Dr Florence Bascom: Sounding the abyss of science

Florence BascomOriginally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Jessica Ball

Florence Bascom would have been a remarkable woman in any age, but in her own time she was an outstanding proponent of science and women’s place in it. The field of geology was in its infancy in the 19th century, and Dr Bascom was a pioneer, not only in that she was a woman demanding a position among men, but also in her mastery of the foundational skills of petrography and crystallography, and her uncompromising standards for the geologists she trained and who succeeded her. As a woman pursuing geology for my own career, I find much in Florence Bascom to admire, and look on her as a kindred spirit in my own love of studying the Earth.

Bascom was born in 1862 and had a great advantage in her family: her parents had both studied at seminaries. Her mother, a schoolteacher, was active in women’s clubs and the newly growing feminist movement, and her father led an academic life, first as a professor of oratory and rhetoric at Williams College and then as president of the University of Wisconsin. Florence herself excelled in school and went on to attend Wisconsin while her father was president. By the time she graduated in 1884 she had added an impressive array of qualifications to her name, including a bachelor’s degrees in literature, arts, and natural science, which she then followed with a master’s in geology in 1887 (also at Wisconsin).

She was never afraid to speak up and demand what was due her, even as accounts that chronicled her accomplishments described her as “quiet and self-possessed, a woman who is reserved, of few words.” (This description is immediately followed by the writer suggesting that she is “apparently possessed of great determination, which, however, does not mar her general attractiveness” — an unfortunate trend of reporting which I still see today. As if appearance had anything to do with ability!) She managed, against the opposition of no one less than the president of Johns Hopkins University itself, to convince them to admit her to the school for advanced geological study. She was, however, denied the right to enrol as a regular student and was forced to take classes sitting behind a screen so she would not “distract” the male students!

Geological foundations

Her doctoral thesis, published in 1896 by the United States Geological Survey, is as readable now as it was nearly 120 years ago. Indeed, it is still considered a foundational work of Appalachian geology. In it she corrected misconceptions created during earlier mapping in the South Mountain area of Pennsylvania — the very northern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a province I grew familiar with in college. She used petrographic microscopy to establish the origins of the rocks there, a relatively new approach for geologists at the time. As it turns out, the rocks of South Mountain are not sedimentary as previous workers had proposed, but are metamorphosed rhyolites and basalts, a distinction which she points out rather caustically at times. My favourite phrase refers to some sloppy structural interpretations made by her predecessors:

“This section shows stratified rocks lying in a series of anticlinal flexures, which accord rather with Professor Rogers’s conception of ‘rock waves’ than with his observed dips. The dips are, without a single exception, to the southeast.”

Through Dr Bascom’s work on South Mountain, we learned a great deal about the truly ancient volcanic history of the eastern United States, particularly the later-named Catoctin metabasalt and one of the only occurrences of rhyolite on this side of the country.

Florence Bascom had a life of firsts: first female PhD at Johns Hopkins in 1893 (though not the first female geology PhD in the United States – that distinction went to Mary Holmes in 1888), first female research scientist at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), one of the first female fellows of the Geological Society of America, and the first female vice president of the organisation. Some have even described her as the first woman geologist in the United States, although that is untrue, but she is probably the most famous of the first practicing women geologists. She also founded the geology department at Bryn Mawr College and taught there for more than thirty years.

In an era when women were frowned upon simply for donning short skirts to ride bicycles, Dr Bascom spent a great deal of her time in the field, doing all the hiking and schlepping and sampling that her male colleagues did, and in a high-necked gown to boot! She was an expert in crystallography, mineralogy, and petrography, which (particularly in the case of crystallography and petrology) were still young branches of geology in her time. During her PhD research and her time working for the USGS, she became an expert on the crystalline rocks of the Appalachians as well as Piedmont geomorphology, and published more than 40 papers on everything from the provenance of the South Mountain volcanics to clarifications of geomorphologic terms.

The importance of networks

Aside from the short book The Stone Lady, which I have leaned on heavily for this biography, it is difficult to find many accounts of Florence Bascom which describe her accomplishments on their own terms rather than linked with famous male names of the day. When she is described as a pioneer of the then newly-developed petrography methods, it is with a reference to her teacher George Huntington Williams; when she took a leave from her position at Bryn Mawr to learn crystallography in Germany, her name is overshadowed by Victor Goldschmidt, in whose laboratory she worked. Granted, this particular memoir was published in 1946, but it would have been nice to know more about Dr Bascom without always leaning on the prestige of her teachers, however worthy they were of acclaim.

My teachers and academic advisors have certainly been an integral part of my geologic life, but I don’t define myself by their accomplishments. However, Clary and Wandersee, in their 2007 article about Dr Bascom, argue that she would not have been able to make the inroads on the field of geology without taking advantage of her male contacts, which is definitely an important point to remember, especially for those of us who have been lucky enough not to have to fight for the right to do what we love. And as many of us know, networking is a good way to find opportunities and advance a career. That Florence Bascom engaged in it is surely a sign of a canny and capable scientist.

Florence Bascom’s biographers also make a point of emphasising how important her mentoring and teaching were for women in geology in the twentieth century. The geology program she began at Bryn Mawr became internationally known and praised. She wasn’t shy about expressing her pleasure in this accomplishment and those of her students and in a letter to Professor Hermann Fairchild, she remarked, “I have considerable pride in the fact that some of the best work done in geology today by women, ranking with that done by men, has been done by my students… these are all notable young women who will be a credit to the science of geology.”

Her students trained in the field and laboratory as well as in the lecture hall, and learned petrography from a wide array of geological specimens and thin sections that Dr Bascom collected from over many donors. Her courses were tough, and she held her students to high standards – and any young geologist who has ever struggled through a tough lecture and come out with a better understanding of the topic should know to thank their instructor for being so uncompromising!

The woman behind the science

The accomplishments I’ve mentioned would be a credit to any geologist – but they don’t give us a very good idea of what Florence Bascom was like personally. Her biographers were careful, however, to describe the woman behind the science. In fact, their accounts could, with a few tweaks, describe just about any woman in geology today:

  • She loved animals and spent her spare time riding her horse Fantasy around various campuses and her retirement home in Massachusetts.
  • She was by all accounts an unaccomplished cook, and anyone visiting her could expect to be fed canned soup and dry cereal.
  • She bicycled to work and wore divided skirts – then more than a bit scandalous – to do it.
  • She loved semiprecious stones and jewellery made with them, and would often buy pieces for herself and her students.
  • She cut her hair short and often didn’t bother styling it.
  • Her students described her as a sound teacher, “uncompromising in her standards of scholarship”, and said that she “expected of her students clear and honest thinking, not by precept so much as by example”.
  • She was a very hard worker. According to one biographer, she “belonged to a rapidly vanishing time when a young field geologist…was expected to be in the field by seven in the morning, not to return under ordinary circumstances until six o’clock at night, subsequently to devote the evening to drafting and map work.” Eleanora Bliss Knopf, one of her former students, remembers being firmly rebuked for suggesting a later start time for the sake of a more leisurely breakfast!

In fact, barring the cooking, the bicycling and the short hair, this could well be a description of me. I dote on my cat, I have a collection of jewellery that never fails to start geologic conversations, and I once spent time riding horses myself. My own geology professors also instilled in me the love of concise writing and an early start in the field — getting up to start work at seven was par for the course on our field trips! Like Florence Bascom, I tend to be reserved and listen more often than I speak, and I suppose that can make me seem just as shy as she was supposed to have been.

But personal habits aside, Florence Bascom is the kind of geologist I would love to grow up to be. By all accounts she was intensely dedicated to her work and held it to the highest standards of quality and rigour. Her own words are enough to inspire any scientist: of her professional life, she said, “This is the life, to plunge into the welcome isolation of the field, to return to the stimulating association of Bryn Mawr, to observe and in part to clear up geologic phenomena, to return to the exposition and interpretation of geologic phenomena.”

And again, “The selection of work in which one delights, and a diligent adherence to it, are the main ingredients of success.”

