Happy August science lovers! Sorry it has been a little while since my last blog post – I obviously had too much cake and bubbly celebrating my blog’s birthday 😛 But lab life has been very busy lately as I am trying to finish and package some results for my first publication. The problem is each experiment I do to try and wrap it up doesn’t give me the answer I am looking for and just raises another 5! So that is what I’ve been doing recently but with a new month is a fresh start! And also with a new month comes a new Scientist in the Spotlight feature. so I am thrilled to introduce to you Emma O.
Emma is the very first physicist on my blog. In fact she is an astrophysicist – so she is our very own female Brian Cox who is going to teach us something about space today 🙂 But Emma hasn’t always been an astrophysicist. Her less traditional route into the field saw her complete A-Levels in physics then land a job in car insurance and then selling advertising space. Despite loving earning money and exploring South East Asia – it was time for her to head to uni. After nearly studying fashion at uni, Emma ended up bagging a place on the Foundation Year at University of York and then registered onto a Masters in Physics course and graduated 5 years later! Before starting her PhD, she took a year out when she got married and went on a three month long honeymoon travelling around Central America. Now at the University of Southampton, her PhD research looks at how a type of dead star called neutron stars make gravitational waves by growing mountains!
I only met Emma 3 months ago at a media day for Pint of Science 2017 but I have since loved watching Emma’s scicomm journey making YouTube videos, science postcards and a TV interview! And now it’s time to share this fun, colourful and confident character and her science with you guys.
Emma: I had a very inspirational physics teacher, but there is one particular moment that stands out for me. One day at school when I was about 14 in physics class, we were talking about the Universe and learning that it was continually expanding. I was curious about this concept. As we continued to chat, my teacher said that scientists had just discovered that the universe isn’t just expanding, but its doing so at an ever increasing rate. The universe’s expansion was accelerating and no one knew why! I remember thinking WOW! I was overcome with desire to know the answer and it was at that moment I decided I wanted to become a physicist! This question is still unanswered today and the driving force behind this phenomena is called ‘dark energy’. I did look at studying dark energy for my PhD, but the gravitational waves projects available just seemed more fun. I love gravity and Einstein’s theory of relativity as it is completely different to what we experience in our daily lives, yet gravity seems so familiar to us as we experience it all the time. I had heard about a phenomena called gravitational waves, which stretch and squeeze space and time, and travel at the speed of light like ripples in a pond. This concept was and still is fascinating to me, so I decided to apply to this research field.
So, what are these gravitational waves?
Emma: Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime that travel at the speed of light stretching and squeezing both space and time. They are created by anything that has a funny shape and moves, like humans. The problem is gravity is weak and so are gravitational waves – which makes them incredibly difficult to detect. The first detection came from two black holes, each about 30 times heavier than the sun, over one billion light years away that crashed into each other at half the speed of light to form one big black hole. In the 1/10th of a second in which they collided they released more energy than all the stars in the observable universe. It was quite literally a gravitational wave tsunami! As with science, it was really lucky that this event was even seen as the detectors were only turned on a couple of days beforehand. This was incredible as Einstein who predicted their existence never thought it would be possible to detect them! This is because the distortion they create in spacetime is 1/1000th of the width of a proton – the equivalent of cutting the width of a human hair into a million pieces!! Then taking one of those pieces and cutting it into a million more! And taking one of those pieces and cutting it into yet another million! One of those final pieces is the distance that was measured!!
One of the really cool things about gravitational waves is that the signals we receive on Earth are within the same frequency range as our ears, which means we can hear what colliding black holes sound like. They make a ‘chirp’ sound. Gravitational waves provide a soundtrack to the universe.
If they are so hard to detect, then what do you do in a typical day?
Emma: I usually arrive at uni about 10am. I sit down with a cuppa tea and read arvix, which is a website that is updated daily with all the latest research papers. I write a to-do list and create a plan of attack for the day. I usually spend mornings reading research papers or adding content to my thesis. The afternoons are spent calculating or coding. My research is theoretical so I use computers to conduct my experiments. Depending on the day of the week, I also attend seminars, group meetings, meet with my supervisor and some teaching.
What is it like to be a female studying physics?
Emma: Being a minority in the subject of my choice was something I never really thought about. It wasn’t until I started university and people were talking about it that I realised the full extent of the problem. I don’t feel that my experience has ever been different to that of my male colleagues. I think the problem stems more from society and the expectations placed on people because of their gender. Quite often people are told that science is ‘hard’ as a suggestion that something being hard is a bad thing and that they shouldn’t pursue a career in science. STEM subjects do need to increase their diversity as it is very much dominated by one demographic, and the problem arises as one demographic can potentially have a very similar mindset which is not great for trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge. After all variety is the spice of life!
Outside science then, what do you like to get up to?
Emma: I like to cook mainly! I developed this passion as I have a real love for eating! I like to make copper plated jewellery and clothes and customise nearly everything in my wardrobe too, but I don’t have much time for this at the moment. A lot of my spare time is now taken up with various outreach projects. So when I get actual down time I like to do as little as possible, which usually includes hanging out with my husband, taking our dog for walks and visiting friends and family. I’m also really good at cutting hair!
