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Image credit: Janet Hovard OU

It’s no secret that of all the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) specialisms, the engineering industry has the biggest diversity problem. Just nine per cent of the UK’s engineers are female, and a disappointing six per cent of those in professional engineering roles are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

But, as followers of this series may have noticed, thanks to the combined impact of increased campaign efforts encouraging more women and minorities to enter the field, and the heightened visibility of established female mentors, the scientific community is evolving.

As a Canadian woman of South Asian heritage, Dr Priyanka Dhopade, Senior Research Associate at Oxford University’s Department of Engineering, notes female mentorship as a key factor in both the diversity tide turning, and her own career progression, commenting; ‘Female role models play a big part in a young girl’s life, and whether she can see herself in a certain role. From one of my earliest role models, Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space, to Professor Alison Noble, an incredible Biomedical engineer, they have been a motivating force in my career. You see someone like you, and just think ‘if she can do it, so can I.’ I want to offer that mentorship to other women and young girls.’

Image credit: Janet Hovard OUDr Priyanka Dhopade was just named one of the UK's top 50 female engineers under 35, by the Women's Engineering Society.

In this spirit, Dr Dhopade, who was chosen by the Women’s Engineering Society, as one of 2017’s top 50 women in engineering under 35, recently organised a community outreach event to celebrate the International Women in Engineering Day (23rd June). During the event, young female science lovers, from across the county, (aged 13-15), had the opportunity to meet and learn from established industry leaders, over afternoon tea. Some attendees talk to Scienceblog about their experience of the day, and why female mentorship is so important to them.

Image credit: Janet Hovard OUProfessor Alison Noble gives a motivating speech at the National Women in Engineering Day Afternoon Tea. Image credit: Janet Hovard

Professor Alison Noble OBE FREng FRS, the event’s key note speaker, is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and a co-founder of the medtech spin-out company; Intelligent Ultrasound Ltd. She discusses the vital role of engineers in society and her own personal journey towards being a successful engineer.

How would you describe your work to someone who knows nothing about engineering?

I am a senior academic engineer specialising in ultrasound image analysis, and I split my time between running a large biomedical engineering research group and raising funds for its activities. I also teach at the University, and I am Chief Technology Officer of my spin-out company, supporting the development of its products.  I sit on a number of national committees that promote engineering in healthcare, and the commercialisation of science inventions and the growth of small science-based companies.

How has the industry changed during your career?

Image analysis deals with the extraction of meaningful information from ultrasound scans. When I started working in the field about 20 years ago, the academic and commercial focus was on imaging physics and improving image resolution, so that clinicians could see smaller structures and assess organ function. At that time, image analysis was considered a nice add-on, but not seen as having great commercial value. But, now the roles have in many ways reversed, or at least re-balanced.  This is largely thanks to image digitisation, and more recently, the availability of large datasets, combined with advances in machine learning algorithms - particularly deep learning. Now, the focus is on how image analysis can be used to support workflow improvements and automatic diagnosis. My field has in a sense come of age, so there are exciting times ahead.

What research achievement are you most proud of?

At every career step there can be something special. For me, now, it has to be my recent election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. It is an incredible honour to receive such prestigious recognition.

What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?

Managing the many responsibilities, requests and expectations of an academic today.

What are your goals for the future?

My advanced European Research Council award is an ambitious project aiming to develop a next generation ultrasound imaging device, which is easier for a non-expert or occasional user to operate, than current systems. It uses machine learning to understand how an expert scans, and to build this knowledge into the ultrasound device. Realisation of this could have a big impact on use of ultrasound in healthcare.

We are also starting new collaborations in the developing world, specifically in Kenya and India. Unlike in the western world, women often do not go for antenatal check-ups during pregnancy. They only seek professional medical help if they feel very unwell.  Working with overseas partners will help us to develop and evaluate imaging solutions that meet the unmet clinical need in these countries and could improve pregnancy risk assessment and outcomes in these challenging environments.

Are there any unique challenges to being a woman in engineering?

Two challenges come to mind, firstly, and perhaps surprisingly, as part of the movement to address gender im-balance in engineering, there are now arguably more opportunities presented to women to advance their career than men. But, this also means that women can be over-burdened with requests on their time, so individuals have to try to find a balance that works for them.

