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Championing women in science

Only 9% of physics professors in the UK are women. One of those is Professor Valerie Gibson, a Fellow at Trinity, and Head of the High Energy Physics Research Group at the Cavendish Laboratory.

When she is not searching for new phenomena at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, or teaching physics at Cambridge, Professor Gibson is promoting women in science and making science exciting, relevant and accessible to a broad audience.
She has just participated in BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time on The Neutron. With three academics and 40 minutes to discuss the discovery, nature and uses of this tiny, powerful particle, perhaps unsurprisingly presenter Melvyn Bragg ended the programme, saying: ‘I feel as if I’ve had a sort of workout.’

Professor Gibson is School of Physical Sciences Equality & Diversity Champion at Cambridge and spearheaded the Cavendish Laboratory’s Athena Swan Gold Award in 2014. The Cavendish was the first – and remains the only – university physics department in the UK to achieve this recognition of its development of employment practices that support and further the careers of women.

CavMag August 2014 edition Cover
Courtesy of The Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University

Currently, Cambridge University departments hold 18 Athena Swan Awards in total – one gold, one silver and 16 bronze. The Athena Swan Charter, an initiative of the Equality Challenge Unit, aims to advance gender equality in academia by changing working culture and practices. It has been extended to cover all disciplines, professional and support roles, and to address gender equality broadly.

Professor Gibson said that Athena Swan had helped alter attitudes and enable new working practices at Cambridge, such that the challenges of gender equality were changing.

It is evident that the new generation of students and post-doctoral researchers will be unperturbed by gender-related barriers that influenced the careers of our generation. The next big step has to come from more girls studying science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) at A-level or equivalent. Only then can we look towards true equality within the higher education sector.

True to her word, Professor Gibson is actively involved in many outreach activities, including Trinity’s Women in STEM residential course, 30-31 August 2016, which is open to women and non-binary students aged over 16 who are interested in studying Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Chemical Engineering or Engineering at a leading university.

During the free, two-day programme, students can take part in taster sessions, learn about course structure and content, and understand the teaching style at Cambridge from Trinity Fellows including, Professor Gibson and Professor Judith Driscoll, and PhD students.

Professor Gibson devised the Women in STEM residential – the first at Trinity – as part of events to mark the 40th anniversary of women at the College.

Future scientific discoveries will be driven by the next generation of scientists. It is important that we nurture our young female scientists; only with them working on an equal footing with the men will scientific advance reach its full potential.

As well as being UK spokesperson for the UK Spokesperson for the LHCb experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, Professor Gibson is Patron of the Gravity Fields Festival, held annually in Sir Isaac Newton’s home town of Grantham.

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