Let’s talk about these outreach projects then. You started a YouTube channel recently. Tell us a bit more about that.
Emma: Ah yes! My YouTube channel. This is the real reason I don’t have any spare time now. It all started in March 2016 when I took part in a competition called ‘I’m a Scientist Get Me Out Of Here’. This competition was great fun as you get to chat with school students and answer their questions online. It’s spread over two weeks and in the final week they vote for their favourite scientist. I was honoured to be voted their favourite and I won £500 to fund an outreach project of my choice. I originally wanted to visit some of the schools that participated and build a table top gravitational wave detector together. Unfortunately this was proving difficult to do due to time constraints, so instead I thought it would be fun to start a YouTube channel that describes the ideas from Einstein’s theory of gravity, as this isn’t usually taught until the last year of physics degrees at university. By doing this I would also reach a larger audience. The videos are aimed at GCSE students and above, so around 14 years plus. They are less than 2 minutes long and are animated. I make them completely on my own, although I have received some invaluable advice from some very knowledgeable people.
And did I see that you did your first Science Showoff recently? What is that?
Emma: Science Showoff is a London based event where science communicators can do stand up comedy about science. I found out about it via Twitter and a couple of friends of mine had done it before so I thought I would give it a go! After signing up I thought ‘What have I done?’ I had never done anything like this before. I like to think that I’m funny with my friends, but stand up comedy is a completely different beast. They say that magic happens outside of your comfort zone. Now I’m not sure magic actually happened but I did thoroughly enjoy myself. The crowd was amazing and people said to me afterwards that they really loved it. I didn’t put many jokes in due to a lack of confidence but I have since signed up to do another set and I will certainly put more jokes into my next one!
What other scicomm activities have you been involved with?
Emma: I have been a speaker for Pint of Science, Southampton’s Science Room and Winchester Skeptics, demonstrated at Cheltenham Science Festival and the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. I have also been on local TV and radio promoting Pint of Science and chatting about my research. I have been involved in science and art collaborations too which has been great fun as I love exploring different mediums for communication. Picking a favourite though is tough as they are all so varied. I love creating the imagery of my YouTube videos, I love hearing everyone’s questions when I give talks and I love being put on the spot like in Science Showoff.
Why is scicomm important to you?
Emma: Because I absolutely love science and find physics incredibly fascinating and I just want to share it with as many people as possible so they too can gain the same enjoyment I do. I feel that in our culture it’s not cool to like science, but science is really cool! I feel that by making science as accessible as possible that its one way I can break down this perception. Also we need to broaden the diversity of people within the scientific community. The more people that come from different backgrounds, ethnicities and genders then the more different ideas and approaches we will have for more productive science. If I can inspire just one person to study science who felt that it might not be for them, due to social conditioning, then that would be amazing!
What is the next step for Emma after your PhD then?
Emma: That’s quite a tough one! I would love to stay in research, but there are more PhD positions than postdoctoral opportunities, so I am keeping an open mind. I love doing outreach, so I will at least continue with that. Otherwise, who knows? I’m very open to the opportunities that will come my way when the time comes.
And finally, where in the world should I visit next?
Emma: Ooo, I love this question! I would have to recommend Morocco, particularly Marrakech. It is a beautiful country that is quite close to the UK but incredibly different. Each time I visit it’s like stepping into a whole new world. It’s like walking into Disney’s Aladdin. The food is amazing! The best food in the city in my opinion is at Marrakech’s night market which is also great for just sitting there and soaking up the atmosphere. The architecture is stunning and the weather is great too! I recommend going to Essaouira – a coastal town about 2 hours from Marrakech but easy to day trip to – as you can feast on seafood and get involved in watersports. They also have beautifully clear nights which are perfect for stargazing, especially in the Atlas Mountains. It’s my favourite place and I highly recommend it to you!
Huge thank you to Emma for sharing your science journey with us. It just goes to show that you don’t have to do the ‘traditional’ route to become a scientist! I was always fascinated by physics at school but gave it up as my teachers just couldn’t help me understand most of the concepts. But now I am finding more and more awesome scientists like Emma who are explaining these concepts in a fun, engaging and most importantly memorable way that my fascination for space is being reignited. I love what Emma is doing for science outreach and I hope you have got a flavour of it in this post, so much so that you could be seeing a collaboration between Emma and I soon. Yes that’s right – a collaboration where stem cells meet gravity! Intriguing right? So watch this space!
Emma is such an enthusiastic scicomm-er that she already has many dates booked in but her next one is at the Science Museum in London. She will be at a late session of a gravitational wave exhibit on 30th August so if you’re in the area please go and say hi and learn some more about gravitational waves 🙂
But if you’re not in London please follow Emma on her science journey through her YouTube channel, her Twitter or her Instagram. Feel free to ask her some questions about her research, spacetime, jewellery making or even travelling through Central America. I am sure she would love to hear from you guys!
Also this is the last scientist in the spotlight before my big announcement so here it goes – September on Soph talks science is going to be ‘Spotlight September’. I love this feature of my blog so I will be sharing the stories behind even more awesome scientist with you rather than just your usual one post a month. I have some really exciting scientists lined up for you so hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have planned.