Science, and all that jazz….

jassel.jpgJassel has studied theoretical physics, music and materials science in Scotland, USA and now London. She is currently pursuing a PhD at Imperial College in hydrogen embrittlement in nuclear reactors – a hot topic in both politics and science. Her ‘spare’ time is focussed on projects in science communication, which include public science events, and training researchers in communication techniques.

Jassel is also a jazz musician; she explains to Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-founder and co-organiser, how her love of arts inspires her science, rather than slowing her down.


SS: Hi Jassel, at what point did you decide to pursue physics for your career and why?JM: When it came to picking a science – well – I didn’t quite get chemistry, and biology was slimy – so physics was all that was left… really, that was it. I took the approach of bridging the science-arts divide for as long as possible, before making the decision to follow physics. To be honest, I think I’m still doing it. I kept up music all the way through school and university, really got into literature, and took up maths and physics too.

The moment I knew physics was for me was when I finally understood how a pendulum worked, and actually related it to the mathematics in one of the most elegant ways possible. This is called simple harmonic motion, and it is wonderful. If you take the bottom most point of the swing and trace out the distance the pendulum travels – and plot it on a graph of distance against time – you get a sine wave. If you plotted the how the velocity changes – noticing it’s fastest at the bottom most point – you get a cosine wave. Velocity is the change in distance over time – or a derivative of distance, and cosine is the derivative of sine. The same approach can be taken to obtain the acceleration and therefore the restoring force. The mathematics represents the real world behaviour of this simple system perfectly. The rest is just building on principles like that.

Of course none of this would have happened when it did without the help of a rather good physics teacher. My physics teacher really sold the science, and acknowledged that it wasn’t easy, and encouraged me a hell of a lot to push on. I think that the lack of good and inspiring physics teachers is one of the main reasons why there are so few students, particularly girls, going into the physical sciences. My advice would be, if your physics teacher isn’t selling it very well, or being particularly inspiring – go to Richard Feynman as your back up. Trust me.


SS: As well as being passionate about your science, you also enjoy music. Tell us about your music life, and how it fits in with your work life.

JM: The main thing I love about physics, and the sciences, is that it thrives on creativity. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for doing the same thing as everyone else. It pays to be kooky, think outside the box, and really get creative. I’m a jazz musician as well as a scientist, and I think the two complement each other.

Following, my degree in theoretical physics from the University of St Andrews, I went on to Emory University on the Robert T. Jones scholarship to study “anything I wanted” – literally. So I used my time to focus more on the arts side of my life – jazz music. Having played the sax for nearly 10 years, I wanted to nail down some skills I really didn’t have time to work on during my degree. I also took the opportunity to travel through the USA, covering 27 states and playing music in many of them.

Science is not unlike jazz music. Anyone who has ever tried to learn a musical instrument can tell you that you won’t play like John Coltrane, or Miles Davis straight away. For both of these guys it took years of work. Jazz music in particular, is about trying to fully convey what you mean, express your emotions, and get the audience to go on a journey with you. You can’t do any of this, and you certainly can’t improvise, without knowing the language of Jazz first. You have to learn all your scales, backwards and forwards and sideways and lengthways, day in, day out, for years. You struggle, and it’s hard, and you want to give up. How is everyone else making it look so easy? Then you learn a few licks – borrow them off your favourite musicians. And then one day, it clicks, and you manage to hit people right in the heart with a solo.

The same goes for the sciences. All the work that goes into learning the basic principles and getting your head around the mathematics; it’s all worth it when one day you come up with an idea that no one else has had. Even Richard Feynman talked about the joy of finding things out, but that it took a whole bunch of work to learn the language first.

People will often mistake something requiring creativity as the same as being easy/coming naturally to people. As we saw with Miles and John, that is not true! But hard is good, and easy is often not worthwhile. JFK put it well when he challenged a nation to do the impossible – land a man on the Moon. 

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things… not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”


SS: It’s great to hear how the arts can inspire and help science. Was it difficult to get back into science after your creative break?

JM: After my year of jazz, I returned to the sciences when I started my MSc in the Theory and Simulation of Materials at Imperial College London, in a new Centre for Doctoral Training. Here, I moved away from the traditional theoretical physics I was so comfortable with, and embarked on a new journey into the physics of materials. The amazing thing about materials is that they bring together quantum mechanics, and chemistry and all the different topics within the physical sciences. From here I continued onto the PhD programme and now research the mechanisms by which metals in nuclear reactors might fracture – specifically – hydrogen embrittlement. As valuable to human life as hydrogen might be, it’s a bit of a pain inside many metals. It does lots of different things to cause them to break apart. I study the way hydrogen diffuses through a metal, to cracks on the surface, and I develop computer simulations based on all of the physics involved in that process.

It might not sound like a big change, but physics is vast, and so it was quite a leap to go from traditional theoretical physics like superconductivity, into the science of materials within nuclear reactors.

I have been told that my chance of becoming a great physicist would be jeopardized if I carried on doing other things. Yes, someone actually said that to me. He said that he used to play the flute and gave it all up to be a great scientist. I’ll tell you this – I would rather be half good and do all of what I love, than be brilliant and do only one thing with my time.


SS: Physics suffers the most in not being able to attract and retain women scientist. But clearly, you are a woman who is totally hooked on physics. Why do you think there is this problem with attracting girls into physics?

JM:  There is this awful image of girls not being cut out for the “hard” sciences, like physics to battle with. The issue appears to be with society as a whole – not just the men. Society has a stereotype of what the role a woman and a man should be in the world. Whether we like it or not, everyone, especially the young and impressionable, are not immune to these stereotypes, however subtly they may be implied!  It could be as simple as being given a different toy to your baby brother, or being told in maths class that it’s ok that you didn’t solve the quadratic equation, or at a later stage – being told that women just have lower thresholds for the politics and stress that comes with a career in academia. Whether the intention of these actions are honourable or not, they are a result of an unconscious gender stereotype, and only help to perpetuate them further in the future.

Soapbox Science, in my opinion, is taking a real step forward in reminding the world – and especially young people – that women can do science and are brilliant scientists. This is in spite of gender stereotypes, and on top of juggling all the other roles a woman may have, be it managing her family or also her research group. The point is that it is possible, and the reason we do it is because we love it. Finally, pushing the topic of gender aside, Soapbox Science is here to show the world that science is simply worth doing, by anyone.


Join Jassel Majevadia on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London, where she will be talking about: “Crack! Why hydrogen is a menace inside metals” Jassel’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship from L’Oreal For Women in Science and the Zoological Society of London. Tweet her @jazzmajevadia

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