Professor Dame Julia Higgins on why everyone should engage with science

April 26, 2017

Professor Dame Julia Higgins is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London. She is the current president-elect of the Institute of Physics, and has served on the board of directors of Lonza Group, a Swiss chemical company. Her outstanding work in the field of polymer science has been recognised with knighthood. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the Royal Academy of Engineering. In this interview, she shares why science is important for everybody, her foray into physics, how the science landscape now attracts more women, and what needs to be done to keep the sciences interesting and relevant for the younger generation.

 

 

“I wasn’t ever pushed back because I was a woman. There were occasional instances where people assumed I was Prof Higgins’ secretary, or similar things. These prejudices used to make me very angry, but I think I was quite lucky, in general.”

 

 

Why should people study sciences? How can we encourage the new generation to choose to study and practise science?

 

This is the biggest question the education system is struggling to answer at the moment! Science is a part of being human and is a result of curiosity about the world around us. It should be a fundamental part of human nature, like being able to read or to walk. To me, it seems extraordinary that people aren’t inquisitive enough. I suppose teaching has gone wrong somewhere.

There is an awful amount of technology around us, and we ought to be able to understand it-especially because we cannot imagine a world without computers and mobile phones!

Another area where sciences become really important in our lives and have a huge impact on our future is related to policy making. Politicians are making decisions on scientific matters for us. Sometimes these laws are not based on scientific reasoning and we should know enough about the subject to make the right choice. Consider climate change as an example: if we are unaware or don’t understand the arguments on either side of the debate, then we cannot exercise our vote in an informed way.

In addition to all of these, science actually leads to a variety of some very interesting careers, which most people are not aware of. Scientists contribute not only in academia and industry, but also in policy making and consulting amongst many others.

 

 

What should be done to improve the understanding, excitement and appreciation for scientific research in society?

 

Understanding of the sciences and their importance in every aspect of our lives needs to be effectively communicated to children and their families. This should be done as soon as possible. Currently, science is taught as just a subject, and unfortunately, sometimes the pedagogy may be boring. In junior school, children aren’t made aware of all the opportunities available to them with a science degree. Up until the sixth form, nothing is said about career prospects, and the only science careers young children are aware of are teachers, doctors and nurses! They don’t know what science and engineering can do. Even more importantly, when schoolchildren take a decisions to skip studying a subject, such as mathematics, chemistry or physics, they don’t know how many doors that closes for them.

We must do everything we can to make science interesting and fun, such as taking young ones to see and conduct experiments, which pique their interest because of their hands-on nature. Schools may not necessarily be able to do this, but universities can. Some universities, such as Imperial College have laboratories set up where primary school children come and do experiments.

Furthermore, the syllabus should be changed to cover less material, but in an interesting way. The current curriculum packs in a lot of information, forgetting that having all these concepts in the textbook doesn’t mean the students know them. We could also do with fewer examinations. Since many decisions are taken when pupils are very young, we should start talking to children about careers in the broadest sense from an early age.

 

Are you personally involved in science outreach activities, especially on promoting science education? How has the education system responded to the campaign to reinvigorate science teaching?

 

Yes, I was part of a committee which produced a big report for the Royal Society, titled ‘A Vision for Science and Mathematics Education’. It was a document illustrating how science ought to be taught and many of the ideas I have mentioned are from there. Changes are slowly being made to implement some of the recommendations. A syllabus for the core for science is being developed, tailored to children up to the age of 18, who are not doing A-level science. The report has only been out for a few years, so it will take time for all the changes to be incorporated. Unfortunately, the new education secretary hasn’t been as keen on implementing these changes, as the old one probably would have been. This is such a shame!

 

In many scientific departments, there are more men than women. What do you think causes that and how can we attract more women to science? If there are obstacles, how can those be overcome?

 

At Imperial College London’s Chemical Engineering department, we have it better than many others. Physics appears to be the ‘stopping point’ for getting more girls into science. Fewer girls study it at the school level, automatically precluding them from many engineering disciplines.

There seem to be several reasons for this problem, starting with the societal view that physics is something girls don’t do, which female students then begin to absorb. Though it is natural phenomenon, it is imperative to acknowledge the role of unconscious bias in this as well. The Institute of Physics (IOP) has published a series of reports investigating why girls are less likely to study physics, and why boys are not as inclined to take up humanities or languages.

There is also some evidence that it is harder to get a better grade in physics than in other subjects, which puts people off further.

It is a very complicated issue which people have tried to address over the years but seems to be improving slowly. Our physics department has 20-25% girls in it. My friend, who is older than me, did the same course years ago and she was the only girl in the whole department!

A lot of preconceptions exist about what girls and boys should and shouldn’t study. These need to change in the entire school ethos. In the UK, it is interesting to see that in all girl’s schools; more girls take up physics than in co-education schools. Similarly, more boys tend to pursue humanities or arts if they are in all-boy’s schools as opposed to co-education schools. In France, however, people who study science have higher grades in the Baccalaureate, which encourages more people to study it. It is a complex issue.

 

You studied physics as an undergraduate student, and then undertook a doctorate in physical chemistry. How did that come about? Did you ever encounter sexism in your career?