Secondly, the number of female directors, or members of senior management teams in companies - especially small ones, is depressingly low. I would like to see more women encouraged to get involved in innovation and set-up their own companies.

What more can be done to address the gender im-balance in engineering?

As with getting women into science, it all starts with school education. We need to teach school children to think creatively and to develop non-academic skills, which might inspire them to consider working in companies, and even setting up their own companies. Universities also need to take entrepreneurship education more seriously as core business.

Image credit: Jane Hovard Image credit: Jane Hovard

Why do you think events like today’s International Women in Engineering outreach tea are so important?

Special interest meetings are really important and bring together people with a common interest.  For some attendees, they provide an opportunity to network and share experiences. For others, attending a meeting of this kind can potentially change their life.

Gladys Ngetich, Rhodes Scholar, Aerospace Engineering Dphil Student, Department of Engineering, Oxford University

What is your research area?

My research involves developing advanced and more efficient cooling technologies for jet engines. We work in a close partnership with Rolls-Royce Plc and are trying to find a new method of cooling that will use as little air as possible. The principle being that, by improving the overall engine efficiency you reduce emissions.

Image credit: Gladys NgetichGladys Ngetich, Rhodes Scholar, Aerospace Engineering Dphil Student, Department of Engineering, Oxford University

Did you always want to be an engineer?

Yes! My passion for engineering started when I was at secondary school in Kenya, where I grew up, but I always loved maths and science. My father and two of my brothers are engineers, so it was always a hot topic of conversation at our house.

What is the biggest challenge that you face in your field?

You need persistence and a lot of patience to be an engineer. Sometimes you have an idea that you think is great, but when you run the computer simulation to test it, it fails, so you have to start all over again. It can be a very long process that requires a lot of patience.

What are your goals long term?

I just want to be useful. Providing engineering solutions to all sorts of real world problems.

Are there any unique challenges to being a woman in science?

There is definitely a difference between being a man or a woman in engineering, and not just at Oxford. Even during my Undergraduate degree in Kenya, in a class of 80, I was one of eight women - that’s a ratio of one to ten.

Whether because of gender, or skin colour, when you are a minority it can be really lonely and challenging. You feel awkward, and it becomes about proving yourself. Proving to yourself and your classmates that you have as much right to be there as they do. At least half of the women in my class graduated with a distinction. It’s the same at Oxford, in a lab of about 30 DPhil students, I am one of three women, and one of two black students, so it’s a double challenge.

How can events like this support change in the industry?

I think there are lots of solutions, but for me, it is about encouraging young girls and talking to them from a young age about the importance of female role models and following your dreams. We have to really put the effort into supporting them to take STEM related subjects.

Some of the girls here today perhaps have never thought about a career in engineering, but after hearing Alison or some of the other speakers, they will start seeing it as a real possibility.

Never seeing someone that looks like you, working in the field that you dream of, can create a feeling that it’s not for you. Just being able to talk to, and even just see female and minority engineers makes all the difference.

Image credit: Janet Hovard OUDr. Ana Namburete, Royal Academy Engineering (RAEng) Research Fellow, Department of Engineering

Dr. Ana Namburete, Royal Academy Engineering (RAEng) Research Fellow, Department of Engineering 

Did you always know you wanted to be an engineer?

I actually grew up thinking that I was going to be the first doctor in my family. I am from Mozambique, and my parents’ generation were the first to be able to choose their own career after Colonial Independence. My grandfather had always wanted to become a doctor, but not had that choice open to him. He spotted my passion for biology and helping people, and urged me to become a doctor.

I was focused on that goal at school, but during my gap year I volunteered at a clinic, where I realised that the lifestyle of a doctor did not actually suit me. There were new machines coming in all the time, but nobody spoke English well enough to translate the manuals. I speak fluent English and Portuguese, so I took on that role. While I was setting up the machines, I realised how much I liked the technical side of understanding how machines work. That was when I decided that I wanted to be an engineer.

I had already applied to university medical programmes. But, I was lucky, I was accepted into Simon Fraser University, a liberal arts university in Canada, where I could change my degree. I switched to the Biomedical Engineering course, and have never looked back.

What motivates you?

