Lost penguins found on my ice shelf!

Carl Anton Larsen (image thecoldestjourney.org)

Carl Anton Larsen (image thecoldestjourney.org)

Earlier last year a new emperor penguin colony was discovered but it appears they may not actually be that new.

In 1893, the explorer Carl Anton Larsen reported what is thought to have been the first sighting of emperor penguins in the area that is now known after him as the Larsen ice shelves. However, this sighting had never been verified until recent satellite images found a colony on the Larsen C ice shelf. It is thought that these are the same colony and are permanently established on the ice shelf, unlike two other colonies who have recently been reported to be moving onto ice shelves due to changes in the development of their natural habitat, sea ice.

This is especially exciting for me as the Larsen C ice shelf is the one my work is based on. For better or for worse it is much easier for me to put my work into context if I tell people about penguins losing their homes than sea level rise, although one of these may be a much bigger problem for us in the long term.


RCUK Policy Internships- It Could Be You!

Just over two weeks ago I temporarily left Reading to start a 3 month policy placement at the Government Office of Science (‘GO Science’), funded by my research council. I’ll write more about my experiences of working for the government soon but as the call has now gone out for the next round of applications for placements now seems the perfect time to reflect on what I’m actually doing and why.

The scheme allows PhD students to take time away from research and work within an institution that deals with policy, either in a parliamentary sense such as being at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, or somewhere more general such as the British Library or the Royal Society.

So why did I want to do this? My motivation was for two reasons. Firstly, I just wanted to see where the science that gets done actually goes; what difference does it make and how? A lot of research is funded by the tax payer so it’s very easy to question what the point of it is if it then doesn’t feed into the bigger picture. Secondly it is to see what other careers are out there. I’m certain I want to stay in research and will do whatever I can to make that happen, but realistically it’s an unstable career and there are fewer and fewer jobs the further up the ladder you go. One thing that’s really surprised me about GO Science is the amount of people that have done one or more post docs, or are doing temporary policy placements within an academic career. After all, our big boss, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Mark Walpot, is able to do his job through the virtue of having had a long and successful scientific career.

For any PhD students reading this and thinking of applying to the scheme, I can’t recommend it enough. Even only two weeks in it has been a great experience, and through the process of applying and a huge long interview day I’ve met lots of past placement holders all of whom have been incredibly enthusiastic regardless of whether or not it left them wanting a career in policy- the skills you will gain will help you whatever you do in life and being aware of the bigger picture can never be a bad thing. I’d also say if you’re nervous about asking your supervisor about doing a placement don’t be, I was but my supervisor was almost a bit too supportive (keen to have a break from me…?)! A lot of academics do understand that a) not everyone wants a research career and b) it’s still good for scientists to see other things sometimes. A massive bonus of it being research council funded is that they just keep paying you and your PhD automatically gets extended by 3 months with minimum hassle.


                                            Any of these could be your workplace next year!

In terms of placement choices I’m probably biased in that I already think GO Science is great. It’s really varied, you feel a part of the team very quickly and there are tonnes of interesting things to work on and talk about.  POST seemed to be the most popular choice last year- you get a glamorous parliamentary pass and will almost certainly work on a POST note which will then be the resource for MPs wanting to read about that area of science, although I was put off by doing something so specific. Working for the Welsh Parliament seemed to be more about answering questions from ministers- I met someone who liked it so much she went back there after handing in her PhD.

However, the most enthusiastic people I’ve met where those at the Centre for Science and Policy in Cambridge and the Royal Society- so pretty much wherever you go it seems you get a great experience. Applications are due by the 28th August so what are you waiting for?

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.