In my opinion, she had it right – that to be really happy with your career, you should spend it doing something that you love.

Smoother sailing

Compared to Florence Bascom, my path through a geological career has been smooth sailing. My parents were every bit as supportive as hers, but they were not raising me in an era when the primary occupations women were expected to take up were marriage and motherhood. I did not have to sit behind a screen while completing my graduate coursework so as to not disturb my male classmates. I don’t have to fight with my school to be awarded my degree simply because I identify with a particular gender. I don’t have to deal with people judging me first by my appearance and second by my accomplishments — at least, not in print or to my face. I have not had to prove that I am ‘worthy’ to learn and work alongside my male colleagues; we have all had to prove that we are worthy of our degrees by our intellectual merits alone.

I’ve been surrounded by supportive people from the start — my parents, my undergraduate professors who treated everyone equally, and my graduate professors who did the same, my academic advisors who led by example and never questioned my goals. Florence Bascom had her supporters as well, but there were far more people who challenged her right to pursue her dream. I have not faced the same kinds of challenges she did, but it’s just as important to me to acknowledge that she and others have struggled for their rights, and will again. I am grateful that Dr Bascom forged a path for women in a profession that has taken many years to embrace them.

One final quote from a letter of Dr Bascom’s strikes me deeply as a scientist and a geologist: “The fascination of any search after truth lies not in the attainment, which at best is found to be very relative, but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind and character are brought into play and are absorbed in the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite and one finds a joy that is beyond expression in ‘sounding the abyss of science’ and the secrets in the infinite mind.”

I think that any geologist — any scientist — would agree, that as much of the joy in our work lies in the search for answers as finding them. Otherwise, why would we continue? Certainly there is satisfaction to be found in solving a geologic puzzle once, but Florence Bascom does a wonderful job of describing why we make careers of repeating the quest for knowledge about the Earth. It’s a sentiment I want to carry with me throughout my own career, and I think that any woman, geologist or not, could find a worthy role model in the woman who spoke it.

Further reading

Clary, RM and Wandersee, JH (2007), “Great Expectations: Florence Bascom (1842-1945) and the education of early US women geologists”, Geological Society of London, Special Publications 281,123-135.

Ogilvie, IH (1945), “Obituary: Florence Bascom, 1862-1945”, Science 102(2648), 320-321.

Knopf, EB (1945), “Memorial of Florence Bascom”, American Mineralogist 31, 168-172.

Bascom, F (1896), “The ancient volcanic rocks of South Mountain, Pennsylvania”, Bulletin of the United States Geological Survey 136, 124.

Bascom, F (1931), “Geomorphic Nomenclature”, Science 74(1911), 172-173.

Schneiderman, JS (1997), “A Life of Firsts: Florence Bascom”, GSA Today 7, 8-9.

About the author

Jessica Ball is an active geoblogger who has been writing the Magma Cum Laude geoblog for almost 6 years. She is currently completing her doctoral degree at SUNY Buffalo, focusing on volcanic hazards and using a variety of techniques answer questions about where and why water-related lava dome collapses occur. Previously, she received her BS in Geology from the College of William & Mary in 2007, and worked from 2007-2008 as the Outreach and Education Assistant at the American Geosciences Institute. Like Florence Bascom, she spent some of her formative years waking up early to do field work in the Appalachians, loves semiprecious stones in her jewellery and strives to be a clear and concise writer. She tweets from @tuff_cookie about volcanoes, geology and good geologic puns.

Web: blogs.agu.org/magmacumlaude
Twitter: @tuff_cookie

“The Crow”: Poland’s radio girl

Aleks Krotoski, photographed by Greg Funnell on behalf of Geek Calendar

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention

by Aleks Krotoski

The radio was hidden in the wardrobe. The wardrobe, a beautiful piece that was part of a set of bedroom furniture hand-carved from birch wood by her father, now sits in the spare room in her Southern California home. The rest of the pieces, with their matching curves and hand-crafted clawed feet, are now in her bedroom, just as they were until 1939. She and her mother managed to save them all by stowing them in a neighbour’s attic when the Gestapo came to take the rest, and then in another neighbour’s attic when the Gestapo gutted that home too. She smuggled them out of the country when they escaped in 1945, piling them on top of the car her father found after they were reunited in Romania.

The radio was square with curved edges, an elegant piece which, by coincidence, matched the look and feel of its wardrobe prison. It even had feet like the wardrobe. That hadn’t been planned, of course; she got what she was given. The radio was fairly large, she says now, thinking back sixty years.

She got to know its face very well over the four years they were companions. It was her link to the impenetrable outside world. It confided in her. It told her its secrets. But the radio is long gone. And it isn’t the hero of this story. My grandmother is.

Poland at war

My grandmother’s name is Helena. Well, that was her name on 1 September 1939, when Hitler’s army invaded Poland. Later, she’d be known as The Crow. Now she goes by Wanda.

Helena was living with her mother in Skierniewice, a military town 76km outside the capital, Warsaw, on 1 September 1939. Her father, an army officer and the apple of her eye, had left the family for the border in April as it became clear that war was imminent and the armed forces were mustering.

Helena was twelve when her village and her home were occupied. She and her mother, alone and terrified, tried to escape to Warsaw on foot. They made it to within 14 miles of the capital before realising that home was safer. But when they got back, they discovered that their village was crawling with Gestapo.

Poland fell quickly. The military aid the country was expecting from Britain and France didn’t arrive, so the Poles spent the six years of the war under either German rule in the West, or Russian in the East. But Poles are feisty and resourceful, and they didn’t give up: They squirrelled members of the central government out of occupied territory and into exile in London, and formed an underground army loyal to this secret state. Of all the countries to fall to Hitler’s army, Poland’s resistance movement was the most well-organised. By the time the UK’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in July 1940 to “conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements,” as Wikipedia puts it, the Poles had already established an underground network of spies.

Poland, underground

The relationship between the British and Polish intelligence communities was already strong; the Poles has delivered an Enigma-cracking code to Bletchley Park in July of 1939 and had created several handmade Enigma machines for their allies. Polish technicians continued to innovate during the War, inventing lightweight radios to replace the SOE’s devices that they used to communicate between the Brits at home and their agents in the field.

But unlike other occupied territories, Poland’s resistance largely operated separately from the SOE network of specially-trained cloak and dagger spooks. It had systems of intelligence, from espionage to semi-organised guerrilla warfare, all carried out by ordinary people desperate to win back their freedom and willing to die trying.

They were an enormous asset to the SOE, providing 43 percent of British intelligence about Poland, including finding out about the existence of the concentration camps.

But what the Poles needed most from the Allies was intelligence from the outside: What was happening on the front lines? Where were supplies from the Allies being dropped? Did anyone care about what was happening to them? They needed to connect to the SOE in a way that would distribute the news to the underground army as quickly as possible. If the SOE could shift its regular communications operations to broadcast, it would be able to reach a much larger listener base, and word would get out more quickly.

And for this, the BBC was their interface.

The BBC was already broadcasting in seven languages in September 1939, but that number grew to 40 two years later, as its various foreign arms consolidated into the BBC European Service. In addition to transmitting news, documentaries and other output, the broadcasting corporation appended coded messages at the end of its news programming, from cryptic clues like le lapin a bu un apéritif (the rabbit drank an apéritif) and the moon will be blue tonight to lines of poetry or snippets of music.

These messages personnels were the brainchild of a French SEO operative who realised that every time his colleagues in occupied territories communicated with home base via the easy-to-triangulate two-way radios they were issued, they put themselves in the line of danger. But the BBC, broadcasting one-to-many, made the two-ways obsolete, and saved the lives of many.

This was the lifeline for the Polish Home Army, the source of their intelligence. The BBC transmitted its own news in Polish on its longwave and shortwave frequencies. The content of the broadcasts was controlled by the British secret services, but they took their guidance from the Polish government-in-exile. They also gave the government-in-exile an hour of its own every day, Radio Polskie. A minute of music signalled the end of every Polish Service broadcast, which my grandmother, at the receiving end with her own, illegal radio, would note down and pass to her contact in the underground army.

