Words by Florence Robson
Dr Jess Wade is an excitable scientist with an enthusiasm for equality. She has been involved in several projects to improve gender inclusion in science, as well as encouraging more young people to study science and engineering. Jess has won numerous awards, such as Institute of Physics (IOP) Early Career Communicator Prize (2015), “I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here!” (2015), the IOP Jocelyn Bell Burnell Award (2016) and the IOP Daphne Jackson Medal and Prize (2018). Jess sits on the committees of the IOP’s Women in Physics Group, Physics Communicators Group and London & South East Branch. She is on the Council of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) and Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) Young Women’s Board.
She is a keen Wikipedian, and is helping to upload the biographies of women, LGBTQ+ and POC scientists – creating one every day in 2018.
What do you love most about science?
Physics is the subject that unites everything. It makes connections between different aspects of the world and finds neat solutions. I like being able to look at things that aren’t immediately obvious and try to work them out, and physics gives you the framework to look at the world around you and interpret it. It teaches you how to question things properly. I think lot of the challenges we face today stem from the fact that people have lost the ability to question information when it is presented to them. The fake news phenomenon is one example – very people interrogate reports or spend a few minutes researching the real facts.
The UK school curriculum separates subjects into distinct disciplines, but nothing is actually separate. Everything you learn in maths will make your life easier, whether it’s sorting your taxes or fixing your Wi-Fi!
Why do you think so many young people decide that STEM subjects aren’t for them?
For too long scientists have got away with not focusing on their interpersonal skills and their ability to admire those skills in others. There’s a misconception that physicists and engineers are geniuses sitting in ivory towers doing equations on blackboards. It has made the field a bit elitist and that puts young people off. Everyone gets nervous, everyone makes mistakes, everyone’s experiments break, and everyone feels like they’re going to be caught out for not knowing everything. Imposter syndrome is everywhere. Lots of research fails – the point of experiments isn’t to prove what you want to show, they are to see whether something will happen. In fact, the majority of experiments shouldn’t work – it’s not like we discover ibuprofen every day – but you never hear about the things that don’t work.
My advice would be to find the thing that keeps you curious and awake and asking questions, and focus on that. There’s societal bias which tells boys and girls that they should have different career aspirations, and it starts when they’re really little. We also have a big shortage of skills specialist teachers, so more often than not young people are learning science from a non-scientist. It’s really hard to see how you could contribute to a profession if the whole world tells you that you have to be a genius to succeed and the people who you are learning from aren’t very convincing.
What does your working day look like?
I’m working in a team that is trying to create new light emitting diodes. We work with carbon-based materials, which is one of the most abundant elements in the universe and it’s very light. We dissolve polymers based on carbon in common organic solvents (like acetone) and make solutions that have really surprising electronic properties, and by being clever about the way that we print it or mix it, we can make things like solar panel or light-emitting sensors. I think as a grown up you’re supposed to have dull days with lots of meetings, but as our experiments become more exciting,the meetings have become fascinating as well. Working with our great PhD students, we try and come up with new mixtures and devices, then try to work out whether it’s better than the one before and why.