 

I attended an all-girl’s school, which made it easier to pursue physics as a choice. There weren’t many of us, but nobody dissuaded us from reading physics. I studied physics as an undergraduate at Oxford University, where there were only 10 girls in a class of 200. However, in those days, only five colleges admitted women. So, even though we were a handful of girls in total, there was a sizeable number in the colleges. This gave us all a feeling of support. I went on to pursue a PhD under a very young supervisor at Oxford. He encouraged women to earn doctorates and I didn’t face any bias on that front. As I got older, the main problem was the occasional loneliness. It’s nice to have a mixed group, but it’s also nice to have a conversation with a woman sometimes. The problem was, there weren’t many around!

I wasn’t ever pushed back because I was a woman. There were occasional instances where people assumed I was Prof. Higgins’ secretary, or similar things. These prejudices used to make me very angry, but I think I was quite lucky, in general.

 

Who inspires you? Are there people that shaped the way you think and do/did you have a mentor?

 

I had an extremely good physics teacher. She was very young; only about 10 years older than me. I think I was naturally inclined towards physics, but she is the reason I decided to study it. She taught the subject so well.

The head of Somerville College (which I attended) at the University of Oxford was a lady named Dame Janet Vaughan. She was a distinguished physiologist who did pioneering work in blood transfusions, particularly at the end of World War II. I found her an inspiring figure, though she wasn’t from my field of study. Besides these, there weren’t unfortunately many women around in science to have as role models!

 

What do you work on, and how does it benefit humanity?

 

I was interested in how molecules interact with each other. My PhD involved using neutron scattering, a special analytical technique, to examine molecules. It was during my post-doc, when I really started to put my research ideas together. I examined synthetic polymers (commonly known as plastics) and studied their structure and unique characteristics in relation to their physical properties and behaviour. Understanding these correlations helps engineer these complex compounds in a better and more efficient way and improves the processing for specific applications. Though I didn’t invent new materials, the work we did helped to foster the understanding in this area.

Recently, promising work has been done on recycling plastic waste, which is a big innovative step towards a greener future.

 

How should scientists communicate with politicians, the public and the media to talk about their work?

 

If you try to communicate science to the general public, you need to tell a story. We need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and it can be quite frightening. One should really have the drive to want to tell the public about something, and it needs to have a familiar narrative. I recently heard someone say, “We are a storytelling species” on the radio. This is very apt.

During undergraduate studies, having students present their work to their peers and other people helps develop these communicating and outreach skills. Scientists must remember that the general public doesn’t speak their language. Complex concepts must be related to simpler ones which people are already comfortable and familiar with. This helps put things into the right context and the public can then engage with the idea.

Politics and social sciences are hugely important because they exhibit how people think. It is crucial for scientists to talk to politicians, and isn’t always easy. I would love to see some people in science go into politics, to make sensible decisions based on sound scientific understanding.

Both scientists and the media are partly responsible for poor science communication. Scientists and engineers need to understand the constraints on the media, who need to publish stories of significance regularly. At the same time, the media needs to understand that scientists cannot make immediate decisions. Doing so would be catastrophic and misleading. In this context, it is no good for scientists to say, “Society won’t understand us anyway”. People aren’t stupid; it is just that they’re starting from a very different position.

 

How do you define success? What is your biggest achievement and what are you most proud of? What keeps you motivated?

 

I enjoy success. It feels nice being told I’ve done well-we all like it! But what I am most proud of and what is extremely gratifying is to see my research students succeed in the world after earning their doctorates. It is rewarding to see them advancing the sciences as new foot soldiers and I’d say that is my greatest achievement. Recently, my past PhD student, Dr. Joao Cabral received a prize from the Society of Chemical Industries. There were about 7 talks in his honour. The organiser, and two of the visitors were my past PhD students as well! Seeing my students become successful academics makes me extremely pleased.

Besides that, there are two or three scientific papers where I have managed to solve problems I was struggling with for a long time. Also, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering was a very heartening and encouraging experience in my life. That’s something nobody can ever take away from you.

 

Have you had failures? If so, how did you overcome them?

 

I didn’t really fail at exams. When I arrived at Oxford, the teaching wasn’t very good. For the first year, I was wondering whether I was in the right subject! All the women at Somerville College thought the same, but we managed somehow. The first time I applied to join Imperial College as a lecturer, I didn’t get the position, but eventually did the next year. So maybe this was an initial failure, but eventually ended well.

Besides these, it was particularly difficult when I didn’t get awarded research grants. There was a period in the middle of the 1980’s when money for science was tight and my research proposals didn’t get funded, despite the evaluation bodies seeing the merit of the work. This went on for 4-5 years and was extremely frustrating.  At that time, I only had PhD students on research grants, but no post-docs and no extra money. I ran the group with the help of my PhD students and some money from industry during those years. That was quite a downside, but I didn’t give up. I just kept on putting in grant proposals one after the other.

 

 

What do you think is the next big breakthrough/idea in science? What is your vision for the future?

 

Quite clearly, something needs to be done about energy. There is a huge engineering challenge to sustainably meet the energy demands of the future. Burning oil or fossil fuels to meet these demands is terribly wasteful, since it can be used for other, more valuable purposes, such as making plastics, fertilisers and other chemicals.

Another big issue exists around the problems of water and food shortage. These are, however, intrinsically linked to the energy challenge. Renewable energy would make pumping and desalination technologies quite feasible for generating drinking water. If we have clean energy and water, we can also overcome food shortages. In my research area development of safe incinerators or other ways to recycle plastics is a big challenge for a more sustainable future.  Plastics span a wide range of applications and will continue to be important materials, but burying them in landfills after use is extremely wasteful of our resources. 

 

More information on Professor Dame Higgins and her research can be found here.

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