" I'm a hungry woman...
...But don't you dare forget
You gotta feed my head too

Hungry Woman Blues II, Gaye Adegbalola

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Ada Lovelace Day 2015: Celebrating Prof. Marika Taylor and Diversity in STEM

Happy Belated Ada Lovelace Day! This annual celebration of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) surpassed itself this year with over 130 independent events spanning 67 cities, 19 countries, and across all 7 continents - including Antarctica! Congratulations!

Ada Lovelace Day 2015 Events Around The World
Ada Lovelace Day (ALD) is all about nominating female STEM heroes to increase the visibility of women in STEM. It is one of many campaigns addressing the gender inbalance in these areas, which is itself part of the bigger problem of a general lack of representation of minority and marginalised groups in these disciplines.

So here is a slightly longer* blog post looking at the importance of events like ALD, the wider issue of diversity in STEM and, most importantly, celebrating the work of an exemplary female mathematician and living example of women pushing the boundaries of STEM research, my Ada Lovelace Day hero: Professor Marika Taylor.

But first, I have another bandwagon to jump on...

* 'slightly longer' is a bit of an understatement - to this end I will also posted the key sections as shorter posts in their own right

Hawking – Turing – Lovelace

Big names in Physics, Maths and Computing. Big names, in fact, in the overlapping areas between these three domains. Big names whose tales have been famously told on the big screen, the small screen and, of course (regular readers may have picked up a theme here), the radio (see below). Big names who are united by the work and passions of Professor Marika Taylor, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Southampton.

As the former, Hawking and Turing, have recently had entire films dedicated to them (and rightly so) this post will concentrate on the stories, messages and legacies of the latter, Lovelace and Taylor – during the telling of which Hawking and Turing will both appear, fear not, avid fans!

Ada, Enchantress of Numbers

It may have become apparent that I am a bit of an Ada Lovelace fan. She has already featured in previous blog posts here and here. And I am not ashamed to give her yet more room on these pages!

Ada Lovelace – or Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – was the daughter of prominent anti-slavery campaigner and ‘amateur’ mathematician Anna Isabella Milbanke and her husband the notorious poet and Victorian celebrity, George Gordon, Lord Byron. (Incidentally, it was on holiday with Lord Byron in Geneva that Mary Shelley – then Mary Wollestonecroft (jr.) - wrote the haunting novel Frankenstein. Shelley, of course, being the daughter of Mary Wollstonecroft (sr.), author of one of the first and most important equalist texts, A Vindication on the Rights of Men and A Vindication on the Rights of Women. It all links together!). Her life, in all its many colours and shades, is told expertly and in many mediums (see below), many of which have been published recently, somewhat arbitrarily in light of what would have been her 200th birthday – however, her story is fascinating and whatever the excuse, I highly recommend learning all you can about her!

Of course, Lovelace is most famously known for being ‘the world’s first computer programmer’ for her work on the development and understanding of the Analytical Engine. The Engine which, had it been built, would have been the world’s first computer, was invented by Charles Babbage (who coined her nickname 'The Enchantress of Numbers') – however, it was Lovelace who saw its full potential and her translation of the italian mathematician Luigi Federico Menabrea's paper on it with extensive annotations and additions (which tripled the length of the paper) is the world’s first documentation of the idea of programmable computers. Although the most famous, this was but one of a number of mathematical advances she made, including designs for powered flight as early as 1832. Unfortunately she died before seeing many of her concepts become a reality; but her legacy lives on, both in the field of mathematics and as she posthumously becomes a beacon for celebrating the achievements of women in STEM subjects.

Marika, Master of Mathematics

It was through organisation of events for this year’s Ada Lovelace Day celebrations at the University of Southampton that I was fortunate enough to find myself in conversation with Prof. Marika Taylor. Taylor, who before taking her post at Southampton was associate professor at the Unviersity of Amsterdam, completed a postdoc (post-doctoral research position) at Havard as well as holding fellowships at the Universities of Cambridge and Utrecht.