I recently won a Research Fellowship with the Royal Academy of Engineering to look at how we can automate fetal ultrasound images. Most of the structural development of the brain happens during pregnancy so there is big potential for impact. I created algorithms that can learn the normal pattern of prenatal brain development, detecting abnormal development in the process. Because ideally, if you can detect abnormalities early, you have the opportunity to intervene.

Ultrasound is portable and affordable, so useful for community services. If we automate the analysis, diagnosis and detection of brain structures, then community health workers can operate the machine and collect the images. Our algorithms do the hard work so they do not have to.

Image credit: OUEarlier this year Ana (centre) visited Malawi to visit community clinics and assess their ultrasound needs.Ana has created created algorithms that can learn the normal pattern of prenatal brain development, detecting abnormal development in the process. This early detection of abnormalities allows healthcare workers to intervene as soon as possible.

What do you like most about being an engineer?

I love being able to work with different people, understanding and translating their needs, into solutions. I also get to travel lots – Malawi, most recently. I visited clinics to assess their ultrasound needs and work out plausible interventions that we could provide for them.

Are there any unique challenges to being a woman in engineering?

Well, there are not very many of us, and that’s a problem. When I did my undergraduate degree, there were 20 women out of 400 students in the entire engineering department. A really bad ratio - and I was the only black woman in the program. I couldn’t help but feel different.

Inclusion is a real issue. But, that being said, I have rarely felt that doors are closed to me - particularly at Oxford, where I have always felt supported. My chances of winning my Fellowship were actually increased by having the support of the department, and Professor Noble my as my mentor and role model.

What needs to change to level the engineering playing field?

I think we need to see more role models, and for that, we need more women in the industry in general. Girls decide at a young age whether STEM is not for them, and we need to understand why that is.

The way we interact with technology in general today is completely different to when I was a teenager. Now everyone is a digital native, interacting with smart phoned and the web from a young age. This is good news for STEM.

Image credit: Janet Hovard OUThe girls' get hands-on, building a wind turbine.

And what do the scientists of tomorrow think?

Mary Lee, 14 and Kitty Joyce, 15, Oxford High School, Oxford

‘We have really enjoyed this event and having the chance to decide what we want to do. We know that there are more men in science than there are women, but would never let this hold us back.  Girls should be encouraged to do what they want, and women should have the same opportunities as men.

It has been great to meet new people, and take part in the practical workshop (led by Gabby Bouchard, Outreach Officer at the Department of Engineering). It was fun building the wind turbine.

‘We don’t learn about engineering at school and we should. We are here because we love science, but until today had never really thought about engineering as a job - but, that could change now.’

Sol Zee, 13 and Carys-Anne,14, Cherwell School, Oxford

‘It has been great to meet so many new people, and talk to other girls that love science too. We have a female science teacher, but listening to, and hearing how much the women here have achieved is really inspiring. It makes you excited that if you work hard, that could be you one day. We noticed that there are so many jobs in engineering that we did not know anything about, and will ask more questions about now.’

Image credit: Shutterstock

Professor Alain Goriely is Professor of Mathematical modelling at Oxford University’s  Mathematical Institute and founder of the International Brain Mechanics and Trauma Lab (IBMTL). He talks to ScienceBlog about the key findings from his recently published work ‘Dimensional, Geometrical and Physical Constraints in Skull Growth, and how geometry and mathematical modelling can help us to understand the mechanics of the brain.

In 2013, together with Prof. Antoine Jérusalem from the Engineering Department, I opened the International Brain Mechanics and Trauma Lab (IBMTL) here in Oxford. IBMTL is a network of people interested in the many and varied problems of brain mechanics and morphogenesis. As part of the launch, in true Oxford style, the team organised a workshop, where I got talking to Jayaratnam Jayamohan, aka Jay Jay, a brilliant paediatric neurosurgeon at the John Radcliffe Hospital, in Oxford, whose work has featured in BBC documentaries. Jay Jay routinely performs surgery on children to rectify abnormal skull growth (so-called “craniosynostosis”). The variety of shapes and intricacy of growth processes that he talked about immediately captured my imagination. He explained that much has been learnt about this process from a genetic and biochemical perspective and the world expert, Prof. Andrew O. M. Wilkie, also happened to be working in Oxford. I decided to pay him a visit.

