Ten hundred words

Explaining a PhD using only the 1000 most commonly used words.  Much harder than it sounds. Here’s mine:

I use numbers to look at how hot ice at the bottom of the world gets. Sometimes the ice becomes so hot it becomes water. This can mean that big bits of water form in the same place, and these big bits of water can mean that more hot from the sun makes more water from the ice. If too many big bits of water are made then bad things happen.

Have a go yourself here. Today the office is not so productive now…


Is there sexism in science?

Thank you Sir Tim Hunt. Your comments about the issues with sharing a lab with women (in that it’s so hard when you fall in love with them/ they fall in love with you (really??) and they cry) and the resulting #distractinglysexy hashtag have increased my twitter follows by nearly 30% and given me hug amounts of fun seeing what other female scientists get up to. Here’s mine and a couple of my favourites:

The recent #girlswithtoys trend in response to a professor’s comment that many scientists are ‘boys with toys’ was similarly jumped upon by female scientists showing that they too can play with ‘toys’. Here’s fellow CPOM PhD Rachel with hers:

But, as great as it is to see all these women doing science, it’s 2015, surely now things are more equal and everyone knows that girls do science too? Do we really need these hashtags beyond them being a good story? Ridiculous as comments such as those made by Tim Hunt are, aren’t they just the views of some old men who will soon be retired anyway?

Well sadly that’s not the case, for at least two reasons that I’m aware of. The first, and the one that I think we can change the most is that many people perceive that science is associated with men. If you don’t believe me then try the test– I’m yet to find someone without an unconscious bias, in fact one of my department’s most keen equality supporters admits that their results show that they have one. I’ve given a talk in a school (an all girls school no less) where I’ve had the question “I really like science but I don’t think I can be scientist because I want children, what else can I do?”. At a recent outreach event in a museum we dressed up kids in lab coats and goggles and got them trying out experiments. Trying to encourage one boy I said “look at you, you’ve got your lab coat and specs, you’re nearly a real scientist now”. His response- “yes, all I need now is a bald patch”. Surrounded by young, female scientists, the stereotypes still persist even with the very young (His mother incidentally just laughed at him. It was left to me to point out that none of the scientists there had a bald patch. Or were even male). But this can be changed, and there are loads of scientists doing great outreach work worldwide to help to do this.

The second is the objection to some people of my generation to any moves to try and reduce inequality within science and this is the one I’m honestly not sure what to do about. About this time last year I attended a talk at my University that was celebrating our school having achieved an Athena SWAN Silver Award. Athena SWAN is a system of awards for university departments, part of which involves addressing gender inequality and the “leaky pipeline” in science:Leaky Pipeline

I went to the talk with some suspicion but came out of it feeling overwhelmingly positive. It was not about promoting women over men to meet targets as I’d been led to believe. It was about flexible working, maternity and paternity leave and making the promotion process more transparent. Things that, yes, will help women who want to have families tp still progress withing their careers. But also will help everyone. Dads can work part time and be stay at home Dads. And it will help men to get promoted too.

Yet speaking to colleagues after the talk I heard a lot of anger about how men were being disadvantaged by Athena SWAN, and again how meeting equality targets was not fair on those who were in the majority categories of white, middle class males. It’s easy enough to brush this off as men being scared that actually they might have a bit of competition now. But it’s not just men. I had one female colleague who was genuinely outraged that she might gain unjust career progression through being a female and not through merit.

Needless to say none of these people went to the talk. And therein lies the problem. Any attempt to address the “leaky pipeline” and make things better for everyone is immediately labelled unfair and seen as some kind of fight against men, giving women opportunities over more deserving men to meet some perceived quota of women in senior positions. It’s the same for any attempt to tackle inequality in ethnicity or sexuality.

I often hear the example of one female colleague (the same one who admitted to having the unconscious bias) used as proof that there is no inequality. She has become a professor, she has a family, she even dares to put in her out of office that she won’t work out of hours. Outrageous. But if she can do it then surely everyone can?

Recently I overheard a discussion about this same colleague between two other female members of staff, questioning just how she does do it, and how impossible it seems to them to achieve everything she has. They had nothing but admiration for the things she does above and beyond straight science, but the fact is she is (in the nicest possible way*) just a little bit ridiculous. It’s a bit like knowing the popular girl at school who has all the friends, is the captain of the netball team, volunteers at the local animal shelter, gets all A grades… you know the one, how does she do it? While it’s great that there are examples of women doing it all, the rest of us are still human and one women doing well doesn’t instantly mean we all can, no problems.