Helena’s radio

When they occupied her village, Hitler’s army confiscated all the radios. It was part of the propaganda strategy: Anyone caught anywhere in Poland with a radio would be killed, no questions asked. The German army kept a few for themselves and installed them in the central squares, where they broadcast news and dispatches from their own transmitters. In public, the airwaves were full of the Fuhrer’s triumphs. There were no Western transmissions. No Polish songs. And if you were caught listening to the BBC by any means, you’d be killed. Again, no questions asked.

Of course, the Nazis didn’t find all the receivers. A pair of Polish escapees arrived in London in 1941 and informed the government-in-exile that there were around 1,500 known underground-controlled shortwave and longwave radios. Helena had one of them. She got it from her maths teacher, who was himself a member of the underground army. He illegally taught Polish children the academic skills they weren’t getting in the Gestapo vocational schools.

Helena took the radio from its hiding place in the wardrobe five times a day and wrote down the messages personnels, numbers or song lyrics at the end of each broadcast. Every morning she would put the piece of paper inside the lining of her coat and leave the house to deliver it to the next person in the human intelligence chain. She didn’t know his name and he didn’t know hers. Her code name, and the code names of the people she received her instructions from and the people she gave the information to, protected her. She didn’t want to test her stamina under torture.

She would walk down the chestnut-lined street to the end of the park, turn right and cross the river bridge, holding her nose against the smell of rotting leaves. She’d pass the house, one of those that sat below street level, that the German lived in. Sometimes, when he was lying on the sofa under the window she could see his belly rise above the sill. She’d walk by the row of shops, look in the window of her mother’s general goods store at the men who were more interested in the information they were hearing than the goods they were buying, and make her way to one of the old wooden houses that lined the end of the block. The one with the wooden roof.

The man who met her knock wasn’t a local. He was from somewhere else. She didn’t know him at all. He was tall, slender. He looked like an army officer. Straight. She’d give him the paper. They barely smiled. Sometimes his wife answered the door instead, and took the paper from Helena. She was slightly dumpy. You wouldn’t notice to her if you saw her in the street. That was the point. They were silent. No one spoke during these exchanges.

She’s not sure even now what happened to the intel she passed to the straight man and his wife in the house with the wooden roof over those four years. She thinks it was about Allied drops, details of ammunition, guns, people. She thinks. But she doesn’t know. She never asked.

It’s likely this is exactly what it was. And more.

In 1943, an internal BBC memo discussing the Polish Service reported that although they were likely broadcasting to fewer than 2,000 people, most of these listeners were connected with the production of the more than 1,000 underground newspapers, with circulations of up to 43,000 each. The underground press in Poland was enormously active, publishing not only news about the war, but also novels and other works of literature, plays and magazines, and anti-occupation propaganda. The Tajne Wojskowe Zakłady Wydawnicze (Secret Military Publishing House) was the largest underground publisher in the world. Helena’s own cousin was part of the distribution network. He was caught, age 18, with an underground newspaper in his hand. He was sent to Auschwitz. He didn’t return.

Helena had no backup plan on her delivery missions. She had no alibi. If she’d been caught, the Gestapo would have known that she had a radio. There was nowhere else the intel could have come from. But she never changed her route.

As time progressed, she was asked to listen and take notes from more than just the information at the end of the Polish service broadcasts. The Germans knew what was going on and tried to obscure the signal en route by intercepting it and polluting the frequency with bells, whistles and buzzes. Through all that noise, Helena listened to the news from the front lines, reported by the BBC, hearing the words spoken by the voices of her government-in-exile. It was almost impossible to understand anything at first, but after a while her ears began to pick out what was behind the noise. And she was transfixed, gripped by a secret, unfolding drama that she wasn’t able to talk about with anyone.

Her time with the radio ended immediately after the Warsaw Uprising in the late summer of 1944. She and her mother were expelled from their home and found refuge with a cousin, a doctor who’d been given two rooms under the roof of a house on the corner of two streets. The bottom floors were occupied by Gestapo.

The maths teacher who’d delivered the radio arrived with a box to take it away. Helena was devastated. The war was reaching a crescendo: The armies from the West were coming, finally, and for the first time in many years, there was good news coming over the airwaves. But she spent the rest of the war in silence. Staring at the empty spot in the wardrobe.

Further reading

Wikipedia, “The Special Operations Executive, Poland” , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Operations_Executive#Poland

Radio Rewind, “BBC Radio History, 1939-1945”, http://www.radiorewind.co.uk/radio2/for_the_forces_page.htm

About the author

Aleks Krotoski is an academic and journalist who writes about and studies technology and interactivity.

Her book, Untangling the Web: What the Internet is Doing to You, looks at the psychology research behind the claims about the positive and negative forces of the digital age.

Aleks has a PhD in Social Psychology and was a Visiting Fellow in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a Research Associate at the Oxford Internet Institute.

She presents BBC Radio 4’s award-winning science series The Digital Human. She hosted The Guardian’s Tech Weekly podcast since its inception, in 2007.

She presented the Emmy and Bafta winning BBC2 series Virtual Revolution in 2010, about the social history of the World Wide Web. She writes for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers. Her writing also appears in Nature, BBC Technology, New Statesman, MIT Technology Review and The Telegraph.

Twitter: @aleksk

Dame Anne McLaren: From one generation to the next

Dame Anne McLarenOriginally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Kat Arney

When I started my PhD at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, I was an ambitious, and probably quite insufferable, young thing straight out of university. At the other end of her scientific lifespan was Anne — more formally known as the Honourable Dame Anne Laura Dorinthea McLaren — who, even though in her 70s, was a regular and forceful presence in the lab and in our shared team meetings. Once I’d got over my arrogant assumption that this short but sprightly old lady had nothing to teach me, I became hugely respectful of her views and thoughts.

As a newly hatched scientist, I was learning my trade working with Professor Azim Surani. My research was embryonic in both senses of the word, as I tried to understand some of the earliest events that happen when life begins. Hour after hour I stared in fascination and frustration down a microscope watching perfectly spherical mouse eggs quietly split in half again and again to create tiny footballs of cells. These ghostly, transparent embryos remain the most beautiful living things I have ever seen. And in Anne, I met someone who was also utterly enchanted by the glory of life at its earliest, most fragile stages.

Anne’s curiosity about early development was the fire that fuelled a lifetime of research. And although she never boasted about it, her groundbreaking work in the 1950s laid the foundations for in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) babies, cloning and genetically engineered mice — technologies that have revolutionised human reproduction and biomedical research. Not bad for someone who had an unconventional early education and grew up during a time when science was most definitely not a ‘girl thing’. She chose to study zoology at Oxford University almost by accident. Apparently she picked the course because cramming for the biology entrance exam seemed like an easier option than doing the required reading for English literature.

Not quite like rabbits

Anne’s first taste of research came at University College London under the auspices of JBS ‘Jack’ Haldane, the renowned neo-Darwinist, science populariser and Marxist, who was also the first person to propose, as far back as 1923, a renewable hydrogen-based economy. He must have been one hell of an interesting boss, suiting Anne’s enquiring mind and political leanings, more of which later.

Following that, she headed back to Oxford for a first attempt at a PhD, vaccinating pregnant rabbits against different proteins to see if this affected the development of their fetuses. Unfortunately, the animal house in Oxford managed to dampen even the legendary ardour of rabbits, and Anne didn’t get enough pregnant animals to work with. This left her with just two years to complete a PhD, so she swapped rabbits for a much more efficiently reproducing system — viruses.

In the 1950s, polio was one of the hottest topics of medical research with plenty of research money being thrown at it, much like AIDS today. Anne switched to working with respected virologist Professor Kingsley Sanders on neurotropic viruses, which include the polio virus. However, she only published a handful of papers on viral infection (although one was quite a significant finding) as she quickly got sidetracked — both academically and personally — by Donald Michie, who had worked as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the war. Although he later became a major force in computing research, at this time he was pursuing his childhood hobby of mouse-breeding on a more scientific footing. As well as falling in love, Anne was developing her lifelong interest in understanding how to get “from one generation to the next”, as she described it.