Andrew Wilkie has done ground-breaking work in identifying genetic mutations behind rare craniofacial malformations and, in my discussions with him, he was particularly helpful in explaining the mechanisms underlying this fascinating process. Yet, surprisingly, I found that very little was known about the physics and bio-mechanics of the problem. And when I was told that the problem of understanding the formation of these shapes was probably too complex to be studied using mathematical modelling tools, I realised I had a challenge I couldn’t possibly resist. What’s more I had the perfect partner in Prof. Ellen Kuhl at Stanford University. Ellen is an expert in biomechanical modelling and has developed state-of-the-art computational techniques to simulate the growth of biological tissues. We had much to work on and still do.

The growth of the skull in harmony with the brain is an extremely complex morphogenetic process. As the brain grows, the skull must grow in response to accommodate extra volume while providing a tight fit. These are very different growth processes. The extremely soft brain increases in volume while the extremely hard bone must increase in surface area. Using mathematical modelling, we set out to understand how this process takes place.

In the spirit of mathematical modelling, we started with a very simple question: ‘how would a given shape remain invariant during such growth processes?’ We know that the skull grows through two different processes: first, accretion along the suture lines (transforming soft cartilage into bone) and second, remodelling of the shape to change locally the curvature. Without remodelling, the shape cannot remain invariant. Since surface addition mostly happens along a line, a point with initial high curvature away from this line would remain highly curved unless a second process enabled the reduction of the curvature so that the shape remains a dilation of the original shape.

Using dimensional arguments, we concluded that the three processes (volume growth, line growth, and remodelling) are inter-dependent and must necessarily be tightly regulated. But how is this process synchronized? Since the information about the shape is global, the cues that trigger the growth process must be physical as has been suggested in the biological literature. By simple physical estimates of pressure, stresses and strains, our analysis further identified strain as the main biophysical regulator of this growth process.

At this point, a natural question to ask is ‘what happens when this process is disrupted?’ We decided to extract the fundamental elements of this growth process by looking at the evolution of a semi-ellipsoid (an elongated half-sphere) divided into a number of patches representing the various bones, fontanelles (soft spots), and sutures of the cranial vault. Normal growth process is obtained by allowing the bones to grow along the suture lines. However, we decided to perturb the system by fusing some of the suture lines early as happens during craniosynostosis. To our great surprise, the various shapes obtained mirrored the ones found in craniosynostosis. We showed that idealised geometries produce good agreement between numerically predicted and clinically observed cephalic indices (defined as the cranial vault’s width by its length) as well as excellent qualitative consistency in skull shape – in other words the model worked. The particular geometric role in the relative arrangement of the early cranial vault bones and the sutures appear clearly in our models. What is truly remarkable is that, despite the extreme complexity of the underlying system, the shapes developed in these pathologies seem to be dictated mostly by geometry and mechanics.

What's next? Our models are, of course, extremely simple from a biological standpoint. However, they can be easily coupled to biochemical processes in order to analyse several open questions in morphogenesis and clinical practice, such as the impact of different bone growth rates, the relative magnitude of mechanical and biochemical stimuli during normal skull growth, and the optimal dimensions of surgically re-opened sutures. Our mechanics-based model is also a tool to explore fundamental questions in developmental biology associated with the universality and optimality of cranial design in the evolution of mammalian skulls. These questions were raised exactly a century ago by d’Arcy Thompson in his seminal book ‘On Growth and Form’ and we now have the mathematical and computational tools to answer them. We are only at the beginning.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Can the theatre change our minds about crime?

Lanisha Butterfield | 12 Jun 2017

From the books we read, to the films and programmes we watch, and the theatre productions we attend, the arts’ have the power to get us all talking and thinking. But can they actually influence our perceptions of real issues?

Using the play 'Brainstorm', (a Company Three production about teenage brain development), as a litmus test, recently published Oxford University research examines exactly that.

The study set out to see if watching a play about the teenage brain, could impact how people felt about criminal responsibility. Because of the nature of the production, perceptions of offences committed by children under the age of sixteen were of particular interest.

From hormonal outbursts, to rash decisions and bouts of expression, it is well known that young people go through a lot of behavioural changes during adolescence. How much people understand that it is the brain’s natural mechanisms that cause these changes, as it develops, with age, is less well known. Produced in collaboration with neuroscientists at UCL, and teenage performers, ‘Brainstorm’ supports this understanding, communicating complex scientific knowledge and highlighting the various developmental changes that adolescents experience as their brains change.