She studied Natural Sciences at the University Cambridge because her school decided that the entrance requirements for studying Maths were too hard for their students. Given that, from reading her father’s engineering textbooks, she was at A-Level Maths standard at the age of 11, this seems somewhat short-sighted. However, the grounding in Physics – for which she was the top of her year - that the course gave her, along with the Masters of Mathematics she took afterwards, meant that she was perfectly poised to set her mind to solving one of the greatest problems of our generation during her PhD: unifying the theories of quantum mechanics and gravity, or string theory. For this her supervisor was none other than Stephen Hawking (see, I told you he’d appear!).

Now her research applies the theories of gravitational holography to understanding phenomena such a black holes and high-temperature superconductivity. She is also on the management committee for the Southampton Theory Astrophysics and Gravity (STAG) research centre pooling the expertise of researchers from three different research groups across two university faculties to tackle the fundamental problems of physics and astronomy; and is chair of the Mathematical Sciences Athena SWAN committee which addresses gender equality issues.


A Higher Plane - A Shared Experience

Talking to someone whose job is to fathom some of the most complex and yet most fundamental questions of our universe is quite inspiring and also a little dizzying. What must it be like to go home to toast and bills and TV after spending your working day comtemplating much deeper concepts? Do they lose their relevance?

Taylor remains remarkably grounded; she is passionate about her work but in no way arrogant; she doesn't mention Hawking until I ask her directly, having found out from another University lecturer and Marika Taylor fan previously; and we discuss in-depth the issue of encouraging more women in STEM, which she is equally passionate about.

This is a problem that she tackles, refreshingly, like a scientist - it is surprising how many trained scientists, mathematicians and engineers leave all the rigorous logical thought they have spent years refining aside when discussing diversity in their fields. Taylor, however, applies her curiosity-driven problem-solving skills well as she draws from her experiences without considering them definitive.

Although she comes from a priveleged background, having attended a private school and had access to both materials and a STEM role model through her father as an engineer, she understands more than most the importance of encouraging diversity in areas where minority and marginalised groups - such as, but not exclusively, women - are unrepresented: Co-ordinating last year's Ada Lovelace Day celebrations not only did she ensure there were posters of key female mathematicians on show but also of non-western european mathematicians such as Srinivasa Ramanujan; Before showing 'The Imitation Game' at this year's celebrations, their speaker discussed the difficulties and prejudices Turing (mentioned as promised!) faced both due to his sexuality and the suspected though unconfirmed Asperger's syndrome.

Reaching Out to 'People Like Me'

So what is the solution? Outreach is undeniably a key tool. In Dr. Emily Grossman's talk on Women in Science at the University of Southampton ALD15 celebrations last week it was highlighted that most children decide whether or not they are a 'science person' at primary school - so showing children that STEM subects could be for them at as young an age as possible is important.

However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that how we approach outreach is just as important as doing it at all. STEM disciplines have a long histroy of public engagement and in the last 20-30 years have heavily targeted women yet figures have barely changed in this time. What are we going wrong?

In a study carried out by WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) it was found that outreach events by the wrong people or in the wrong context could in fact be off-putting young women from entering STEM. Improving this can be as simple as changing your sentence structure: there is evidence to suggest that girls generally respond better to nouns ('I am an engineer, an innovator, an investigator, a communicator') rather than verbs ('I build this, develop that). Also, public engagement and outreach is generally carried out by STEM professionals and academics who, despite having the best of intentions, have had little or no training in these activities. To help solve this WISE have released an education pack called 'People Like Me' to help those carrying out outreach and public engagement, details of which can be found here.

Once more on this subject, Taylor shows her ability to remain objective and unbiased. Though she herself always knew that she wanted to head in a Maths and Physics direction, she acknowledges that this is not a pre-requisite for all budding young STEMettes; some fantastic STEM researchers went through several career decisions - and, indeed, career changes - before, and after, making some fantastic achievements in these fields (Dr. Melora Larson, the aforementioned Dr. Emily Grossman to name but a few). I have personally noticed frequently that the girls and women I have come across in my experience as an engineer have been particularly motivated and have identified with their chosen subject, be it aircraft, space or combatting cancer, from a young age; whereas the majority of the boys and men ended up in these fields because they weren't bad a Maths and Physics. Of course I have met some super keen male engineers too - and this is not to underestimate the importance of having a passion for what you do - but the lack of women who 'ended-up' in engineering is indicative of the message that engineering is something you can only getting out to a very small female audience. Unless this is addressed, we're never going to leave our comfortable minority zone and as a society we'll miss tapping into the ingenuity of almost half the population.