I really hope that the attempts to provide more opportunities for everyone do lead to more women being able to stay in science, and also for men to be able to take career breaks. But I do worry that the efforts of those who so strongly and vocally object to any attempts at progress, without any apparent understanding of what it actually means, mean that the leaky pipeline may be here to stay. And meanwhile I’ll just have to try not to be too #distractinglysexy and allow everyone to get on with their science.

*any work people reading this will know exactly who I mean and I genuinely mean this all with the best of intentions. Please don’t fire me.

A slightly longer than intended break…

I started this blog with the intention of sharing my science and some of what it’s like to do a PhD. Unfortunately one of the things about a PhD is that it can tend to take over somewhat- and also bring lots of exciting opportunities that would be great to blog about but also take up a lot of my spare time. However, I’m lucky enough to be taking a three month secondment working for the Government Office of Science which I will be able to tell you about in due course as well as hopefully having a much better work life balance allowing me to catch up with all the other things I’m dying to write about. So I’M BACK! And of course there will be cake too.

Ocean Cake

In my first science/ cake crossover post here is a turbulent ocean cake made for a PhD viva (spot the langmuir turbulence…).

A turbulent royal icing ocean.

A turbulent royal icing ocean.

The main cakey thing here is that royal icing makes a good ocean. I added 3 tsps of glycerine to 500g royal icing sugar, could have got away with 2. Colour the icing to a bluey green base then add some blue and green colouring and mix a small amount to spread the colour without mixing it in. Save a little white icing for the flicks of foam on the waves. The waves can be made easily with a flat knife.

Here you don’t need a marzipan base for the royal icing if the cake is sponge (sometimes the colour can bleed through from cake to icing, especially if fruit cake). One thing to be careful of though is cake crumbs getting through to the icing- add a thin base layer of icing gently and then build up the thicker parts for the waves.

Pumpkin Spice Latte Cake


The excitement that surrounds the arrival of the various seasonal drinks at a certain major coffee chain baffles me every year. One minute it’s #PSL and before you can blink it’s #RedCups… it’s November! Let’s enjoy Autumn while it’s still here and upgrade your coffee to a cake form. This is my twist on an American recipe for pumpkin cake with the latte part put into the icing.

And the most exciting thing.. a decent sized slice of this has fewer calories than the drink it’s based on. *

I just don't understand...

I just don’t understand…


1 cup pumpkin puree (I used Libby’s, for UK based people you can get it in the world foods section of larger supermarkets. One cup is less than a tin. You can always scale up the ingredients to use the rest but don’t be tempted to add extra pumpkin without doing this, things will get very mushy)

280g self raising flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

110g butter

2 large eggs

1tsp of each of; cinnamon, nutmeg, mixed spice


4 layers of pumpkin goodness.


200g icing sugar

100g butter

2tsp instant coffee, dissolved in 50ml water

1/4 tsp of each of; cinnamon, nutmeg, mixed spice


1. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees (fan) or gas mark 6. Grease and line two 20cm cake tins.

2. You can make the cake using the all in one method (as the name suggests, bung it all into a bowl and mix!).

Fondant icing pumpkins are surprisingly simple to make.

Fondant icing pumpkins are surprisingly simple to make.

3. Cook for 30-40 minutes.

4. Make up the buttercream icing by mixing together the butter and icing sugar and then adding as much of the coffee needed to get the consistency you want.

5. I cut through each cake to make 4 layers but it still looks effective with just 2 layers. Wait until it’s properly cool if you are going to cut it.

6. Ice between the layers and on top of the cake. Serve with some nice fair trade coffee at a fraction of the cost of buying it out.


*Assuming you can get at least 10 slices out of the cake, based on a grande PSL with whipped cream.







Spiced Autumn Cake

The sun may have stopped shining but here’s something the celebrate that things are well and truly cold now. The mascapone cheese icing stops the spiced orange cake being too sweet.

Steps 1-3 need to be completed a couple of hours before baking but if you’re short of time you can get away without soaking the sultanas and using orange zest in the icing instead of peel.


Note: This was a first attempt, later cakes used smaller pieces of orange peel which made it much easier to serve.


