opinion
5 mins read 22 Oct 2019

Australian Women in Physics Lectureship 2019

2019 Australian Women in Physics Lectureship: Dr. Helen Maynard-Casely

Helen Maynard-Casely standing in front of two head statues.
Helen Maynard-Casely with the busts of W.H. and W.L. Bragg (scientists who founded her field) in Elder Park, Adelaide. Credit: Andy Casely

Connecting researchers with school students is challenging. It is a challenge for the researcher to find time and funds to allow them to travel and speak to schools, and increasingly demands in student’s timetables means it is challenging to carve out time for extracurricular work.  Add to this the challenge that your 25 million-strong population is spread over an area the size of Europe then you can see the challenge that the Australian Institute of Physics took on in getting new faces of physics into schools. 

There’s a real need for them to do this though.  Nationally about 20% of those studying Physics in Australia at university level identify as female.  That’s an improvement on numbers 20 years ago, but still, something that sets Physics in Australia apart from other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects.  Part of the modest rise may be down to the successful Women in Physics lectureship that the Australian Institute of Physics (AIP) has been undertaken since 1997.

The motivation to start the lectureship started in South Australia where the local branch of the Australian Institute of Physics wanted to honour the legacy of a colleague, Claire Corani, who had died in tragic circumstances.  Conversations between other state branches, led to the Clarie Corani memorial lecture (as it is known in South Australia) extending to be a national lecture tour. 

The lectureship awardee undertakes a tour of Australia, to every state as well as the Australian Capital Territory. It’s awarded on the basis of a) the lecturer has made a significant contribution in a field of physics research and b) has demonstrated public speaking ability.

This year it was me! I found myself learning my trade of crystallography in a physics department during my Ph.D., and have continued to use these skills in my research to discover the crystal structures of materials formed all over the solar system.  One of my big current projects is trying to find out the materials that makeup Saturn’s moon Titan, which is something that I’m collaborating with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on. 

We know quite a bit about the chemistry on the surface of Titan, from observations and models that look how the nitrogen and methane in its thick atmosphere are changed by radiation. But little idea of the materials properties of what this chemistry results in, so far we’ve found ten new materials and we think there’ll be many more.

I’m based at a central neutron scattering facility, the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering, where I’m co-responsible for the high-intensity neutron diffractometer that we call Wombat. Wombat and the other 14 instruments at our institute get used by scientists from all over Australia and the world for a fantastic range of science outcomes and I wanted to highlight how we do that. 

I started with a bold title ‘How neutrons can save the world’, and designed a talk that introduced the unique properties of the neutron and how we can use neutron scattering to study a range of problems, both on and off-world with my research.  And before I knew it, it was time to set off – on the afternoon of the 5th August I flew to Devonport to start the tour in Tasmania. 

Twelve flights, six states, one territory, and forty events later I finished at the Victorian ‘Girls in Physics’ breakfast event held at Monash University.  In those three and half weeks the tour had stretched from Hobart to Townsville, to Wollongong and Perth.

Helen speaking to students at a school
Helen speaking at St.Patricks school, Townsville. Credit: St.Patricks school

A general highlight of the tour was the large number of people that I got to interact with, I suppose in daily life you can fall into patterns in who you interact with, the tour really pushed my sphere of interactions!  I discovered on the tour is the fact that recruiting and retaining specialist physics teachers here is a real challenge both in regional (non-urban) and urban areas. 

In terms of particular events, two stand out for me - firstly was the visit to Oakey high school, in regional Queensland.  It was organised by the physics teacher there Mitch Holgate and Queensland AIP co-ordinator Joanna Turner.  Not only were the students there really engaged, definitely some of the best questions came from that session - but the head of science Jelena Edhouse had baked a whole periodic table of cupcakes.   A second event highlight was the visit to SIDES, School for Isolated and Distance Education in Perth, organised by the teacher and Western Australia AIP co-ordinator Diana Tomazos.   It was a totally different experience presenting to a camera, with students tuning in from thousands of kilometres away.  They let me sign the door on the studio (which is usually reserved for famous people, like Nobel Prize winners!)

Helen in a university lecture theatre, standing out front, giving lecture to a room full of students
Helen giving a public lecture at Monash University, Melbourne. Credit: Matthew Lay

The tour took me to nearly every physics department in the country, and unrivaled opportunity to get a great picture of the research that is undertaken in Australian physics.  My skills in talking to a range of audiences have improved dramatically.  A great feature of the tour is the range of events that are included - From talking to local radio, to morning teas with physics students, public lectures and all the way to seminars in physics departments around the country.

The Australian Institute of Physics is currently looking for its next Women in Physics lecturer, for 2020 they are seeking an international-based researcher.  If you have a lot to say about physics, identify as a woman and fancy a tour about Australia speaking to some very keen and interested students – do apply by the end of October.