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…

Fairbrother Lecture

I’m very excited to be able to reveal that I’ve been asked to give Reading University’s Fairbrother Lecture for 2016.

Named after Jack Fairbrother, who in 1929 became the first student to be awarded a PhD from the University, the Fairbrother Lecture is an annual event at which a current, or recent, Reading doctoral researcher will present their work to a wider audience.

A wider audience means that it should be accessible to everyone so please do come along to hear about my work as well as some more general information about the polar regions.

It’s free but ticketed: more information is available here.

Wednesday 4 May, 19.00, Henley Business School, Whiteknights, University of Reading

Fairbrother 2016 photo


The official announcement:

“The Graduate School is pleased to announce that Sammie Buzzard, a final year doctoral researcher from the Department of Meteorology, will give the Fairbrother Lecture in 2016. In this lecture, Sammie will discuss some of the key issues around global warming and climate change; in particular, the collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica. Sammie’s doctoral research aims to help us better predict the speed and rate at which these ice shelves – one twice the size of Wales – will continue to melt and she will explain the wider impact of this occurrence. Sammie will also highlight some of the challenges of researching one of the most inhospitable places on earth. 

Sammie Buzzard holds a Natural Environment Research Council studentship and had previously been a finalist in the Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis Competition. 

In addition to her studies, in 2015 Sammie completed a Research Council Policy Internship at the Government Office for Science. 

If you wish to attend this lecture, please book your place using the online booking form: http://www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/about-event-register.aspx

‘The Easiest Rose Ever’ Cutter Review

8/10- Nice and simple but a little overpriced for what it is.
£5.60 Cake Craft World

I got this little gadget at the Cake and Bake show 2015, mostly because they let you try it out first. You can get it from Cake Craft World who had the stand online for just over a fiver, as well as from other online retailers.

I was sold on the ease of use and just how pretty the roses looked but I wasn’t convinced I’d be able to reproduce it at home with my own rolling pin/ no fancy foam mat like the had at the show. However I was pleasantly surprised.


Instead of buying the whole expensive kit they were flogging at the show I made my own glue by mixing a little of the fondant with water, made a soft mat out of a tea towel and cling film and used a sieve and cornflour to keep things dry.

Once I’d put together my own replica of the kit needed (see caption above) I was ready to go. The cutting was straight forward but the shaping with a rolling pin was less easy. You do need something a bit more foam like than a tea towel and a wooden rolling pin is no good as it leaves a pattern, you do need a plastic one or something else round and smooth.

The rolling however was just as easy as advertised and soon I had plenty of roses of various sizes ready to go:

Overall I’d say the £20 kit they sell (with foam mat, rolling pin etc.) is very overpriced but the cutter on its own isn’t too steep and it certainly works. the roses are pretty effective and looking at the design on the website I’d certainly have them on my wedding cake…

Happy New Year!


Happy New Year and thank you to everyone who has followed or read this blog in 2015! Here’s the Toblerone cheesecake* we celebrated with.

I hope to keep posting plenty next year, but I suspect the thesis may get in the way a little. However, once that is done there are some exciting adventures including hopefully some fieldwork in the Bay  of Bengal to tell you about so watch this space…


*It’s really easy, just add 1/2 a melted toblerone per 200g of cream cheese in your standard cheesecake recipe. Let it cool until it’s just starting to get solid before adding!

NERC ATSC Fieldwork Training Part 3- ICE!!

Having spent time getting excited by the local flora and fauna came the day I was most looking forward to- the ice! Course tutor Ed had shipped up lots of radar and GPS equipment to Ny Alesund before our arrival so our first job was to work out how to distribute it all among us to carry up to Midrelovenbreen, the glacier we were going to be working on.

Once we were all loaded up we walked out to the glacier and split into teams on of which used GPS to plot out a path up the glacier, then they were followed by the team with the ground penetrating radar. The radar is on a sledge that would normally be pulled by a skidoo but Ed had decided that as he had a handy supply of PhD students he could use us.


Team sledge dog pulling the radar equipment along the glacier (twice as someone forgot to turn it on the first time…)

We were able to attach some show chains to our boots that allowed us to walk on the glacier without falling all over the place. The path up the glacier was marked out initially by piles of rocks by the GPS team, and then spare team members as the surface of the glacier became far less rock covered the further up we got. 20 years of education to get to pretend to be a rock…



We stopped at the top of the glacier for lunch and a quick sunbathe.


After lunch at the top of the glacier we were shown a melt river that in some places was completely hidden by a layer of snow and ice over the top- a reminder that even a glacier that feels very safe can have hidden surprises.


Once we were back to Ny Alesund a few of us still had some excess energy so decided to go for a hike up towards the atmospheric research laboratory on a hill near to the town. This was our first time out on our own without a course leader so we were hopeful for no bears. Due to the measurements they’re taking  at the lab we couldn’t get too close but we still managed to get high enough to get some excellent views of Ny Alesund even if it was much more of a climb than a hike. The decision to go back down the shale front tested my balancing skills to their maximum, although little did I know that we were being checked up on through the base telescope and probably providing quite a lot of entertainment into the bargain.


A fairy steep and chilly climb up…


But worth it for excellent views of Ny Alseund and this glacier behind the mountain.

Once back at the base we had a chance to look at our biological samples and review Ed’s images from the radar.

The next day it was sadly time to head back to Longyearbyen but this was made slightly more bearable through it being via a stunning flight over the ice caps.

Our final meal of the trip provided an opportunity to finally meet a bear, thankfully our rifle training wasn’t necessary.



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!