Leiden University, 2008-2014; University of Oxford, 2014-2017.
BA English, BA Film and Literary Studies, MA Literary Studies
Tutor at University of Oxford, Stanford University, and Chinese University of Hong Kong. Physics and English outreach at University of Oxford.
DPhil in science communication
University of Oxford
Favourite thing to do in science: Figuring out how to explain something that is really difficult and advanced, that would normally require a university degree before you understand it, to everyone who is interested.
I started reading when I was two years old, haven’t stopped since and now I’m about to get a PhD for it.
I read around 130 books a year, and most of those are for fun: I somehow managed to research books that I really enjoy reading. A lot of it is science fiction, but I also work on Madeleine L’Engle and Philip Pullman.
In my spare time I like gaming, and even that I have managed to drag into my research: I’m currently working on a research article on BioShock Infinite and Life is Strange.
I also like watching TV, and I’ll soon be on it: I’m the team captain of St Anne’s College, Oxford, on this season of University Challenge.
I study stories about very difficult science: quantum physics and artificial intelligence.
My PhD is called ‘The Stories of Quantum Physics’. I like that title, it has at least three words even toddlers understand. I look at the way stories can explain very complex things – in this case, quantum physics. Physicists will say that quantum physics is mostly a mind-boggling pile of maths. But why, then, does quantum physics pop up in children’s books, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials?
Even quantum physicists don’t fully understand their own field yet. There are lots of interpretations around. Some physicists like one, some like the other – and when they try to explain quantum physics to non-scientists, for example in a popular science book, they show their bias. I investigate those kinds of stories, which I’ve called ‘conflict narratives’, and see how they influence the public understanding of science… and science itself.
At the end of this month, I will hand in my PhD thesis, which will be about 280 pages long. Right after that, I’ll start my next job, as a researcher at the Centre for the Future of Intelligence, which is part of the University of Cambridge.
My Typical Day
Every day I read a lot and write at least a little, but other than that, every day is very different.
As a researcher who also teaches, there is a big difference between a typical day during term-time (when the students are in Oxford) and outside term-time (when the students have to leave Oxford). During term-time, I spend a lot of time marking, prepping, and teaching. Much like your teachers at school, although I have the luxury of often teaching one-on-one!
Outside term-time, in what students call the ‘vacation’, I don’t actually go on vacation. This is when most of my research gets done: I spend a lot of time in the libraries, or writing at home.
Several times a year, I go to conferences to present my research. I guess that can count as a vacation, it definitely involves travelling! I have just come back from presenting my work in Helsinki at the World Science Fiction Convention. I met George R.R. Martin.*
* Please note not all PhDs or conferences involve getting to meet the author of Game of Thrones.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, driven, enthusiastic.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
The idea that there is so much we already know… and so much more to discover. As a researcher, I’m now at the point where those two ideas meet.
What was your favourite subject at school?
All of the languages.
What did you want to be after you left school?
A professor. I’m getting there, I guess!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
I once got in trouble for reading.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Röyksopp. If you haven’t heard of them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51Bpx63wkbA
What's your favourite food?
I like just about anything that doesn’t involve mushrooms.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
I wish I could live with my husband, I wish I was allowed to have a cat, and I wish I knew the perfect reply to a sexist comment when it’s made and not ten minutes later.
Tell us a joke.
Why should you teach physics on the edge of a cliff? That’s where the students have the highest potential.
I often work in Duke Humfrey’s Library, a very old part of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. You’re not allowed to take photos in there (or even bring bags! Or pens! Or water!) so I took this picture from Wikipedia.
This is me giving a presentation at a conference that had terrible audiovisual equipment. On the screen behind me, not for the first or last time: Schrödinger’s cat.
I usually only work with books and computers, but physics outreach can get pretty spectacular. This was when I made a comet with dry ice: