Why I don’t think there should be more women on University Challenge

A reasonable amount of media attention was given to the fact that by the semi final stage of last year’s University Challenge, the remaining teams were exclusively male. But why was this? And why, as someone who is so pro equal opportunities and women in science would I not want to change this?

The reasons for the lack of women competing aren’t straight forward, From my experience I don’t believe that there is any bias in the selection process of the universities themselves. I felt that Reading were pretty thorough; we have a written test and then the top 10 from that go through to a buzzer round in front of an audience to ensure that you have the speed and ability to cope on camera. The final team were then chosen by a panel. Other teams seem to have had a similar experience.

Nor, if the producers are honest, is there any real bias in the show’s selection procedure either. It’s true that there may be some fiddling to make sure there is some geographical and diverse representation, and preferences for universities who haven’t been on for a while/ at all but the producers make it very clear that it is still very much based on your score in their test quiz: if you’re not good enough you’re not in. So I suspect there may, for example, be a little bit of juggling of the teams ranked 20-30 but the top 20 will definitely be in and anyone below the top 30 definitely won’t, or something similar to that. But essentially you have to be good, and that’s the real deciding factor.

There’s no reason why there should be fewer women making it through these various stages than men. I’m not aware of any evidence that men are naturally better at quizzing and anyone who saw Gail Trimble in action will probably be of an opinion that they are not (not that men aren’t good of course, who could forget Ted Loveday and Hapax Legomenon). So it seems that women just aren’t applying, and much as things could be done to change this, the way things currently are I’m not sure I would encourage this.

My reasoning for this is not only the comments that contestants are likely to see on social media, which have been well documented, but also because of the quiz master and Newsnight legend, Mr Nasty, Jeremy Paxman himself. But not for the reason you might think. In fact it could be suggested that Jeremy is supportive of there being more women on the show. Several media outlets reported on his comments at the semi-final stage of last year’s series: “why on earth are there no women left in this stage of the competition?”. Many even lauded him as some kind of feminist.

However, I have to say that from my experience this couldn’t be further from the truth. Jeremy Paxman is not a feminist. In fact his ideas of what it is appropriate to say to female contestants are definitely not in line with BBC or ITV policy to say the least.

Not only are his attitudes to women in the workplace outdated, they do not help to make it a positive experience for the women participating in the show. For University Challenge is a workplace. Contestants essentially have to sign something that at least is very close to an employment contract before they are allowed to appear on the show, yet for some reason Paxman is allowed to behave in way towards female contestants that would in no way be considered appropriate in any other workplace. I can’t even imagine a male member of staff at my university being allowed to make comments to the female PhDs and everyone just laughing it off or ignoring it. More to the point I can’t even imagine that any of them would even want to do this either!

Yet Jeremy is allowed to make comments to female contestants in the studio, in front of the cameras and the audience, and no-one in the production team even bats an eyelid. As contestants we were expected to sit there politely and carry on smiling both because this is what we have agreed to do, and through fear of them not broadcasting our match that we have worked so hard to qualify for if we did kick up a fuss. Every year over 100 teams don’t make it through to the TV round so it’s not like there aren’t plenty of replacements. Given that my team had a member who was originally a reserve for his college back in the days of Bamber Gascoigne there was no way I was going to mess up his chance to finally be on the show after such a long wait by giving Paxman the response to his comment to me that he definitely deserved. I think it is this acceptance of Paxman that is much more dangerous than the man himself and the reason I chose to write this. So here’s the key starter for 10: we can all ignore someone with outdated views but is this ok just because they’re famous and from a generation where this behaviour would have been acceptable?

Our team. Needless to say this was pre any dodgy comments.

Our team. Needless to say this was pre any dodgy comments.

I should make it clear here that I’m not trying to claim that had we had a different quiz master we would have beaten Imperial, they were excellent and I wouldn’t want to take anything away from that. Although I think we had a strong team it’s quite sad that actually we were all pretty relieved when the final scores came in and we found out we didn’t have to go back as a highest scoring loser (this isn’t really a spoiler as Paxman said goodbye to us on the show!).

I do feel it was a privilege and a great experience to have been able to take part in a legendary show and I wouldn’t want to put off any women from applying- they just need to be aware of what they may have to put up with. It made me really sad to write this and to think of the blip on an otherwise awesome experience. But until there is a different quiz master I certainly wouldn’t push to get more women on the show knowing what the producers think is acceptable for them to deal with. There is also no support or warning given by ITV about what contestants are likely to see on social media. It can get pretty horrible and I think at least a warning just to not look is the minimum that they should be doing. I hope that those that do go through in 2016 can go into it with their eyes wide open and not be put off by any comments that they’re expected to just deal with. And that’s without even starting on what Twitter thinks it’s appropriate to say…

Cake and Bake Show 2015 review

Disclaimer: I had a free ticket for this and the masterclass that I attended but I’ve tried to judge it as if I’d paid for it

.2015’s London edition of the Cake and Bake show had relocated to a new venue this year, the Excel Centre. A smaller venue meant the event felt much more crowded and I found it quite disorienting and struggled to work out where things were. Although it was a nice easy trip up the DLR to get there.

Rosemary Shrager can always be relied upton to provide entertainment.

Rosemary Shrager can always be relied upon to provide entertainment.

The slightly chaotic Bake Off performances of last year were replaced by previous contestants doing individual demonstrations which seemed to be much better on the learning techniques front. The entertainment front was definitely still covered in the form of Rosemary Shrager, who started her demonstration singing several versus and choruses of a self composed baking song.

Less entertaining were the paid for masterclasses. At £6 each I would have expected a bit more than a not great view (it was filmed but the screens were pretty small), sound that wasn’t working for most of the class . Emily Leary who was presenting the class did very well to overcome this. She’s now working for Dr. Oetker and there was a little too much advertising of their products, but Emily was great for people that came and asked her questions afterwards and let us have a go and a taste- it would have been nice if the whole class could have had this.

The view from the 2nd row of about 8 during the masterclass.

The view from the 2nd row of about 8 during the masterclass.

One real improvement front last year was the amount of interaction and free samples available. A really clever idea was the Cake Craft World stand who had a ‘try before you buy’ table for their ‘easier ever rose cutter’. At a fiver for a single cutter it’s something I wouldn’t have looked twice at but sitting down one on one with a member of staff and seeing that it did actually work meant that they were selling like, well, hot cakes…

My rose! Nice to test that something works before you pay out for it and definitely got people over to the stand.

My rose! Nice opportunity to test that something works before you pay out for it and definitely got people over to the stand.

NERC ATSC Fieldwork Training Part 2- Rifles, Reindeer and Really small creatures

Our first task of the first full day in Ny-Alesund was one I think I’d been excited about and dreading in equal measures- rifle training. After a slightly grim hour of being told which places were best to shoot a polar bear and looking at case studies (polar bears are one of the few creatures that will actively hunt humans, not reassuring…) we were taken up the rifle range to put the theory into practice. Turns out I needn’t have been worried, everyone was a pretty good shot even after being made to run around the hut the simulate the adrenaline of being confronted by a polar bear.

Target practice

Target practice

Fresh in the knowledge that we could all defend ourselves we then had to relearn everything using the UK base’s rifles and their procedure. Luckily it wasn’t too different to the main Ny Alesund procedures but still more to take in!

We then had a chance to explore some of the equipment that the UK base owns- the polar circle boat. We somehow managed to get into some boat suits that were definitely not built for small people, and then it was off to explore the bay along with all the mandatory questions from the course tutors about what safety gear we should be taking etc.


Looking fly in our boat suits

The boat can get some quite good speeds up on the water, despite the ice bergs and we were able to get quite close to the glacier front. It was amazing to be able to sit and hear all the ice cracking when the engine was turned off.

The front of the glacier

The front of the glacier

On the way back we were lucky enough to spot our first land based wildlife- two reindeer and an arctic fox. Adding these to the pod of beluga whales spotted on the first evening we were doing pretty well on the wildlife front so far.

(clockwise from top left) Some beluga whales spotted from the dining room, a spy was spotted, arctic fox, our first reindeer.

(clockwise from top left) Some beluga whales spotted from the dining room, a spy was spotted, arctic fox, our first reindeer.

The it was off for a first small hike to put into practise packing up our kit, taking the right gear and preparing the rifles. We headed towards some pattern ground, a natural phenomenon where the freezing of the ground causes of many years circular and hexagonal patterns to form in the rocks at the surface.


Pattern ground

The next day was our first full hike. We went along the coast up to a cliff where kittiwakes breed in order to take samples of the mosses and surface soils. We took these back to the base to find out what tiny creatures were lurking in them. Although the visit of a reindeer and another arctic fox were a bit too distracting for most of the group…

The local wildlife did its best to distract us from the moss and minibeasts

The local wildlife did its best to distract us from the moss and minibeasts

On our way back we made a discovery in the ground along the coast:


Found, with a much smaller set along side…

As exciting this was it was a reminder that as one of those carrying a rifle that day I could ultimately be responsible for the group’s safety. Although the rifles are there as only a last resort it does make you question if it is the right thing to be in the bears’ habitat at all.


Find a PhD

Here’s me talking about what I do, what it’s like and how I’m funded etc.- it was done off the cuff so not perfect but I guess that gives it honesty :)

Find a PhD, who I did this video for, is a very good resource though for anyone thinking about further study.

Other places you can look specifically in my area include the met jobs mailing list, which is meteorology and some general earth sciences and is how I found my PhD, and cryolist for specifically polar things.

Good luck!

NERC ATSC Fieldwork Training Part 1- Getting to and ‘surviving’ in the Arctic

Students and tutors in sunny Cambridge, now fully briefed on health and safety, GPS and croquet.

Students and tutors in sunny Cambridge, now fully briefed on health and safety, GPS and croquet.

For me the end of August involved 3 fairly intense but fun days learning about planning fieldwork. Health and safety actually kept us interested for 2 hours, who ever would have thought! Would Scott have survived Antarctica if he’d had a risk assessment? Probably not being seeing how all the mistakes  stacked against him showed the benefits of planning and openness. Soon it was time after exploring the British Antarctic Survey and being fed far too much food for the two groups of 8 PhD students set off to put what we’d learnt into practice at 79 degrees North.

As well as helath and safety we got a chance to explore the British Antarctic Survey archives, poor Angela with her "rather short legs"

As well as helath and safety we got a chance to explore the British Antarctic Survey archives, poor Angela with her “rather short legs”

Our journey took the best part of two days, and included 3 planes, 2 taxis, a bus and 13 hours overnight on a boat… with 7 bunks for 11 people. I didn’t need my maths degree to know that this was not going to be a journey with much sleep involved. Luckily no-one chundered and we all managed to at least get some form of sleep, bonus…


Beautiful view as we left Longyearbyen


Loading up the boat. Luckily Ed has sent his approximately 2000 tonnes of GPS gear ahead.

Fortunately the scenery was suitably stunning enough to distract from the lack of sleep and we had many bird shaped friends to accompany our journey as well as fun games of identify the whale/seal/walrus/mystery creature. Our wildlife spotting skills did not improve as a result of the trip- even by the final day Pete Convey (course tutor) was outraged by our confusion between seals and ducks- to be fair they were very far away.


On the boat, in the sun. Whoever said the Arctic was tough?


With fewer people than bunks some of us had to get creative with sleeping spaces!

Eventually, after avoiding some icebergs we arrived in Ny-Alesund, the most northern settlement in the world and our home for the next few days, the NERC owned, BAS run (did I get it right?) UK research base. The town used to be predominantly for mining, and much of the mining infrastructure is left over as ‘cultural heritage’. Some of this, such as the abandoned train is quite impressive but there is also a lot of rubble and local opinion of this is quite mixed but the decision was taken to leave it all as a memorial to those who were lost in a big mining accident that ultimately led to the closure of the mines. The town was also used as a starting point for Amundsen’s expedition to the North Pole by airship, you can still see the mast that the airship was attached to.

The base commander, Nick, greeted us at the jetty and soon made us feel at home. The base has endless tea and biscuits and even gin on our first evening where we were fortunate enough to be able to share with Kim Holmén, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute who’s stories can probably only be rivaled by our very own Nick.


Storytime with Nick, the bay provides a handy supply of ice for g&ts.

Storytime with Nick is a key feature of life on the UK base- from life as a base ‘medic’ to the Falklands War he’s seen it all, or at least knows someone else who has.

The base itself is very cosy, I even had my own room which was a nice surprise, and hot showers. Luxury! Radio contact is made often with all field parties so one of our first jobs was to learn how to use the radios, as well as being given a tour of the base and learning all the safety procedures, before getting down to the serious business of washing ice for the gin.

Then to the most important part- food! All the nationalities have their own bases but mealtimes are eaten together in a big dining room with stunning views of the bay, glaciers and frequent wildlife. Eating tea while watching beluga whales is definitely not something I’d expected. There is a lot of choice and I think I could get fat very quickly had I been there much longer.

However, it couldn’t all be fun and games and most had an early night to recover from the boat and be ready for a key event the next morning- rifle training to protect from the very real danger of bears… To be continued!


My room in the UK base, look Mum, no mess!


One of many safety mechanisms in place- knowing who is in the field.


The dining room- all nationalities eat together.

GO Science- thoughts on my first month and a half in policy

As you may well have seen, last month I started a 3 month NERC policy placement at the Government Office of Science, or GO Science as it’s slightly strangely known as. You can read about the scheme, why I chose to do it and how to get involved here and get some hints on the application form here.

Now I’m approaching the halfway point of my placement (where has that gone??), I thought it would be a good time to talk about my initial impressions and what it’s like to work at GO Science.

GO Science is relatively small- although we’re in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills which is huge, the office is small enough that you get to know the majority of people quite quickly. They also seem to rely quite a lot on interns- not just policy placements but general internships meaning that there is a good range of ages and skill sets and they are well set up for having an intern- I’m not just left doing dull jobs or simply twiddling my thumbs trying to hunt out work as I have been in other places. Things were a bit slow to start with as I’m in quite a small team but I’ve now got properly stuck into a project it’s much better.

One thing that surprised me about GO Science is the number of people with Dr. in front of their name. The civil service as a whole seems keen to promote generalists and there are plenty here who have a non scientific background but it’s somewhat reassuring that a large number of people dealing with science policy do actually have a scientific background, to the extent that it’s not uncommon for people to have done a post doc or two before they come here. The mix of this and generalists with experiences as diverse as having worked in Afghanistan and India I think works really well.

This does mean though that if you have a scientific specialism then be prepared to be asked all about it. Sir Mark Walport, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor has recently been in Svalbard and this has led to me being asked a whole range of questions from whether or not he has to have an armed guard when in the Arctic to the state of the sea ice. The fact I do mainly care about the other pole doesn’t matter!

It’s been really easy to get to know people and that has been helped by the fact that in my second week there was a quiz and a bake off, two of the best things. There is never a  shortage of interesting conversations around the office, people here are genuinely interested in science.

In term of the work itself I’ve been organising a high profile event, written a briefing note for Sir Mark and presented my own science to the department. I have to admit the area I’m working in isn’t exactly what I’m interested in but regardless of the opportunity to learn new things there are still plenty of chances to see what else is going on in the department and even maybe visit other government departments to work shadow. So plenty to look forward to until returning to the PhD…

RCUK Policy Internships- 1 week to go! Hints on the application form

The deadline for RCUK policy internships is 16:00 on 28 August 2015!

I’m currently based at the Government Office of Science doing one- feel free to contact me with questions but for anyone who’s applying here are some hints that I was given for the application form, and some things that I’ve picked up along the way:

  • Think carefully about the topic of your policy briefing. It needs to be something you understand well to make sure you cover it fully but at the same time make sure it is far enough away from your research topic to show that you can be adaptable and learn new things easily, skills you will definitely need on the internship (I’m currently organising an event around an area I didn’t even know the definition of before I came here…).
  • You need to show you can be impartial so picking a topic that is a bit contraversial or even has a small amount of debate associated with it will help. I did geoengineering for this reason.
  • Keep it specifiic- it’s very short so hard to cover anything in depth. I ended up just covering a specific area of geoengineering to make sure I could deal with it fully.
  • Don’t assume that the briefing note will just go away once it’s sent off. Remember why you wrote it and how you did it.
  • Put in the time- I heard rumours that the largest cut in applications is between application form and interview stage so it’s important to get this first stage right.
  • Be honest. They’re not expecting everyone to have a burning ambition to have a career in policy. I didn’t- and as long as you justify your understanding of why it’s important to make links with policy makers you can still benefit from the scheme.
  • Don’t stress too much about the organisation you apply to. I’ve met people who loved it each of the organisations on offer.

Good luck!