She wanted to know whether babies were solely a product of the combined genes of their parents (and, by implication, all the generations that have gone before), or whether the environment both inside and outside the womb played a role too? In order to find out, she had to develop the mind-bendingly fiddly techniques that are the mainstay of mammalian embryology today. The first forays into this world of technical pain had been made by US researchers a decade before, but on a smaller and less successful scale.

Working together with Donald at UCL, Anne injected female mice from one particular genetic strain with hormones that made them ovulate a large number of eggs on cue, then set them up for romantic night with some lusty males from the same genetic background. After a couple of days, she retrieved the embryos — by this point little balls of cells floating within the mothers’ reproductive tubing — and implanted them into the wombs of mice from a different strain. Surely, she figured, if it’s all about the genes, then the baby mice should come out looking exactly like their true genetic parents. Yet this wasn’t the case, and the offspring had certain characteristics that looked more like their surrogate mother. It turns out that the womb certainly does have a view when it comes to making babies.

As part of this work, Anne perfected a number of important embryology techniques. This included finding the correct sequence of hormone injections to persuade female mice to produce an excessive number of eggs, known as super-ovulation, and the best way to transfer embryos to and from the animals’ reproductive plumbing. Today these techniques are the bedrock of transgenic mouse technology, enabling researchers everywhere to genetically engineer mice to answer all manner of scientific questions, in areas of fundamental biology, and diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Although our labs at the Gurdon Institute spent most of the time steeped in the language of reproduction, human babies (rather than mouse ones) and married life were far from my mind at such an early point in my career. In contrast, Anne married Donald in 1952 – the same year she finished her PhD – publishing several important research papers with him during the 50s. By the end of the decade she had amassed three small children and a divorce, while still keeping things going in the lab. I find this quite staggering when you consider that it was all in the days before “women’s lib” really got going.

Brave New Mice

The success of these embryo transfer experiments spurred Anne on to a more ambitious project. In the studies I’ve just described, embryos were moved straight from one mouse to another. But could such fragile forms survive and grow outside the womb? In 1958, Anne teamed up with John Biggers to carry out an experiment in mice that set the scene for the later success of IVF in humans.

Together, they took fertilised eggs from a mouse’s fallopian tubes, at the stage where they were just one or two cells, and plopped them into tiny dishes containing nutrient-rich liquid. In this artificial mockery of a womb, the cells began to grow and divide. They split once, twice, again and again, over and over, and after a few days had created the little ball of cells that scientists call a blastocyst.

That was only the first bit. Next, Anne and John had to prove that these lab-grown cellular footballs could actually develop and live. They transferred the blastocysts back into the wombs of surrogate female mice — a finicky job that requires steady hands and a lot of staring down a microscope — and were thrilled to get live mouse pups out the other end a few weeks later. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this study, first published in Nature and now more than 50 years old, in the light of the 5 million or so bouncing human ‘test tube’ babies that have come into the world since Louise Brown was born in 1978.

At the time when she was busy making babies both inside the lab (mouse) and outside it (human), Anne quickly realised that her work would probably be applied to women at some point in the future. Even with the much more restrained media of the late 1950s Anne and John’s work hit the headlines, garnering both praise and controversy as news of these “Brave New Mice” spread. As a result, she knew it was crucial that this brave new world of reproductive technology should be communicated fairly and accurately to the public.

Some of the concern was related to confusion around the legal technicalities of sperm donation, which have since been ironed out: if a baby was created from donor sperm, the woman’s husband’s name couldn’t be put on the birth certificate. But putting the donor’s name on would make the child illegitimate — an utterly unacceptable fate at the time. This unholy hybridisation of research, reproduction and ethics led to Anne getting involved in meetings and discussions around the new technology. By the 1980s, her interest culminated in joining Baroness Mary Warnock’s eponymous Committee, which drew up the first guidelines covering the use of in vitro fertilised donated eggs and gave rise to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in 1990.

The battle of the sexes

Her interest in developmental biology well and truly stoked, Anne moved up to the Institute of Animal Genetics in Edinburgh. Now known as the Roslin Institute, it was made famous as the birthplace of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal.

While establishing herself as an independent scientist Anne published many detailed and beautiful studies on mouse reproduction. These ranged from trying to figure out whether there was any rhyme or reason as to how many pups grew in each side of a mouse’s two-tubed womb (answer: err, maybe) to the effects of removing one ovary. A number of these studies were carried out with Patricia Bowman, including important work on chimaeras. Rather than being the lion/snake/goat hybrid creatures of mythology, these are created by sticking together two embryos from genetically different mouse strains when they’re each just eight cells each, and implanting them back into surrogate mothers.

Another important focus of Anne’s work through the 1960s and 70s was immunocontraception, the concept of tricking the immune system into rejecting either sperm or fertilised embryos. Although it’s unlikely that this approach will work in humans, due to the effectiveness and simplicity of the currently available methods, contraceptive vaccines are used widely today for controlling animal populations, both in the wild and in captivity.

Anne moved back to London in 1974, when she was appointed head of the Medical Research Council’s Mammalian Development Unit. Through the late 1970s and 80s, her work yet again helped to underpin a major shift forward. This time, her research helped lead to the discovery of the so-called “male” gene Sry, which tells a developing embryo to divert from the female pattern we all start out with, and take the path of maleness. For many years it was thought that a mysterious factor called the H-Y antigen, produced by male embryos, was responsible for determining their sex. But although H-Y was an attractive idea, there was little hard evidence at the time to support its actual existence.

In 1984, Anne and Liz Simpson published a paper in Nature, describing “indisputably male” mice that lacked H-Y. These little squeakers blew the idea that H-Y was the elusive maleness factor completely out of the water. She also worked with Marilyn Monk on “sex-reversed” mice, which are genetically female (carrying two X chromosomes) but appear, to all intents and purposes, to be male. After a couple more years of detailed genetic detective work, Anne and Liz tracked down the location of H-Y on the Y chromosome. Meanwhile, Peter Goodfellow and Robin Lovell-Badge claimed the big game, hunting down the true determinant of maleness, the Sry gene, in 1990.

Perhaps one of the more overlooked aspects of Anne’s work, and something researchers today would do well to rediscover, was some of the research she carried out with Donald back in their early days in the 1950s, looking at how different genetic strains of mice respond to the barbiturate drug Nembutal. While it’s an amusing mental picture to wonder what a mouse on drugs looks like, Anne had a more serious purpose in mind. They discovered that highly inbred, ‘pedigree’ mice had a much more variable response to Nembutal than animals that were bred by crossing two pure-bred strains, or those with an even more mixed heritage.

As Anne and Donald took pains to point out at the time, this variability had big implications for the growing number of researchers using mice to test various drugs and other compounds. Inbred mice are easy and cheap to produce — you just stick a male mouse in a cage together with a bunch of females from the same strain and let nature take its course — while producing more complex genetic mixtures takes time and effort. But these contrary results showed that the assumption of uniformity, at least on a genetic level, isn’t always best if you want to get reliable results. Their findings still resonate today, as answers to the question of how our genes influence the way we respond to the world around us are still waiting to be be found.

In her later work Anne became obsessed with what she used to call “the most fascinating and deeply mysterious cells of all” — the germ cells that will become eggs and sperm in an adult. The cells that will form the germline and be used to create the next generation are chosen just a few days after fertilisation, and must be protected from any kind of damage or interference from the developmental tumult around them. Once formed, these precious time-capsules begin to crawl through the embryo, migrating into the tiny blobs that will eventually become ovaries or testicles.

At the time she got interested in germ cells, there was no way of identifying them with any kind of molecular ‘label’. In fact, there was very little known about them at all. Anne developed a technique for staining germ cells with a red dye, a significant step forward in tracking down their elusive location within the developing embryo. She then devoted the rest of her research career to pinning down the characteristics of these unique cells, trying to understand where they came from, where they were going, and what made them so special.

