English and in other languages, but also about women that they’ve seen speak and that they’re inspired by. I think that’s really cool. As long as we channel all of this enthusiasm about promoting underrepresented groups in science into something that’s constructed and free, not just creating another platform, not just making another Instagram account for like, ‘oh, let’s feature one great women a day’. This is where young people are at, this is what they’re using and this is where we’ll change it.
Talita: I’m curious about the process. How do choose who you’re going to write about?
Jess: There’s no logic! I have a spreadsheet which started off as a list of all the TED fellows I noticed didn’t have Wikipedia pages. It’s just called ‘TED fellows’, but now it’s my go-to Wikipedia list. I started with just going through university websites, going through prize winners from different learned societies, doing all of these things and then after that I was like, ‘okay, I need to up my game’ because I realised that even if you do that, you basically get all white women.
There’s a great Twitter account called @BlackPhysicists, and they send me loads of physicists from Africa and African American professors. Also going through the Wellcome Trust, which has a really great fund for African researchers to be able to do research both here and in America. Going through those lists, you see people who had phenomenal lives. If you start off doing electronic engineering in Tanzania, you can’t do a PhD there because you physically can’t. So it’s not just that society has these biases, you actually have to move country. So, it’s just amazing finding these people. Now, after the article in the Guardian about all the Wikipedia stuff, so many people have just been emailing me names, every day it’s like two more names, ‘oh, just look up my old colleague’. It’s really great! It’s really heartening to have all these suggestions from all over the world.
Talita: How can people help with this?
Jess: Everyone can log onto Wikipedia and start editing. Everyone can find me on Twitter, I’m just @jesswade, and then I’ll send you some documents about how you can start. It’s really just the case of going through the page and then going to the top right and click log in and going through it, it’s very basic to sign up. Then, you look at a page that you like the format of, kind of copy the style, like the section headings and things like that and start to write it. It’s really important that you’re not closely related to the subject, it can’t be like your mom or your boss or someone like that, and that you remain completely neutral in your description. It can’t be like ‘Jess is the most amazing physicist in the whole world’ (laughs). You have to keep a neutral point of view, they say. So anyone can start doing that and start editing.
If people have time, and are interested in it, there’s a network called 500 Women Scientists, which started off as a group of women in America, that needed more suggestions for women speakers at academic conferences, (for example, I’ve just been invited to talk at a conference which is all men on the agenda). So they needed to create this list of names and they thought they’d get 500 women to sign up and after about a week they had 20,000 pledges from women all over the world! They have loads of resources on that site too about how to host an edit-a-thon and how to do this kind of thing. It’s also a great opportunity to be able to meet people in countries all over the world. They have these local pods that meet up regularly and so people can get involved with that too.
Talita: You’re also raising money to get a copy of the book Inferior in every State School in the UK. Can you tell us about the book and the campaign?
Jess: Inferior (How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story) is an incredible book by Angela Saini, who is a science writer. She was asked by the Guardian to write an article about the menopause and realised there wasn’t a huge amount of science done in the menopause. No one really understood it. It’s because it’s about women, and men for a long time have been dominating in science and therefore haven’t really, really researched women’s issues. Inferior is a really big look at why we have these stereotypes in society, the damaging ones, the dangerous ones, that tell little girls what they can and can’t be interested in. It’s Angela going through and taking apart all of these “scientific studies” and looking at how the bias of the scientists involved influenced the outcome of the evidence that they’ve collected.
When Darwin first said that women were intellectually inferior in his book, The Descent of Man, he was looking at a world around him in the 1800s where women were inferior in every sense of it. They couldn’t go to University, they couldn’t graduate from University, they couldn’t become fellows of The Royal Society, they couldn’t even own property. He was looking at a very biased world and saying ‘and as a result, women are clearly intellectually inferior’, but they were only any way different because of all the things that were holding them back. There have been so many cases of this, where people have looked at a biased situation and analysed that as women’s deficiency and it’s infuriating and unempowering. But also you meet these women along the way who’ve just said ‘this isn’t right’. When Darwin was writing this, there was a woman called Caroline Kennard who was just writing to him and saying ‘how can you say all of these things when we’re not even allowed to have the same primary education as you?’.
I just found reading Inferior really made me rethink what this whole problem is. It’s not a problem that 2018 has imposed on us. It’s a problem that’s gone a lot, lot longer back than that. Throughout those, you know, 100, 200 years there have been women at every single stage saying ‘this isn’t right’, saying ‘we can stand up to this and we can change this’. That’s what I think our generation can do. There’s so much enthusiasm here. I want all young women and young men to read this book and to see the origins of bias and, how if we’re not careful, it can creep into anything. Whether it’s our understanding of a neuroscience experiment, which is what’s particularly discussed in the book, or if it’s the way that we interpret news or anything that’s going on now. This is all happening because the media has a very powerful way of manipulating what image they want to portray of men or women, of Brexit or not Brexit, of Trump or Hillary. It’s really important we start to question the origin of where facts come from and that’s why I think it’s such a great book for everyone to read. So yes, I’m fundraising for it and hopefully this weekend we’ll get a massive boost because it’s going in the Guardian and the Observer, which is the coolest thing ever. But I genuinely think it really, really made me rethink things. It just made me think everyone has to read this book because everyone has to realise that they can do anything and that everything holding them back is complete rubbish.
(Since our interview, Jess’ campaign reached their €20,000 target! Next year, there will be a copy of Inferior in every library of every secondary state school in the UK and Ireland.)