An adult might find it easier to resist the urge to lash out, or respond to confrontation. But, for a teenager, that impulse is likely to feel stronger and much harder to resist. Their brains naturally respond to impulses, and the part of their brain that would ordinarily resist them is still developing, and therefore much weaker.

When considered in the context of criminality, if people are not truly responsible for their brains and the brain influences whether or not we offend, it could be argued that teenage offenders may not be truly responsible for their crimes.

‘Brainstorm’ audience members were asked to complete a survey of questions, either before or after watching the play. A total of 728 respondents shared their views on four questions, framed around three key issues; the age of criminal responsibility, moral responsibility and the likelihood of reoffending.

Results revealed that the play did affect audience attitudes to crime, and particularly youth crime. After watching the play, participants perceived a hypothetical young offender as less likely to reoffend than an adult offender. They also perceived the young, but not adult offender, as less morally responsible for their actions, especially those who had committed a first time offence.

Robert Blakey, the study’s author and a DPhil student at Oxford’s Centre for Criminology, said: ‘We all have this feeling that when we resist an impulse, we are deciding to resist that impulse – not our brain, but this mental sense of me that makes decisions free from biological constraints. But neuroscience suggests this just isn’t true. We are always affected by our brain – in every decision that we make.

‘After learning about the science of the teenage brain, the public may change how it views teenage offenders. And that’s exactly what happened after these theatre goers watched 'Brainstorm'. They changed how they viewed teenage offenders.

‘In the future, I expect neuroscience to change our priorities, so that we think more about why teenagers offend, and how we can help teenagers choose the right path, rather than ignoring the cause and closing the cell door completely’.

The full study is available to download from the online journal Frontiers in Psychology 

Learn more about the teenage brain in this Oxford Sparks animation:

Image shows a galaxy where the star formation is obscured by large amounts of dust.

Miguel Pereira Santaella, Research Associate at the Oxford University Department of Physics, discusses his newly published work observing never before seen water transitions in space. He breaks down how the discovery will help scientists to answer big planetary questions and build a more accurate understanding of the universe.

From clouds to rivers, and glaciers to oceans, water is everywhere on Earth. What’s less well-known, though, is how abundant the molecule is in space.

Unlike on Earth, most of the water in space takes either the form of vapour or forms ice mantles stuck to interstellar dust grains. This is because the extremely low density of interstellar space - which is trillions of times lower than air, prevents the formation of liquid water. the birth of star formations can tell us about how the Universe behaves. But, since the only way to study them in such dust obscured environments is through the infrared light, detecting water transitions capable of detecting this light, is of vital importance.

Observing the birth of star formations can tell us a great deal about how the Universe behaves. But, since the only way to study these events in such dust obscured environments is through the infrared light, detecting water transitions capable of capturing this light, is vital.

Water molecules experience fluctuating quantum energy levels. This activity allows us to observe them and is known as a water transition. The term refers to the best point for scientific observation, which is the exact wavelength at which water molecules go from one quantum state to another, emitting light and increasing their visibility as they do so.

The majority of these transitions are not very energetic so they appear in the far-infrared and sub-millimetre ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, with tiny wavelengths (ranging from 50 μm and 1000 μm (1 mm)). Observing these water transitions from the ground is very difficult because the thick vapour in Earth’s atmosphere almost completely blocks the emission from view.

Improvements in technology and the development of super telescopes offer an increasing gateway to the universe, and planetary insights are moving at rapid pace. We can now detect water transitions in ways that we just could not before. They are best seen from telescopic observatories situated at high-altitude, in extremely dry sites. Such as, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), which is located in the Atacama desert (Chile) at 5000 m above sea level.

 Image credit: Christoph MalinImage of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), showing the telescope’s antennas under a breathtaking starry night sky. Image credit: Christoph Malin

In our study published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, we used ALMA and detected the (670 μm) water transition in space, for the first time. The molecules were spotted in a nearby spiral galaxy (160 million light years away) at a point where the Universe is vastly expanded, and the atmosphere is therefore at its most transparent (red-shifted at 676 μm).