200g Self raising flour
4 Large eggs
200g Baking spread
225g Caster sugar
1 tsp Mixed spice
1 tsp Ground cinnamon
3 oranges
50g Sultanas
250g Mascapone cheese (full fat)
200g Icing sugar
50g Butter

Optional Decoration: Dark chocolate, caster sugar

1) Zest two oranges for the cake. Peel half of the remaining orange into thin strips (keep them small so that the cake cuts easily) and zest the remaining half for the icing. Don’t throw the leftover orange away you’ll need it later!

2) Add the orange peel to a small pan with just enough water to cover it and 10g of caster sugar. Bring the pan to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Boil for one minute, then drain and lay the orange peel onto a piece of greaseproof paper. Cover with 15g of the remaining sugar and leave to dry, preferably on a radiator or sunny windowsill.

3) LEAVE TO SOAK/ DRY for 2-3 hours.

4) Halve the three oranges and juice them. Save two tablespoons of the juice for use in the icing later.

5) Grease and line two 20cm cake tins. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade or Gas Mark 4.

6) Cream the remaining sugar and margarine together, gradually add the beaten eggs. Drain the sultanas and stir in along with the zest from the two oranges.

7) Fold in the flour along with the cinnamon and mixed spice.

8) Divide the mixture between the two cake tins and bake for 30-40 minutes. The cake will come away from the sides of tin and a skewer will come out clean when it’s done.

9) Once the cake has cooled beat together the icing sugar, butter, mascapone cheese, zest from the half orange and as much of the orange juice saved in step 1 to get a consistency of icing you would like. Spread the icing between the two layers and on top of the cake.

10) Decorate with the orange peel and other decorations as required. I used chocolate and caramel leaf shapes but the orange peel on its own is still effective.


Cake and Bake Show Review

London Earl’s Court- 3rd-5th September



The best part was definitely the demonstrations, here Eric Lanlard shows off his sweet pastry.

Tickets £10

What was there:

  • Demonstrations: Sadly no Paul or Mary but a lot of others- all the GBBO winners plus Eric Lanlard, Rosemary Shrager, Racker Khoo and erm… Wendy Peters… We saw Eric Lanlard and the Fabulous Baker Brothers- all really good and lots of good tips. The competition arena had all 4 GBBO winners baking at once. It was chaotic and as it was the last day I think they were all going a bit mad but it was fun. Style over substance may well still be a thing though judging by France’s “Madelines in Chelsea”.
  • Stalls: A mixture of bakes and equipment, mostly a bit overpriced but not too horrendous. As long as you don’t mind borderline offensive sales patter.
  • Classes: Classes at £8 each didn’t seem worth it- you didn’t get to do anything just watch in a smaller area than the main demonstrations so we opted not to do any. There was a free class where you could make fondant figures but the queue would have been the best part of an hour.
  • General baking celebrities: We saw the majority of GBBO class of 2014 wandering around, including Richard looking slightly bemused by all the attention (bearing in mind at this point most people were convinced he was going to win!) and Mr #BinGate himself.


What we learnt:

  • Put your chocolate into a piping bag then but it into a jug of hot water to melt it. Much easier than faffing with a bowl over a pan and it’s ready to pipe straight away.
  • Put cling film in the fridge to find the end. I’ve done this, it really works!
  • Use cling film rather than baking parchment for blind baking. Gets right into the corners.

Some of the display cakes were unique to say the least.

Was it worth it?

For £7.50, yes, but it would have been nice to see some more interactive things to make it worth going again. Or Mary Berry :)

Bonus Tips:

  • At £10 each it seems a bit pricey for what you get but if you hang on you can get better deals- we got 2 for £15 on Amazon Local, and Money Saving Expert had free tickets for the Friday a couple of weeks before the show.
  • The Sunday has some good deals at closing time but don’t expect ridiculous bargains (and don’t get irate with stalls that aren’t doing discounts like someone we saw!).
  • The show guide is pretty essential but at £5 it might be worth just printing off the talk times first. You do get a nice bag and a couple of freebies with it though.
  • Making your own butter is great. The Fabulous Baker Brothers showed us how easy it is: just whisk double cream for 5-10 mins until it separates into butter and buttermilk. Wash the butter in cold water to get rid of all the buttermilk (which will go rancid if left). You can use the buttermilk in their soda bread recipe.


GBBO winner John Waites was happy to pose for photos. Bonus :)

GBBO winner John Whaite was happy to pose for photos. Bonus :)