Not just research

Anne’s record outside the lab is almost as prolific as her scientific output. She was the first woman to serve as an officer of the prestigious (not to mention male-dominated) Royal Society in its 300-plus years of history, taking on the job of foreign secretary from 1991 to 1996. This role in particular revealed one of her more unusual talents — the ability to evade jetlag. Travelling economy class everywhere with just a small rucksack and a plastic bag of scientific papers, Anne would happily trundle off a transatlantic flight straight into an academic conference, and be first into the bar afterwards. She wasn’t totally superhuman though, and apparently described herself as “not very good with people in the morning”.

As well as the Royal Society and the Warnock Committee, Anne was involved in a number of other public committees and organisations, both in the UK and on an international level. Many of these were focused on challenging ethical issues surrounding reproductive technology. She frequently wrote thoughtful and rigorously evidenced articles on these topics, including IVF and prenatal diagnosis (testing embryos and babies for genetic diseases while still in the womb), as well as cloning and stem cell research. Later in life she developed an interest in conservation, and helped to set up the Frozen Ark project in 1996, aiming to freeze cells from a huge range of species before extinction claims them. The hope is that in due course, cloning technology will have developed to the extent that extinct species can be resurrected from these tiny frozen nuggets of life.

Another thing that often comes up when people talk about Anne are her political beliefs. She was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family — her dad was Lord Aberconway, the Liberal MP — but they were far from being ‘toffs’. Much of the family’s money came from industry, and they were known for their liberal politics and support of the suffragist movement. Scientists are generally a left-leaning bunch, but it’s probably fair to say that Anne was a raging lefty, even by these standards. She was a member of the communist party in her early days, which made visiting the US for conferences a bit tricky, and had a strong sense of social responsibility and social justice. It’s clear from all her interactions that she wanted to make the world a better, fairer place.

As a working single mother, Anne was very keen on pushing for better childcare for the offspring of young researchers, whether working in the lab or at conferences. She firmly believed that a lack of affordable, convenient and reliable childcare was a key factor in making it difficult for women to reach the top in science. I remember staff at the Gurdon Institute repeatedly begging management for some kind of creche facility and, more than a decade later, they still don’t have one. There was also much grimacing when the university sent round a survey to all the female researchers, asking us what one thing would help us in our careers. At least one embittered post-doc ironically wrote “a wife” on the dotted line. But Anne also lived by her principles in the way she ran her lab and would often berate the researchers with young families, telling them them go home and spend time with their kids. That went for the men as well as the women.

Thanks to her prolific research career and numerous extracurricular commitments, Anne had little time for interests outside the scientific world. The exception seems to have been her own children, and later grandchildren. It’s unknown whether she had any other partners after her divorce, but it’s hard to see how she would have found the time. Donald remarried, but they remained on good terms and reconnected later in life, living as a couple again after his second wife died.

On to the next generation

When I worked with Anne at the Gurdon Institute she was already in her 70s, yet had more energy and enthusiasm for research than many of us PhD students. While on paper she should have retired in 1992, it was impossible to imagine how her scientific light might be dimmed.

When my PhD supervisor Azim describes the last time he saw her on Friday 6th July 2007, his usual gentle tone is tinged with the sadness he still palpably feels at the loss of a close and insightful colleague. He and Anne were discussing a newly-published paper that appeared to have some interesting implications for their overlapping interest in stem cells. Anne promised to chat about it over coffee with him on Monday. Their meeting never happened.

That Sunday, Anne and Donald died together in a car accident on the M11 motorway while driving back to their home in the capital after a colleague’s wedding. The academic spheres of biology and computing reverberated with the devastating news. Both of them were still active in research, despite being in their 80s, and were much loved by colleagues, family and friends. While most of the media coverage rightfully mourned the loss of two great and still-vigorous minds, nil points go to The Daily Mail for their rather one-sided headline, “Wartime codebreaker dies in motorway crash”.

Anne left behind a tremendous legacy. Part of it is hard-coded in the hundreds of research papers and articles she wrote, including two highly-respected books that helped to define her field: Mammalian Chimaeras and Germ Cells and Soma. There’s also the numerous awards including the Royal Society’s Royal Medal, the prestigious Japan Prize for Developmental Biology, and her Damehood. But just as important is the softer stuff — the influence she had on others, and the scientific lives she helped to shape. Anne headed the Mammalian Development Unit in London for many years, and a significant proportion of the UK’s developmental biologists passed under her command at some point. She had a fiendishly sharp mind and a reputation for being very direct; she detested what she called “sloppy thinking”. This could seem terrifying to the uninitiated, but she was very warm when you got to know her (and she did mellow out a bit as she got older).

For many years, Anne also taught on the Cold Spring Harbour experimental embryology of the mouse course, helping cack-handed learners get to grips with the finer points of the animals’ internal organs. Having benefited from her patient teaching myself, I can only hope that these students appreciated the opportunity they had to learn from someone who had complete mastery of her craft. When it came to embryo work, Anne preferred to use her old 1950s dissecting microscope, now languishing under Azim’s desk in the Gurdon Institute, claiming that it had far superior optics to any modern telescope. It’s only fitting that a fund to provide fellowships for young female scientists has been set up in her memory, to enable them to kickstart an independent career.

It’s a distinguishing feature of Anne’s scientific papers that the references she cites are often drawn from many years ago. It’s rare to find someone whose research career spans five decades, and her thoughtful writing brought an incredible historical perspective that can be all-too-easily forgotten by thrusting young scientists, seduced by the latest whizzy technology. Many of the questions that intrigued Anne over the years, about the nature of inheritance and the influence of the environment on the developing fetus, still remain today and await answers.

She was always convinced that, when it comes to science, it’s the idea that’s important. Advances in technology just help each generation get closer to an answer, but they aren’t the end in themselves. Her struggles to perfect the fiddly mechanics of micromanipulation in the 50s were a means to an end: understanding the interplay between an embryo’s genes and its home. Five decades later, this is still a hot topic in research, and we’re finally getting closer to some answers. Anne was thrilled that the genetic revolution meant that she could now put ‘names to faces’ for the mysterious molecular factors at work in development. It’s a great shame that she didn’t live to see some of the more recent breakthroughs in understanding the genes and proteins that are responsible for shaping the identity of her beloved, fascinating germ cells.

Although much has been made over the years of the challenges of being a woman in science, Anne considered herself to be lucky in this respect, and never felt particularly disadvantaged by her sex. The concept of women scientists as a political entity felt strange to her. In most places she’d worked since the 1950s she felt that there were plenty of women, and they just viewed themselves as scientists. But she did concede that holding up positive female role models for up-and-coming researchers might help them to get a foothold in an increasingly competitive world.

But while Anne was exceptional, she was by no means an exception in the field of developmental biology. She’s just one of a pantheon of high-profile women who have made important breakthroughs in revealing the complex molecular ballet that turns a single fertilised egg cell into a living, breathing creature. Rosa Beddington, Mary Lyon, Marilyn Monk, Liz Robertson, Brigid Hogan and Janet Rossant are mammalian embryologists that would all be worthy of their own chapter in this book, as would those who excelled at non-mammalian systems, including Hilda Mangold and Janni Nusslein-Vollhard. I’m not sure whether it’s accident or design that brings women to study the mechanics of making babies, but there’s no doubt that these pioneers have acted as powerful role models for the next generation. Anne herself occasionally complained about the “old boy’s network”, which she felt sometimes led to men only putting forward male friends for jobs. But in a 2004 interview she did note wryly that there seemed to be an “old women’s network” developing, at least in her field, which was helping to even up the balance.