The water vapour emission in this galaxy originates at its core, in its nucleus, where most star formation takes place. To give you an idea of how enormous this galaxy is, the nucleus contains an equivalent amount of water 30 trillion times that of Earth’s oceans combined, and has a diameter 15 million times the distance from Earth to the Sun.

So what sets this water transition apart from others observed in the past? Our analysis revealed that these water molecules intensify their rate of emission when they come into contact with infrared light photons. This increase in activity makes it easier for scientists to observe them. Water molecules are most attracted to photons with specific wavelengths of 79 and 132 μm, which, when absorbed, strengthen the transition’s outline, therefore increasing its visibility. For this reason, this specific water transition has the ability to show us the intensity of the infrared light in the nucleus of galaxies, at spatial scales much smaller than those allowed by direct infrared observations.

Infrared light is produced during events like the growth of supermassive black holes or extreme bursts of star-formation. These events usually occur in extremely dust obscured environments where the optical light is almost completely absorbed by dust grains. The energy absorbed by the grains increases their temperature and they begin to emit thermal radiation in the infrared. Capturing these events can tell us a great deal about how the Universe behaves,  so detecting water transitions that can capture this infrared light, is vital.

Moving forward we plan to observe this water transition in more galaxies where dust blocks all the optical light. This will reveal what hides behind these dust screens and help us to understand how galaxies evolve from star-forming spirals, like the Milky Way, to dead elliptical galaxies where no new stars are formed.

Image credit: James Galder

Merritt Moore has achieved what some would call ‘the impossible’: a career as a professional ballet dancer and as an academic quantum physicist. Having quite literally danced her PhD, she is just months’ away from completing her degree in quantum and laser physics. Immediately after graduation she will fly to China to perform at the Beijing National Theatre. Having danced since childhood, she sees great crossover between dance and quantum physics. Earlier this year she combined her passions, collaborating on a meditative science-influenced virtual reality experience called Zero Point Virtual Reality, which is currently running at the Barbican Theatre.

Scienceblog met with Merritt to learn more about fusing her talents and achieving success on her terms.

How did Zero Point Virtual Reality come about?

I have danced In a few of [choreographer] Darren Johnston’s productions, including his original Zero Point live performance in 2013. He takes a spiritual approach to his craft, and would often talk about ‘zero-point’ as a state of calm and zen. I introduced him to the concept of zero point energy as a physics phenomenon. A concept that means that there is always energy, even in empty vacuum, where one imagines no energy could exist. When the Barbican invited Darren to bring back his live production Zero Point, it was a natural progression to continue investigating the notion of ‘zero-point’, but this time using technology and dance. This led us to the virtual reality extension of the show.

We put our ideas together and collaborated with the Games and Visual Effects Lab at the University of Hertfordshire, and now we have a meditation experience running in 360° virtual reality (VR), at the Barbican. The end result is sublime and unique, and I hope people like it.

Image credit: OUMerritt has juggled her passions of quantum physics and dance since childhood, and sees great crossover between the two.

In what way did you draw on your physics background  for the production?

It is an interactive, sensory experience, people walk from scene to scene, taking in the themes. There are quite a few quantum physics-based elements included. For example, in quantum mechanics the systems are constantly evolving, but the minute you try to measure or interfere with them, they stop.  We’ve incorporated this by having a moving rock that only moves when you are not looking at it. The approach is very subtle, and a non-scientist probably wouldn’t spot the connection, but it is there. Hopefully it will trigger people to think in a different way.

I’ve always felt that physics and dance have a lot in common. I have a confession that I sometimes read more physics papers when I am preparing for dance meetings than I do for my own research. It inspires me and makes me think about a process, and how I would explain it to someone without all the lingo and technical terminology that we scientists are so used to. Sometimes we ourselves get so lost in jargon, that we forget what things mean, so how can we expect anyone else to understand? The dance community are not scientists, so they ask a lot of ‘why’ questions, which can really throw you. In science, people rarely ask why? They work from facts, so it just is the way it is. It challenges you to think differently and try harder to break things down.

James GalderMerritt Moore strikes a pose on the London Underground / Image credit: James Galder

How would you like people to react to it?

The main purpose is to inspire people to view ideas from a different perspective, (literally since with VR you can be placed anywhere).  I don’t want to just regurgitate facts, I want to encourage people’s curiosity.

