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So now all the Lego scientists are women, how is reality building up?

Box front of the new LEGO Ideas “Research Institute” set LEGO

So who went and bought some of the new Lego mini figures?

Aren’t they super? The set, which is part of the new Lego “Research Institute”, features a female chemist, paleobiologist and astronomer. It has sold out in days, which probable tells you something of the demand for such positive stereotypes. The set came about from a suggestion from Ellen Kooijman on the Lego ideas site, and was accelerated by a seven year old who also noticed the male-bias in Lego figures.

It is fantastic to have new champions of women in science on board. But, I’m sat here at the International Conference on Women in Physics and all I can think about is the backwards steps that Australia has taken when it comes to women and science, and correspondingly women in science. Alarmingly this has been rather rapid too. There’s evidence that the current cuts to science funding are disproportionally affecting women.

On the longer term, the amount of girls in Australia taking two science subjects to the end of high school has dropped. This is usually seen as pointer to them carrying on with science subjects post-18, and this concern has been noted by the Chief Scientist’s office .

I sat today listening to updates of the status of women in physics from 53 other countries, and some stories really stood out. In Iran and Egypt, for instance, there are more female students at undergraduate level in physics than men. In Finland, women physicists are held back by the culture of meetings held in gender-segregated saunas. And when I asked a Japanese delegate about when she saw the barriers to increasing on the 5.7% female membership of the Japan Physics Society she responded starkly: “From birth.”

A bit of a loose trend did seem to emerge though, many countries (Australia, at present included) report an about 30% female population of physicist right up to PhD level. There it drops off. This is not new news, I’ve written about it before, and this is not just confined to physics. What was really interesting was learning today what the Netherlands are doing to address this.

As a country, the Netherlands noticed that they didn’t have enough physicists and chemists(!), and were concerned that this would effect their economic future. So to up their numbers, they decided to appeal to the underrepresented 50% of their population, women.

The Dutch government has funded 88 tenure-track positions, and has set the target that 40% of these should be filled by women – in fact they mandated that 20 of these positions could only be filled by women. I asked the Dutch delegates about how this scheme had been received in the community, and they did say there had been some resistance.

But they explained that the idea of such a mandate had been motivated by the success of fellowship schemes that only recruited women, improving the status of the departments running them.

Quite and aggressive tactic perhaps? It is certainly the most head-on way I have encountered of trying to stop up the “leaky pipeline” of women in science. But, are the more subtle ideas, such as the Lego figures, going to be more constructive on the longer term to remove the gender bias in our society?

A personal tour of the Australian Synchrotron, and a few of its impacts on Australia

To my dismay I read this article while trying to enjoy my Saturday coffee. Once again the jewel in the crown of Australian science infrastructure is fighting for survival. This is a fabulous facility which has put out some awesome science of late and I would like to extend a massive “pat on the back” to my colleagues there.

A whole heap of science awesomeness. John O'Neill

Ok yes, I am biased. Those of you who’ve read my column before will recall that I was a post-doc at the Australian Synchrotron and I currently work for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) which now operates it. But this does mean that I know how hard my colleagues there work, despite the funding challenges, to provide this vital piece of infrastructure for all Australians.

I think one of the issues that the synchrotron has in communicating its worth, is that it is just too good. Outcomes from the synchrotron cross over all areas of science, with everything from blue skies to applied impacts. There have been a few explainers already pointing out what the synchrotron is, but perhaps it’s not clear that it’s actually ten instruments in one. Let me take you on a tour of them all, and show you how they are each solving Australia’s problems and supporting her industries.

If you were to walk into the synchrotron, probably the first thing you would notice is a smaller building to the left that sits outside. This is IMBL, the Image and Medical Beam Line. This instrument is a real world-first. This beamline will hopefully be used to treat cancer one day. Using the biggest X-ray beam in the world (so the instrument boss Danny claims. He’s worked in most of the world’s big synchrotrons – so should know!), the scientists there are working tirelessly to understand exactly what photon goes where, so that it will be safe to treat people before too long. While they are working this out though, the beamline is available for to the rest of Australia’s scientists for imaging. The advantage of using this instrument, over a normal X-ray instrument, is the incredible 3D detail that you can pick out especially from soft tissue.

Medium-resolution CT reconstruction of the vascular structure in a rat lung. James Pearson, Daryl Schwenke, Mikiyasu Shirai and Alberto Astolfo.

So you now enter the synchrotron and say “hi” to Carlos the security guard, and start on your anti-clockwise journey about the ring. You’ll see the prototype magnets sitting there: red, green and yellow. These are a big feature for the educational program – every year 12 student studying physics in Victoria will get to visit these, when they visit the synchrotron as part of their course (just another impact the synchrotron has had).

Next to the magnets is the enclave of the accelerator physicists that keep the machine ticking over nicely at 99.9999% the speed of light. Study using the synchrotron itself has lead to results that helped out its bigger brother the Large Hadron Collider in its own (Nobel prize-winning) efforts.

But it’s no surprise to see some physicists at the synchrotron, eh? So let’s keep wandering round the ring. The next instrument that you’ll bump into is XFM, which stands for X-ray fluorescent microscope. You’re as likely to see museum conversation scientists working on this instrument as physicists. This is the pretty picture beamline and you’ve probably seen images collected on this amazing instrument in many a high-profile news story. But there’s some hard-hitting science behind these pretty pictures. With the occurrences of skin cancer as high as it is in Australia, you’ll want to be sure that the sun creams that everyone needs to use are safe. Earlier this year, scientists working at XFM presented findings that our body can break down zinc oxide nanoparticles.