As Anne herself wrote in an eloquent review paper on genetic inheritance, “history may be circular, but the history of science is helical: it repeats itself, but each time at a deeper level”. Rather than the Newtonian idea of standing on the shoulders of giants, I like to think of scientists ourselves as forming a twisted helix through time, intertwining as we pass on skills, knowledge and friendship to those who come up behind us. Anne McLaren’s influence on the world of reproductive science and medicine corkscrews deeply back in time, and I am honoured to have been a tiny link in her chain. And her legacy will stretch for years to come in the lives of those she knew, those who knew her work, and the many, many more who benefit from it.

With grateful thanks to Professor Azim Surani for the coffee and conversation about Anne’s life and work.

About the author

Dr Kat Arney is Founder and Director of First Create The Media, and author of Rebel Cell: Cancer, Evolution and the Science of Life. She previously worked as a science communicator for the charity Cancer Research UK, after spending six years in the lab doing a PhD at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge and a postdoc at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre in London. She’s also a freelance science writer and broadcaster, helping to present the highly successful Naked Scientists BBC Radio show and Naked Genetics podcast, as well as documentaries for BBC Radio 4, including Fighting the Power of Pink, Whatever Happened to the Chemistry Set?, and Costing the Earth — Waste Watchers. Her work has been published in The Guardian, BBC Online, Science and other outlets, and she writes regularly for Biomedical Picture of the Day. In the rest of her spare time Kat plays in two bands, Sunday Driver and Talk In Colour, and rarely sleeps. Unsurprisingly, her blog is entitled You Do Too Much.

Web: katarney.com
Twitter: @Kat_Arney
Facebook: facebook.com/katarney

Penny Gowland: Tutor, mentor and pioneer

Professor Penny Gowland

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Heather Williams

The memories of my undergraduate days at the University of Nottingham resemble a richly coloured tapestry. My mind’s eye is immediately drawn to the great contrasts: the vivid brights of elation that accompanied success, adventure, satisfaction and falling head-over-heels in love; the darker, sombre tones of rejection, uncertainty, fear of failure and constant money worries.

The figures in the foreground form a familiar pageant of forms and faces, the individuals who were my world for three years. Those I lived and worked with, laughed and cried and supported and grew with; some of my first true friends, with whom I shared my very self. Some have moved on to futures disconnected from my own, some maintain a courteous online connection, some even send me Christmas cards. Others still sit at the very centre of my life, amongst the select few I could call at 3am in a crisis.

Behind this immediate circle stands a great host of characters who were less intimate, but no less significant, set against the landscape of University Park campus. These are the academics who taught, corrected, advised, directed and coached me through the transformation from uncertain, homesick 18-year-old to confident 21-year-old, so that I graduated as a capable, sharp-minded young scientist who was ready to explore all that my new career in medical physics had to offer. Front and centre amongst them is my tutor, Professor Penny Gowland, a specialist in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Penny’s interest in physics was first piqued at the age of 15 by an episode of the BBC’s science series, Horizon, about Voyager and, in particular, navigation engineer Linda Morabito. Linda described how she had seen a blip on the surface of Io, one of Saturn’s moons and, rather than ignore it as a random glitch, she thought, “What was that?” She investigated and found the first exploding crater on that moon.

The process of scientific exploration and discovery, and the way Linda described it, appealed to Penny. Seeing a young woman speaking with enthusiastic eloquence about making a major contribution to such a significant space research programme probably also went a long way to demonstrating to Penny that a career in physics was not only desirable, but accessible.

Penny went on to study A-levels but wasn’t permitted to take the maths she needed to enter a physics degree, as her maths teacher mistook her untidy working for incompetence. During the following year, Penny worked as a nurse whilst taking A-level maths at college. The experience and responsibility of nursing meant she grew up quickly, but it also sparked her interest in the medical applications of physics. During her BSc in astronomy and physics at University College London, she was advised to take a final-year project in astronomical imaging, because developing her skill in analysing such data would equip her for a career in medical imaging — many of the same processes and techniques are used in both. She continued to refine and develop her image acquisition and processing skills with an MSc in radiation physics at the Middlesex Hospital, a PhD in in-vivo nuclear magnetic resonance measurements at the Institute of Cancer Research, and a post-doctoral research assistant position in the Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Imaging Centre at Nottingham University. She has worked at the centre ever since.

Taking the pragmatic, sensible approach

When I met Penny, she held the Sir Peter Mansfield lectureship within the School of Physics and Astronomy. I remember her lectures on nuclear magnetic resonance and MRI well. She was logical and authoritative in her presentation but rather softly spoken; these were the days before online lecture handouts, so I had to sit near the front and really pay attention to what she said to transcribe it quickly and accurately. She was also our only female lecturer, and in comparison to her male colleagues, Penny’s slight frame seemed somewhat lost at the front of the theatre, between the imposing dark wood of the laboratory bench and the huge green chalk board behind.

As my undergraduate tutor, she would meet me and five of my contemporaries every week to talk through our progress, identify areas for improvement, and issue tasks to help strengthen our weaknesses. We met in her office at the Sir Peter Mansfield Building, home to the magnetic resonance (MR) research group, up the hill from the physics department and tucked in next to the boys’ halls (Hugh Stewart and Cripps) and the University Medical Centre.

Penny was working 80 percent of full-time at that point, and occasionally her home and University commitments collided, so that two small blonde-haired girls would be colouring and drawing in the corner of the room as we talked through the finer points of our coursework. I really warmed to them; they reminded me of life beyond the 18-21 club of the student world, of home, of family. Their presence also impressed on me at the very beginning of my own career that it was possible to be a successful and respected scientist and hands-on mother to a young family. Penny was specialising in fetal MR at the time, which I presumed was a professional extension of her maternal role; it transpires that the MR research group was developing a number of projects in this area when she joined, and Penny simply picked up the work that needed doing.

This pragmatic, common-sense approach is typical of Penny. When I managed to have not one, but two, crises during the course of my first degree and turned to her for support, her calm problem-solving was nothing short of a rock in an emotional storm.

Crisis One arose because I had taken a rather unconventional A-level in physics, which contained rather more astronomy and quantum theory than most, and had also foregone further maths A-level in favour of Grade 8 cello, much to the annoyance of my maths teacher. As a result, my understanding of mechanics — the influence of forces on objects — was behind that of most students in my year. I really struggled with the mechanics module of my first semester and failed the exam. Penny urged me not to despair with the words “That’s what re-sits are for” and set me mountains of mechanics problems in preparation. Mechanics has never been, and will never be, my forte, but by the time I had been through remedial tuition with Penny I was good enough to pass both my first and second semester mechanics exams comfortably.

Crisis Two broke as I was putting the final touches to my revision for a medical physics exam one sunny morning in my second year. I glanced over at the timetable blu-tacked to the wall to remind myself of the start time that afternoon. Panic engulfed me in a cold sweat as I realised the exam was actually that morning and had already started on the other side of campus. I ran all the way there and slipped in as quietly as I could manage at the back, only for my fellow students to look up from their papers with varying degrees of annoyance and concern. I never missed a lecture, never mind an exam, but in the days before mobile phones were commonplace, no-one had been able to check up on me when I wasn’t queueing outside the room with everyone else.

The invigilators ushered me out and eventually convinced me it would be wiser to take the paper at a later date rather than trying to complete it in half the allotted time. All I needed was to confess to Penny what an idiot I’d been and ask her to complete the relevant paperwork. I headed to the Sir Peter Mansfield Building via Cripps Hall, interrupting a friend’s medicine revision with much weeping and wailing, quieted by a comforting hug. I was still quite tearful, sweaty and flustered when I arrived at Penny’s office. I could tell she wasn’t impressed with me, but she passed the tissues with tight-lipped serenity and set about sorting out the mess I’d made. I returned early the next year to take the exam and passed with flying colours.

I put myself under additional pressure by taking an additional computer programming module in my penultimate semester, spending a lot of time playing the cello, letting my heart be broken more often than could possibly be healthy, and agonising over future career opportunities. Despite two further re-sits, and having to sit a viva at the end of my degree as I was so close to the honours boundary, I finally graduated in July 1998 with a first class BSc degree in physics with medical physics. When people coax my degree classification out of me, they seem to get the impression I am a genius who sailed through university, acing coursework, exams and my dissertation en route. They don’t realise how hard I had to struggle for it and that I nearly sabotaged everything with my own absent-minded stupidity.

