Solving the physics problem
Women in Science Physics is a diverse, creative and fun subject, says Professor Cait MacPhee from the University of Edinburgh. Maybe it's time to teach it differently — and encourage younger children to study it.
Among school children, Physics has an image problem, agrees Professor Cait MacPhee, Experimental Biomolecular Physicist and Professor of Biological Physics at the University of Edinburgh. For a start, it can be seen as a very dry subject. “Or possibly too 'geeky',” she says. “Maybe students feel that it won't keep them excited and interested for a long period of time. But we have to show that physics is incredibly diverse. It's all around us.”
Take phone technology, for example, and why your screen behaves in the way it does. That's physics. And, currently, MacPhee is conducting research into a protein that could make your ice cream melt more slowly. That's physics too. “It's puzzle solving,” she says. “It's also very creative. You have to collect facts, formulate ideas and come up with a hypothesis which you then test and invariably get wrong. When you get it right, however, it's the most satisfying feeling in the world.”
MacPhee's father was an academic and her mother came from a science background, so she was introduced to STEM at an early age. She went through the Australian educational system, graduating from university with a degree in biochemistry and immunology. Later she moved across into physics and now conducts research (a lot of which is industry-focussed) into the behaviour of proteins — the molecules that are responsible for the vast majority of functions in living organisms.
“Women in my field are under-represented,” she says. “At university, approximately 20-25 per cent of all undergraduates are female. And the proportion of female physics professors is around 8 per cent nationally. The problems start at a young age: the divergence between boys and girls being interested in biological sciences versus physical sciences occurs before they leave primary school. That becomes entrenched. And then, in secondary school, the broader applications of physics aren't taught until the senior years, by which time students have made the decision that 'it's not a subject for me.' It's hard to turn that attitude around.”
Yet, she says, it's important that girls do study physics and enter STEM careers because diverse teams are known to be more creative. “I believe the picture is changing,” says MacPhee. “I've noticed that the environment in which I work has become more welcoming to women within physics disciplines. I want to encourage younger children and increase their access to science as a subject and as a creative enterprise. To that end I work with primary school teachers so that they have the confidence to embed science as an activity within day to day learning.”
MacPhee struggles to name just one highlight in her varied physics career. But she was named in the New Year's Honours List for services to Women in Physics and for encouraging girls and women to enter the STEM field, and will be awarded a CBE at Palace of Holyroodhouse in July. “And that,” she says, “I'm immensely proud of.”