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Female Leaders: Dr Jess Wade

Words by Florence Robson

Dr Jess Wade is an excitable scientist with an enthusiasm for equality. She has been involved in several projects to improve gender inclusion in science, as well as encouraging more young people to study science and engineering. Jess has won numerous awards, such as Institute of Physics (IOP) Early Career Communicator Prize (2015), “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!” (2015), the IOP Jocelyn Bell Burnell Award (2016) and the IOP Daphne Jackson Medal and Prize (2018). Jess sits on the committees of the IOP’s Women in Physics Group, Physics Communicators Group and London & South East Branch. She is on the Council of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) Young Women’s Board.

She is a keen Wikipedian, and is helping to upload the biographies of women, LGBTQ+ and POC scientists - creating one every day in 2018.

What do you love most about science?

Physics is the subject that unites everything. It makes connections between different aspects of the world and finds neat solutions. I like being able to look at things that aren’t immediately obvious and try to work them out, and physics gives you the framework to look at the world around you and interpret it. It teaches you how to question things properly. I think lot of the challenges we face today stem from the fact that people have lost the ability to question information when it is presented to them. The fake news phenomenon is one example – very people interrogate reports or spend a few minutes researching the real facts.

The UK school curriculum separates subjects into distinct disciplines, but nothing is actually separate. Everything you learn in maths will make your life easier, whether it’s sorting your taxes or fixing your Wi-Fi!

Why do you think so many young people decide that STEM subjects aren’t for them?

For too long scientists have got away with not focusing on their interpersonal skills and their ability to admire those skills in others. There’s a misconception that physicists and engineers are geniuses sitting in ivory towers doing equations on blackboards. It has made the field a bit elitist and that puts young people off. Everyone gets nervous, everyone makes mistakes, everyone’s experiments break, and everyone feels like they’re going to be caught out for not knowing everything. Imposter syndrome is everywhere. Lots of research fails – the point of experiments isn’t to prove what you want to show, they are to see whether something will happen. In fact, the majority of experiments shouldn’t work – it’s not like we discover ibuprofen every day - but you never hear about the things that don’t work.

My advice would be to find the thing that keeps you curious and awake and asking questions, and focus on that. There’s societal bias which tells boys and girls that they should have different career aspirations, and it starts when they’re really little. We also have a big shortage of skills specialist teachers, so more often than not young people are learning science from a non-scientist. It’s really hard to see how you could contribute to a profession if the whole world tells you that you have to be a genius to succeed and the people who you are learning from aren’t very convincing.

What does your working day look like?

I’m working in a team that is trying to create new light emitting diodes. We work with carbon-based materials, which is one of the most abundant elements in the universe and it’s very light. We dissolve polymers based on carbon in common organic solvents (like acetone) and make solutions that have really surprising electronic properties, and by being clever about the way that we print it or mix it, we can make things like solar panel or light-emitting sensors. I think as a grown up you're supposed to have dull days with lots of meetings, but as our experiments become more exciting,the meetings have become fascinating as well. Working with our great PhD students, we try and come up with new mixtures and devices, then try to work out whether it’s better than the one before and why.

Tell us about your Wikipedia mission. Where did the idea come from?

I read this great book called ‘Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong’ by an engineer-turned-science-writer called Angela Saini, which provided lots of examples of all these cheerleaders throughout history who were pushing back against stereotypes and advocating for other women. That inspired me to think ‘I can do this now!’

Wikipedia is a great platform to explain the most exciting science going on in the world today, and the diverse scientists who do it – it’s in so many languages, it’s the fifth most accessed website in the world and everyone uses it, from doctors to schoolchildren. It’s very important to make sure that it’s impartial and represents the world in the best way possible but, beyond that, I think it has the power to be a really useful tool to educate people about diversity and the lack of it.

How do you choose which women to feature?

I look at university websites, recent prize winners, who has been given an MBE, who is a fellow of the Royal Society. Maybe they’ve done really cool research; maybe they’ve discovered an element, maybe they’ve written a book. People also send me suggestions of sensational people who are really contributing to our understanding of the world. Before writing each profile, I do some research to discover exactly what they do and why it’s useful to the world, as having a low quality Wikipedia page can be more detrimental than not having one at all. Scientists and engineers have the research skills to do that and the enthusiasm to drive positive change.

Do you have any particular favourites from the stories you’ve unearthed?

Susan Goldberg, the Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Magazine. She’s the first woman to be Editor there in their whole history and has had the most incredible career. She’s been such a champion for them improving their diversity, for example, publishing their January 2017 issue on gender around the world. When they released that issue, thousands of people wrote in to complain, cancelled their subscription or even sent back their issues fully wrapped, but Susan championed it and made it happen nonetheless. It was a real surprise to try and find out more about her and then realise she didn’t have a Wikipedia page. She’s someone who is changing the way we tell stories and creating a new generation of diverse storytellers: and her readership is more than 60 million a month.

How does this project fit with other ‘girls in STEM education initiatives', and how has the community responded?

I think we need to get better at speaking up and admitting when education and outreach initiatives don’t work. The majority of these campaigns spend a huge amount of money and are accountable to no one: there are thousands of STEM competitions and one-off events which don’t change anyone’s mind about their A-Levels. They don’t work, and I’ll challenge anyone who says otherwise.

The work of the Institute of Physics has demonstrated how long-term commitment to challenging gender stereotypes across a whole school can have a significant impact on young people’s subject choices: I’ll amplify their research whenever I have a chance.

Unfortunately, advocating for minority groups in science isn’t something that’s necessarily respected in academic circles. Of course a bunch of academics think that the only important thing is publishing papers and getting big grants. Thankfully, there are a lot of forward thinking academics who disagree with that - the culture and context in which we do our research is so important, particularly to keep diverse voices in academia.

Where do you find the confidence to speak out?

I just…don’t care. My great friend the brilliant physicist Dr Emma Chapman (astrophysicist at Imperial College and winner of the Royal Society Athena Prize) recently made me a sign that says "Thou Shalt Not Read The Comments". Why do I keep going? Because I want things to be done properly and for people to do the homework. Of course, scientists have to get better at making young people want to get involved and stay in the industry. I have a bunch of brilliant friends all over the world, and will try wherever I can to help people connect to opportunities. I encourage everyone else to do the same. It doesn’t always have to be a woman helping another woman – in fact, most of the people who help me every day are men.

What advice would you give to girls interested in a career in science?

Never allow anyone to tell you what to do – if you study physics, you’re going to get so many opportunities thrown at you for the rest of your life. Everyone wants to employ scientists, which is something that you don’t necessarily appreciate that when you’re at school. Girls are especially in demand – the challenging part is choosing what to do from all the options in front of you. Trust yourself to make the right decision.

To stay up to date with Jess, follow her on Twitter.

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