Tag Archives: women

Working Class in STEM

As a working class woman about to embark on a PhD in Particle Physics, I have witnessed first hand the problems of representation and diversity in STEM education and it is a problem that needs to be acknowledged and challenged, not just for the societal benefits, but for the benefit of science and technology as a whole. I have been lucky enough to be part of a Russell Group university where I have never felt disadvantaged or undervalued.  Unfortunately, this was not the case when visiting other higher Russell Group Universities. Many people have written about the gender gap and the lack of BAME representation in STEM, but far fewer talk about the class divide when, in fact, these issues are intersectional. If we break down the barriers of class, we will simultaneously go a long way to improving gender and racial discrepancies.

According to recent analysis, by the Department of Education and the National Office of Statistics, the intake of working class students to Russell Group universities has stalled over the last decade, and, in the case of some universities, these figures have gone backwards. The analysis looked at the proportion of students from socio-economic classification groups 4-7 (coming from families from traditionally “working class” occupations) and compared the 2015/16 cohort with that of ten years prior. The analysis found that while the number of poorer students going to university has increased on the whole, within the Russell Group, that increase is only minimal. 20.8% compared with 19.5% a decade ago. Seven of the 24 Russell Group institutions have seen this number decrease in the last 10 years. A decade ago, the University of Oxford admitted roughly one in eight students from poorer backgrounds; in 15/16 that had become 1 in 10, the lowest of all the institutions.

[https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/participation-rates-in-higher-education-2006-to-2016 accessed: 14/09/2018]

We all understand the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths and in recent years there has been a big push from government and industry to fill the nations skill gap, but the class divide is causing a wealth of potential talent to fall away and this is not only damaging industry it is also damaging academia and research. Scientific research is in danger of becoming a bubble of white, privileged middle class viewpoints. Women, working class and BAME students bring with them alternative life experiences and alternative points of view that will make science and technology the richer. It is in everyone’s interest to see these figures improve.

The problem of the class divide in STEM is much wider than just a problem of university intake, but I believe that universities can be the catalyst to change. It is important to see improvements in both statistics and culture. I believe there are advantages to the radical move of caps on independent school admissions; we need to do away with an education system that lets you pay for entry into the top universities. The achievements of the working class in the history of STEM need to be highlighted and championed. We need to see larger numbers of working class academics working at the country’s top universities and those academics should feel they are able to embrace their background and lead the fight for change. Universities need to embrace working class culture and the potential value it has to offer and working class students need to feel valued within the university community. University management should no longer be able to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the great class divide.

Women in Physics

I believe getting women into physics is really important and so I am starting my blog with a short overview of three inspiring women who made great contributions to the study of physics.

Marie Curie
the first woman to win a Nobel prize! She discovered two new elements, Polonium and Radium. Curie had lumps of a fairly common mineral called pitchblend which she knew was radioactive (Radioactivity refers to particles which are emitted from nuclei due to nuclear instability), however there were no traces of the only known radioactive element uranium in it and so realised a new element must be hidden in the mineral. In order to find the new elements she had to grind the pitchblend and extract them. Radium and Polonium are extremely radioactive and it was only because she was dealing with such tiny amount that Curie lived to as long as 67, when it was eventually the cause of her death.

Maria Goeppert Mayer was a theoretical physicist who was a Nobel laureate for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. The nuclear shell model describes the structure of the nucleus in terms of energy levels. In the nuclear shell model, each nucleon moves in a central potential well created by other nucleons, just as the electrons orbit a potential well created by the nucleus in the atomic shell model. The orbits form a series of shells of increasing energy. Nuclei with completely filled outer shells are most stable. 

Lise Meitner
most notably contributed to the understanding of nuclear fission. She was one of the first to articulate a theory of how the nucleus of an atom could be split into smaller parts. Meitner, along with scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, were firing neutrons into heavy Uranium nuclei and always seemed to end up with something lighter. Meitner discovered that the extra neutron was not sticking to the uranium but causing it to split into two lighter nuclei (Barium and Krypton). It was soon realised that this process had the potential to produce large amounts of energy. Nuclear fission was then used as a source for nuclear power and, regrettably for her, led to the first atomic bomb.

This is just a very brief description of some of the amazing things these female physicists have achieved in a time when it was much harder for women to become established.