My degree result secured my place on the NHS Medical Physics training scheme in Manchester, during which time I completed an MSc in physics and computing in medicine and biology, and undertook placements in radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, and diagnostic radiology (X-ray, computed tomography or CT, and MRI). From there I side-stepped into academia, electing to do a PhD while I had the chance to refine my research skills and keep my future career options open. A medical physicist post in nuclear medicine at Manchester Royal Infirmary became available as I was finishing my three years of research into quantitative positron emission tomography (PET) of lung cancer, and I was fortunate enough to secure it. Nearly ten years and two children later, I am still working in the same department, now at Senior Medical Physicist level. I love my job, which encompasses growing responsibility for our routine work with patients, an expanding research portfolio, overseeing trainee physicists, MSc and PhD students and a research associate, and an honorary lectureship at Manchester University.

I’m also Director of ScienceGrrl, a network celebrating and supporting women in science, and secretary to the Women in Physics Group at the Institute of Physics, Innovation and Research Advisory Group at the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, and UK PET Physics Group (who I also represent on committees at the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine and British Nuclear Medicine Society). I’ve come a long way in the fifteen years since my graduation from Nottingham University.

A CV replete with accomplishments

In the meantime, Penny has been promoted from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer in 2000, to Reader in 2002, and Professor in 2004. Her MRI research has changed direction several times during this period. The first change came in 2004, when the European Commission adopted directive 2004/40/CE, restricting occupational exposure to electromagnetic fields. This was intended to limit health effects linked to mobile phones, wi-fi, and other devices but inadvertently threatened MRI, as it uses radio frequency pulses and both static and fluctuating magnetic fields to manipulate the behaviour of hydrogen nuclei within the body and image their distribution. The threat was particularly acute for research scanners using higher field strengths, and Penny saw that this directive had the potential to close down the 7T MRI research facility at Nottingham University, which uses static magnetic fields more than twice as strong as those used routinely in hospital scanners.

Between 2004 and 2009, Penny became a leading expert on the safety of high-field MRI for the Health Protection Agency, British Institute of Radiology and International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation, not just in terms of understanding the legislation and how to correctly interpret and apply it, but also in conducting research that answered the questions that remained concerning the safety of high-field MRI for patients, volunteers and staff. Her work has helped policy makers to understand how the small risks of exposure to electromagnetic fields compare with the considerable benefits of allowing research using high-field MRI to progress. It is hoped that these novel high-field MRI imaging techniques will eventually become routine tools for the diagnosis of a wide range of diseases.

Penny has since applied herself to a diverse portfolio of grant-funded MR research, developing applications to study a wide variety of structures and processes in the body. These have included how the gut and brain respond to different meals, the relationship between changes in the brain and recovering muscle control and hearing after stroke, and variations in blood flow within the placenta in complicated pregnancies. She has published her work in over 170 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters and been invited to present to, speak at, and organise Magnetic Resonance Imaging conferences all over the world. She is deputy editor of one of the key journals in our field, Physics in Medicine and Biology, and her expertise is sought by funding bodies in assessing grant applications, by high-profile journals in reviewing research papers, and by professional bodies such as the British Institute of Radiology, Health Protection Agency and International Society of Magnetic Resonance in Medicine. Her CV is long, and replete with impressive accomplishments.

Penny is currently working on chemical exchange imaging, which studies information about chemical composition that is hidden in the detail of signals detected during Magnetic Resonance Imaging. One of the molecules that has recently been studied using this technique is glucose, and the MR images which result are similar to those usually obtained with PET using 18FDG, a radioactive form of glucose. This apparent competition between MR and PET is something of a potential sore point with Penny’s husband, Professor Paul Marsden, an expert in PET Physics whom I met independently during my PhD.

Completing the work-family jigsaw

The girls who coloured and drew through my tutorials are now 15 and 18. Penny seems to have mastered the co-existence of a productive scientific career and family responsibilities by working hard at both. As Paul is based in London for some of the week, parenting has often fallen to Penny, assisted by flexible part-time hours and weekly visits from her mother. When the children were small, she would leave in time to pick them up from school, cook the evening meal and put them to bed, then pick up her University work again in the evenings. It’s a demanding schedule, but Penny noticed she was more productive for having the break from work in the late afternoon and early evening and insists that “a change is as good as a rest.” Her mother’s visits helped cover domestic duties and provide live-in childcare that enabled Penny to continue to present her work at international conferences. Watching her eldest prepare for university, Penny wryly observes that her own daughters may soon be expecting her to do the same.

The appointments in Penny’s CV specify what proportion of full-time she was working at each stage, which I found strange at first, and wondered if she felt pressure to justify her working hours. “No” she said, calm but firm as ever, “I just wanted to bear witness to it. It’s on the list of telephone numbers at work, too. If I say what hours I’m working people know what to expect and can work around that. I also wanted to show that you can be productive and work part-time.”

Given Penny’s support for flexible working and openness around issues affecting work-life balance, it is not surprising that she was the chair of the School of Physics and Astronomy’s Diversity Committee from 2007 to 2010, during which time she coordinated a successful Athena Swan Silver award submission. When I tweeted that I was writing about her, one of her current PhD students replied, singing Penny’s praises as a supervisor. I do not doubt the same could be said by all of the postgraduate students she has personally overseen, more than 40 in the last 20 years.

Penny and I both lead busy and full lives; we are in need of the transparent, flexible, and understanding culture we seek to encourage in our workplaces. Penny celebrates part-time working as enabling and fostering productivity across all areas of her life; in talking to her, I realised I experience part-time as less-than-full-time and have often felt it puts me in a position of weakness in the workplace as it is seen as indicating a lack of commitment to my career. Reflecting further, I see that this mindset has fed my natural tendency to over-commit myself. I have certainly taken on a little too much in recent years, fearful of saying ‘no’, ‘not now’, and ‘not me’ in case I miss out on opportunities or am thought lacking in commitment or enthusiasm.

I am conscious that I need to find a more sustainable pace, scheduling my workload more effectively, deferring what doesn’t have to be done now, and delegating what doesn’t have to be done by me and thus empowering others in encouraging them to participate. I also need to rediscover how to live in the moment, to appreciate what is happening in front of me right now, rather than constantly monitoring and planning and adjusting my next steps. I risk missing today because I’m too preoccupied with preparing for tomorrow.

When I interviewed Penny, I asked her if she had anything else to add, and she concluded our conversation with a very timely piece of advice: “Don’t worry about the future. When the children are at nursery, you worry how you’ll cope when they start school; when they’re at school, you worry about how you’ll cope when they’re a teenager. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but I’ve found that every time it sorts itself out. I’ve given up worrying about the future, I just think about how to get through tomorrow, which leads to a bit of chaos, but it all works out fine.”

Now I’m established in my chosen career, perhaps the key to a successful and happy future is not intensively planning and negotiating my next manoeuvre but working hard and living well, if slightly chaotically, in the present. Now I just need to work out how to put that into practice. It could take the next fifteen years.

About the author

Dr Heather Williams MBE is a Consultant Medical Physicist for Nuclear Medicine at The Christie NHS, honorary Lecturer at the University of Manchester and University of Salford, and visiting Professor at the University of Cumbria. She is a Leading Light of the STEM Ambassador programme, and secretary to the Institute of Physics’ Women in Physics Group, UK PET Physics Group, and IPEM Innovation and Research Advisory Group. In June 2012, Heather helped establish ScienceGrrl (www.sciencegrrl.co.uk) to celebrate and promote the work of women in science, technology, engineering and maths; she now acts as ScienceGrrl’s Director. When she’s not busy working, she enjoys running and introducing her sons to the wonders of the universe, often at the same time.