When did you discover your passions for science and dance?

I started dancing when I was 13, which is considered middle-aged in the dance world - most people start as toddlers. Before I discovered dance I was just a girl who loved maths and solving puzzles. I didn’t talk until I was three, so I would communicate through my puzzles. Then I found dance, and was just like ‘this sits in the box of non-verbal activities, I dig this!’ And then, when I found physics, I felt the same way.

You are in your final year at Oxford, what is your thesis investigating?

I am currently working to create large entangled states of light. The more photons - particles of light, you use, the harder it becomes to maintain their quantum properties. Adding more photons makes the whole project more vulnerable to noise, which can destroy their natural state. Understanding how photons behave when you interfere with them can help scientists to explore quantum mechanics phenomena.

 Image credit: Merritt Moore Image credit: Merritt Moore

What drew you to physics?

I love the creativity. Visualising and probing problems that have never been solved before requires a lot of imagination. Often it is mind-bending, and makes no sense. Quantum mechanics is so bizarre - even though the experiment proves again and again that it works, it still makes my head spin.

How do you manage two successful careers in two different fields?

I’ve retired from dance about ten times, burnt my ballet shoes and tried to get so out of shape I would never dance again, but I always come back to it. I honestly never thought I would be a professional dancer. A dance career was a no-go in my family. But I always worked really hard, and achieved the grades I needed. So, when I got to [Harvard] university I was in a position to take a year off to dance with the Zurich Ballet Company. After that I returned for a year, and did the same again the following year, with the Boston Ballet. During the winter break at Oxford I performed with the English National Ballet, and right after leaving here, I will be in Beijing and then on to Edinburgh and Cuba.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a struggle. I’ve worked a lot. Yes, there have been times that I have felt overwhelmed - when I have been in the lab for over 20 hours a day, sometimes literally sleeping there. But it has always been fun. I’ve realised doing both actually helps me to relax. It’s exercising a different part of the brain and the body and I need it.

What is your ultimate goal?

I haven’t figured out what my title will be yet, but I want to shatter all the stereotypes. The dream is to continue combining physics and dance. I want to dance for the next 10 years, become a principal dancer with a company, and still publish physics papers. I was inspired by the film Interstellar, which, for authenticity, channelled real science into its stunning visuals. Physicists shared insights on black holes and worm holes, and they were converted into special effects for the movie. If I’m able to do something like that, then life is complete.

Quantum physics is one of the more polarising sciences, why do you think that is?

Honestly I think physics in general is really under-sold at school. Classes tend to run the same way, with the standard set of problems that have been done so many times that they are probably online. It’s hard to inspire someone when they know that they can google and memorise the facts. That’s not learning. Technology has evolved so far that most of the information is already there. The asset that we bring to the table, as human beings, is creativity.

I think the way science is taught in schools is very isolating, and self-selecting. There is a misconception that science is technical and geeky, but it is collaborative, imaginative and so much fun.

Do you think that there are any unique challenges to being a woman in science?

I personally have never thought that there is anything that a man can do that a woman can’t. So I had always made a point of avoiding the “women in science” physics societies. I felt that by going, I was making a statement that I saw a difference. But, last year I went to my first meeting and it was amazing, and I thought ‘why didn’t I come sooner?’ I really valued the female camaraderie, and hearing people’s shared experiences. It made me realise that there are serious issues. The ratio of women to men in physics has barely budged in 40 years. You hear a lot of talk about change, but the numbers tell a different story.

Little things make a huge difference, particularly to young girls, and I had no idea. I was having lunch at a young STEM event, for girls aged 11-13. One girl causally looked up at a line-up of the old portraits and said ‘oh there’s a woman - I guess she’s the wife or something’, and the girl next to her said ‘Probably not important.’ My heart sank. I had heard of the Oxford Diversifying Portraiture initiative but never thought anything of it. I would shrug my shoulders and think ‘oh well, it’s history’. But listening to the girls’ highlighted how much, if we really care about getting more girls in science, every little change matters.

Zero Point Virtual Reality is running at the Barbican Theatre until 28 May

Darren JohnstonA snapshot from the production Zero Point Virtual Reality Image credit: Darren Johnston