Good Direction

Taylor also highlighted the importance of following up outreach with good careers advice and educating schools and colleges about what academia and industry are looking for so they can pass on the correct information to their students. She uses the example of her own school not encouraging her to take Maths even though she was clearly exemplary in this subject; and there are many stories of students who, despite showing clear ability and talent in scientific fields, are unable to continue studying in these areas because they have been advised to take more specific subjects at A-Level such as Accounting, Business and Law. It is worth noting that with Maths and Physics or Chemistry A-Levels it is still possible to study and work in accounting, business, law and similar subjects - but without them it is very difficult to enter any STEM field.

This in itself is a problem specific to the UK - we are forced to specialise very early, where many other education systems encourage a much broader education. A recent article from the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) shows the importance of encouraging both academic and artisitic development in tandem. Recognising this, initiatives such as The Science Room @ The Art House are helping bring the arts and sciences back** together.

** A few hundred years ago it was perfectly normal to be proficient in both!

A Cog in the Machine

Conclusion: there is a lot of work to do. Luckily, there are also a lot of good reasons to carry it out and equally a lot of motivated people to do it. Initiatives like Ada Lovelace Day not only prove this but provide a brilliant platform for such people to meet, find support to carry on the struggle and feed off each other's enthusiasm. They help concentrate energy and publicity and improve visibility of the amazing STEM women and other underepresented groups. As do WISE, the Athena SWAN charter, STEMettes, STEM Women, Black Girls Code, The Grace Hopper Celebration, Reducing Stereotype Threat...the list goes on!

But as important as such initiatives are, we must be careful not to become too enclosed - to end up simply 'preaching to the converted'. The real task is to target those people who still believe that STEM is 'not for people like me', starting at as young an age as possible and continuing all the way up to adult, via as many ways as possible such as Bright Club which uses the medium of stand-up comedy - after all, the biggest influences in a child's education are often not their teachers or the STEM ambassadors that come to their school but their parents; as Prof. Marika Taylor can relate from starting her love of Maths and Physics by indulging in her father's engineering textbooks from a young age.

So a very Happy Ada Lovelace Day 2015 from myself and my STEM hero Professor Marika Taylor! It is a step in the right direction and a cog in the machine towards progress which, though it moves slowly, is most definitely moving.

Finding Ada...Everywhere!

As promised, a list of links of all the various places Ada has been popping up this year...

'The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage': This inspiring and well-informed web-comic is now available in a beautiful book! Definitely my favourite source of Ada information - and pictures for this blog post! I also had the surprise honour of meeting its creator Sydney Padua at this year's Ada Lovelace Day Live event - and of course I had Thrilling Adventures on me so was able to get it signed!

'Calculating Ada: The Countess of Computing': She hasn't quite made the big screen like her successors, Turing and Hawking, but this BBC Four documentary is a nice introuction to Lovelace and the Difference and Analytical Engines. It's also hosted by Dr. Hannah Fry, another fantastic STEM ambassador and role model (see, for example, her TED talk on the Mathematics of Love).

'The Letters of Ada Lovelace': Also on the BBC as part of their Make It Digital season is this two-part examination and dramatisation of the letters sent by Lovelace to Babbage, her mother and her comtemporaries. The two parts are entitled, 'The Poetry of Mathematics' and 'Thinking Machines'.

More Ada on Air: Lovelace has also been featured in the past on BBC Radio 4, in Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time', on 'Great Lives' nominated by Konnie Huq and, of course, in 'The I.T. Girls' which I might one day stop telling people to listen to...maybe, once I'm sure that everyone has listened to it...

Ada Lovelace Exhibition: It turns out there is something that trumps even the great combination of Lovelace and Radio: The Ada Lovelace Exhibition at...THE SCIENCE MUSEUM (London)! That's right, two of my favourite things have been combined! The exhibition is open until March 2016 - and look out for the Evening Exchange events looking at the influence of Lovelace's work on poetry, music and art in one-off workshops.

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