Hello! My name is Jess. I’m a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London making clever light emitting diodes (LEDs) from carbon-based materials. (If you’re REALLY in to display technologies, we’re the people being the O in OLED TVs). Outside of my work I spend all my time trying to make young people (especially girls) realise that physics is for them, working with teachers to improve their access to research (and help where I can on their awesome quest to inspire their students), and trying to make the internet less sexist, by uploading the biographies of women in science onto Wikipedia.
Soapbox Science:How did you get to your current position?
Jess Wade: I studied A-Levels at school in London (Art, Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry and Physics), before heading to Chelsea College of Art & Design for a Foundation Year. I lived in Florence with an Italian landlady (who was also a History of Art Professor!) for a Summer, learning all about the Renaissance Masters…. Then I began my undergraduate physics degree at Imperial, then… never really left. The transition from undergrad to PhD is surreal – you are suddenly paid to do science experiments all the time … and you can wear your pyjamas to work if you want, or work on the weekends, because you make your own time. A PhD Is about 3 years, after which you can do pretty much any job you want (take Dr Angela Merkel for example, who has a PhD in nuclear chemistry). I wanted to stay in research, and luckily I found a position at my favourite place on Earth. When you’re a postgraduate or postdoctoral researcher, you have a bit more freedom than you did as an undergraduate. You still have a supervisor, who is an expert that ‘guides’ the direction of your research, but you are in charge of what experiments you do, what code you write and when you do them.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
JW: 100 % my school teachers. My whole family are medical doctors, which is great, but they are more interested in biology than they are physics. I went to school at South Hampstead High School, and both my physics (Dr Walgate) and chemistry (Dr Hearn) teachers had PhDs in physics. Alongside them, my mum, Dr Charlotte Feinmann, who is a consultant liaison psychiatrist at UCL and all-in-all a kick-ass mother. I am lucky, Imperial is full of inspirational women, such as Professor Ji-Seon Kim who leads the nano-analysis research group; Professor Jenny Nelson, who wrote of the go-to book on the physics of solar cells and Professor Lesley Cohen, who works to support academic women across College alongside her research into magnetic materials. If I become one eighth of the physicists these women are, I’ll be happy.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
JW: I work at the interface of chemistry, material science and physics, creating light emitting diodes from organic molecules. Under the right circumstances, small organic molecules and polymers can act as semiconductors – half way between insulator and a conductor – which we can use to make all different kinds of electronic devices, from solar panels to light emitting diodes and biological sensors. That’s pretty mental – we usually think of plastics (polymers) as being insulators, but these ones have tuneable electronic properties. My job is to choose which materials to use, find a way to dissolve them to create a semiconducting ink, and print them. Because our inks are organic, we can print them on to plastics, which means our devices can be flexible, cheap and ultra-light. The final layer in an organic light emitting diode or solar cell is a metal contact, which lets us inject or extract charges. The molecular structures that we create are fascinating too, and often we can learn a huge amount from nature. Alongside research, I keep our lab in order, which means ordering parts and building different pieces of equipment. I have a few PhD and Masters students to supervise, and I get to do some undergraduate teaching, which I especially love.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
JW: A challenge: I like putting myself out of my comfort zone every now and then. I’ve seen the photos on twitter and read the blogs and reports afterwards, and it looks like something I’d love to contribute to. I really love discussing my work with the public – not only because they are funding it through their taxes (!), but because I think having a wider range of ideas to help us design new technology is brilliant. Scientific discoveries happen when there is a wide range of people from different backgrounds looking at the same problem and trying to solve it – I think doing something like Soapbox will give me a great network of collaborators. I also hope it will show the public that ‘scientists’ are just people like them – we walk like them, talk like them and dress like them.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
JW: Praying for good weather and a sympathetic crowd.
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
JW: I’d make sure there was policy in every institution to support women preparing for and returning from maternity leave. I’d appoint an approachable, trained mentor to all young women in the department. I’d make sure there was proper mental health support, available quickly, locally and without judgement. I’d make sure that appointments and promotion were transparent, and that where possible, women were part of the interviewing and assessment panel. I’d prohibit universities and learned societies being allowed to have conferences without women speaking, and stop appointment committees from having all-male shortlists. I would make sure we valued everyone contributing to science – whether it is through research, outreach/ communication or journalism, so that we stop saying phrases like ‘leaky pipeline’ and started celebrating careers outside academia. I’d make sure everyone working in universities and industry read Angela Saini’s Inferior – How Science Got Women Wrong. I started doing a bunch of outreach because I thought it was “fair” for girls to study science. Inferior showed me how unfair society has been to women, and how women need to contribute to science so our understanding of the work is less biased.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
JW: Find a subject you are interested in and a group you can imagine going to dinner with. Make sure to chat to a few of the PhD students and postdocs when you go for your interview – it’s a three or four year adventure, and you’ve got to feel excited about who you are working with. Be nice to everyone – no one wants to collaborate with a meanie. The most important people in universities are the technicians and cleaners – they have access everywhere – and they don’t care what your h-index is. Lift others as you climb – help new researchers in your group, look out for opportunities for your friends and push people to go out of their comfort zones sometimes. And remember, you can only change the culture of science from the inside – so please, please, please don’t give up.
You can catch Dr Jess Wade on her soapbox on the Southbank on 26th May as part of Soapbox Science London 2018, where she will be giving a talk entitled “Technology inspired by nature”
Follow Jess on twitter @jesswade
All photos courtesy of Jess Wade