Twitter: @alrightPET
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/heather-williams/70/479/3b1

Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw: Puzzles, bubbles and lattices

Dame Kathleen OllerenshawOriginally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Katie Steckles

Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw is a prolific mathematician and political figure originally from Manchester. Even among mathematicians, Kathleen Ollerenshaw isn’t a household name, but she should be: she’s made contributions to several areas of mathematics, and her work in politics included a long campaign to improve the state of education, in particular maths education, in Britain.

Born in Withington in 1912, Kathleen studied at St Leonard’s boarding school, St Andrews, where she excelled in mathematics as well as enjoying sports. Although she lost her hearing at the age of eight due to an inherited condition, she didn’t let this affect her work and studies — she could lip-read fluently. Kathleen considered mathematics to be one of only a few subjects in which her deafness didn’t put her at a disadvantage. She didn’t even reveal to her interviewers at Oxford she was deaf until she’d been accepted as a student.

Having earned her BA at Oxford, Ollerenshaw also completed her doctorate there in 1945 on the subject of critical lattices. Lattices are sets of points arranged in straight lines with the same distance between each pair of adjacent points. They can be two- or three-dimensional, or occur in higher dimensions, and studying them can reveal insights into problems such as finding the best way to arrange objects to optimise the use of space — like arranging tins in a box, or oranges in a crate. These types of questions are called ‘close-packing problems’. It’s possible to consider several different ways of arranging, for example, spheres in three-dimensional space, and decide which gives the most efficient packing — the one with the least space left unused — by placing the centre of a sphere at each point in a lattice.

Rather than publishing a formal written thesis, Ollerenshaw was awarded her DPhil on the basis of five research papers that she published on the topic. These papers discussed critical lattices — ones for which every point in the lattice is the centre of a cube, when the whole space is tiled with cubes (or in two dimensions, squares) in some arrangement. She proved many facts about the nature of these lattices when considered in different spaces and in higher dimensions.

Bubbles and puzzles

After the Second World War, Kathleen and her husband, Robert Ollerenshaw, moved to Manchester where Kathleen worked part-time as a lecturer in the University’s mathematics department. She was invited to become a Founder Fellow of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) in 1964. In 1970 she became a member of the IMA’s governing council and was its president from 1978-1979. Many of her subsequent mathematical discoveries were published in the IMA’s monthly bulletin, now called Mathematics Today.

In her IMA presidential address, Kathleen discussed the mathematics of soap bubbles. Since the liquid which makes a bubble will always arrange itself to have minimal surface area, a floating bubble will be in the shape of a sphere. If a bubble is touching another bubble or object its shape might be different but it will still conform to the minimal area. For example, when two bubbles of the same size are stuck together, they will have a flat face between them, whereas different sized bubbles will have a curved surface which bulges into the larger bubble because the air pressure inside the smaller bubble will be higher.

The behaviour of bubbles can be modelled using mathematical equations, and the resulting geometry of shapes has been used by engineers to optimise the construction of roof structures. It’s also possible to use mathematics to study the way three or four bubbles meet at a point — the walls between them form angles of 120 degrees and 109 degrees respectively — allowing you to to model the way foam forms, which is very useful in the study of such materials.

As well as working on serious mathematical problems, Dame Kathleen also contributed greatly to recreational mathematics — the study of interesting mathematical curiosities and puzzles. In 1982, she published a paper with Hermann Bondi, entitled Magic squares of order four. A magic square is an arrangement of numbers in a grid such that every row and column of the grid, and the diagonals, contain numbers which sum to the same total — the ‘magic constant’. In their paper, Ollerenshaw and Bondi proved a statement made in 1693 by French mathematician Bernard Frénicle de Bessy. The statement was that if you arrange the numbers 1 to 16 in a four-by-four square, there are 880 essentially different ways, ignoring reflections and rotations, to do this which result in a magic square.

Dame Kathleen continued to study magic squares in her spare time for eight years, and looked at the particular class called ‘pandiagonal magic squares’. These have the additional property that broken diagonals, that is the diagonals that wrap round at the edges of the square, also add up to the magic constant. She produced a method for constructing and listing these types of squares, published as part of an IMA bulletin in 1989 and later released in the form of a book, Most Perfect Pandiagonal Magic Squares: Their Construction and Enumeration, in collaboration with David Bree, published in 1998.

She was also among the first people to study and write down algorithms for solving the Rubik’s cube. Her solution algorithm was published in an issue of the IMA Bulletin in 1980; her method started by solving the bottom face first, then the top corners, then the middle slice edges, and finally the top edges. This resulted in a solve which took an average of 80 moves – not nearly as efficient as a competitive ‘speed-solver’ would achieve, but her method would work starting from any of the roughly 42 billion billion possible scrambled cube positions, when followed step-by-step.

Many common solving methods today use the same layer-by-layer approach, including the method given in the leaflet provided with modern cubes. Of course, when it was originally sold, the cube didn’t include any such instructions and Dame Ollerenshaw had to work it out for herself the hard way. She famously injured the tendons in her thumb from working with the cube so much and needed minor surgery — the Reader’s Digest noted this as the first recorded case of ‘mathematician’s thumb’.

Ollerenshaw was generally regarded as a superb mathematician and thinker. She described a method for problem solving which she developed while at boarding school: she would think about a mathematical problem in the moments before going to sleep and trace the shapes and formulae on the wall with her finger. In the morning when she woke, the answers would be there.

Improving maths education

Having served as a school governor, Kathleen developed an interest in the conditions of British schools. She published an article on the topic outlining the declining state of school buildings in the Manchester area, and became a member of various education committees and advisory groups. Later she was elected as a member of Manchester City Council, where she was a councillor from 1956 until 1981 and served on the finance committee. She was also elected Lord Mayor of Manchester in 1975-6.

Kathleen’s interest in improving the state of education, and in particular mathematics education, led her to visit other countries to learn about their systems. She travelled to the USSR to find out about their higher education, and she also visited schools and educators in the USA while working there on a fellowship.

In 1969, researchers at Stanford released the results of a project aiming to measure the standards of mathematics teaching in countries across the world. The results showed that children in Japan were far ahead of those in other countries, so Kathleen obtained sponsorship from the British Council to visit Japan and observe their practices in mathematics teaching. While the class sizes there were larger, she saw a much higher standard of discipline, and their attitude towards mathematics was much more positive.

In 1972, Dame Kathleen became a part-time senior research fellow in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University. Her drive to improve standards in education led to her appointment as an advisor on educational matters to Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s.

Dame Kathleen had many other interests — she enjoyed skating and skiing, and was a keen amateur astronomer. She was made an honorary member of the Manchester Astronomical Society, one of the oldest provincial astronomical societies in England. She donated an 11-inch Celestron telescope to Lancaster University, and the observatory there bears her name. She also donated a prize to the University’s physics department, awarded to the best fourth year MPhys project.

At the age of 37, Kathleen was fitted with her first hearing aid, and for the first time in her life was able to hear the sounds of the world around her. In 1968, now in her mid-50s, having been fitted with a more advanced hearing aid, she developed a love of music and was instrumental in the establishment of what would later become the Royal Northern College of Music, chairing its governing body for several years.

Dame Kathleen’s contribution both to politics and mathematics have been well recognised. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to education in 1970, as well as being awarded Freedom of the City of Manchester for her long service to the city. She holds honorary degrees from the Victoria University of Manchester, the University of Lancaster, and Liverpool University. The mathematics department at the University of Manchester, where she worked as a lecturer, holds an annual Ollerenshaw lecture, given by a visiting speaker, and Dame Kathleen herself has attended the lecture on several occasions. She has published 26 mathematical papers and contributed greatly to the subject. In 2012 she celebrated her 100th birthday, and continues to be an inspiration to mathematicians and educators alike.

About the author

Katie Steckles is a mathematician, based in Manchester, who works in public engagement and lectures at Sheffield Hallam University. She visits schools as part of Think Maths to give talks and workshops, and works at science festivals and other events to promote mathematics. She also writes at The Aperiodical, an online maths magazine blog of news, features and editorials, and has appeared on Channel 4, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Teach, BBC Radio Manchester and the Discovery Science Channel.