By carefully measuring the chemical composition of the nanoparticles through sequences of images, researchers at the Australian Synchrotron, Monash University and Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication, were able to assess how immune cells break down these tiny particles. Australian Synchrotron/Simon James

The next instrument you’ll arrive at is actually two. The Macromolecular crystallography (or MX beamlines) are so useful that from the outset two instruments were constructed to serve the world-leading chemical and biological crystallography communities of Australia. Using these instruments researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) could get images of how insulin actually interacts with proteins in our body. Published in Nature, the results of this will lead to a better understanding of diabetes (an estimated 3.3 million Australians will have diabetes by 2031) and, to quote the scientists themselves:

If we did not have this fantastic facility in Australia and their staff available to help us, we would simply not have been able to complete this project.

Wave to Worrell, who works in stores, as you pass and wander up to the Infrared beamlines. There are actually two branches to this instrument, so that two groups of scientists can work on it at once. These instruments can detect tiny molecular vibrations, which have a great number of applications including helping to diagnose diseases from scanning a patient’s skin.

Affectionately know as the “softies” about the ring (sorry guys), the next instrument you’ll arrive at is the Soft X-ray beamline. These guys are hard-hitting in the nanotechnology world and are the go-to places to undertake a number of tricky experiments. But studying samples under a super-low vacuum (it really sucks – boom, boom), they can detect the tiniest details on a surface. One upshot of this work is the potential to use these surfaces to select the right kind of drug molecule to synthesise.

Wax on, wax off … From the “softies” you’ll come to the SAXS/WAXS beamline, which is the small angle and wide-angle scattering instrument. You can, pretty much, collect data here from every type of sample imaginable, whether it is built of nanoparticles, fibres, proteins – or even wine. The wine industry in Australia is valued at A$7 billion, and balancing the tannins within the wine is essential. Using this instrument, Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI) scientists found the shapes of a number of tannins and can use this information to improve and tailor the flavours in the wines of Australia.

What tannin molecules actually look like when dissolved in water. The size and shape of these tiny molecules plays a part in how a wine tastes. Australian Synchrotron/Nigel Kirby

Coming nearly to the completion of the round, you’ll next find the XAS beamline (or X-ray absorption spectroscopy). This is a technique that you cannot do without a synchrotron and has a number of highlights – one of which is determining where you find nutrients in grains, making sure you get the most out of a A$155 billion agriculture economy.

And last, but no means least, you’ll arrive at the Powder diffraction beamline, or PD. Very close to my own heart, this is my old stomping ground. Aside from my own work, we would have as many as 300 scientists a year visiting us, with many of these investigating materials that will change our energy economy (such as lithium ion batteries, the market of which is due to rise to A$44 billion in a few years). Using this instrument researchers can watch where the lithium ions are moving to as the battery is charged and discharged, with the hope to designing them to store more energy.

You only have to look at much more debt-ridden countries, such as the UK and Spain, who have continued to invest in their own synchrotron facilities. Let’s not take a short-term attitude to what the synchrotron can achieve. From this tiny tip of the iceberg that I’ve toured you through, you can see how the synchrotron will generate billions for the Australian economy. If we took the synchrotron out of the equation we’d not feel the effect tomorrow, or even next year, but slowly and building over time the Australian economy would suffer.

So do you like it? Do you think we should put a ring (fence) around the synchrotron’s funding?

Europa, the new spa destination of the solar system

Clays and geysers! All we need is a regular flight and Europa will become a spa destination to rival Iceland.

It’s been an exciting week for me at the annual American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. There have been announcements left-right and centre of fascinating insights into our solar system. We’ve seen reports of the first radiometric dating of a rock on another planet, detecting of the coldest place on Earth and now two stories that have upped Europa on the spa destination list.

An artist’s impression of the possible explosion resulting from a high-speed collision between a space rock and Jupiter’s moon Europa. NASA/JPL-Caltech

First it was clays. Obviously motivated by my post highlighting that clays had become sexy science again (tongue in cheek), NASA scientist have taken their fits to the data from Galileo again and deduced that… there are CLAYS ON Europa. This fantastic news for the Europan face mask industry, came from sifting through data from the much-lauded Galileo mission. The clays (or the NASA-beloved word “phyllosillicates”) were found in a 25 km ring close to an impact crater. The material is thought to be a “splash back” effect from a comet or asteroid 1700 meters in diameter.

Then earlier today came the big news – evidence from the Hubble space telescope that Europa can spout plumes of water. This is indeed big news. This would place Europa in a rather elite club of geologically active bodies in our solar system with ourselves on Earth, Saturn’s moon Encleadus and Europa’s sister moon Io being the only other members. Thought to only last seven hours at a time, evidence for the plume was captured by Hubble in October 2012. Travelling at over 700 meters per second, the plume was detected from the breakdown of water to oxygen and hydrogen.

Plumes of water vapour could arrise from cracks on Europa only cm’s thick NASA/ESA/K. Retherford/SWRI

It’s pretty clear that both of these exciting stories are only strengthening the case to get back out there. At the moment funding to icy moons science from NASA has largely dwindled, and the only bright spot on the horizon is ESA’s JUICE mission. We’ve got to wait to 2030 till that spacecraft makes it out there – and you really have to wonder what we’ll find before then. And right now for me, there’s still a day and a half of the San Francisco AGU conference still to go, I wonder what I’ll hear about tomorrow!