Science and the City: An interview with Laurie Winkless

Laurie Winkless is the writer of the recently published book ‘Science and the City’. Science and the City has already received fantastic reviews, with the book described as ‘fascinating, lucid and entertaining’, and ‘a wonderful source of fascinating information’. With a background in science research, Laurie now works in science communication (follow her on Twitter here). We met Laurie before the Irish launch of her book at the Science Gallery in Dublin at the end of August (The Science Gallery sold out of copies of Science and the City mere minutes after the launch ended!). Laurie was really kind and gave us a half-hour of her time during what has been a very busy month since her book was published. Read on to find out more about her book, her new-found love of London Underground tunnels, mealworms, jiggly atoms, the Mars Curiosity Rover, women in science,  gendered toys, and more!

Tom Lawson

Laurie and her book in one of Laurie’s beloved rail tunnels in London! Photo: Tom Lawson

Science and the City

Women Are Boring: Congratulations on the launch of the book! It’s getting a great reception! What is your favourite fact in the book?

Laurie Winkless: One thing I hadn’t realised before I started writing the book was that I am obsessed by tunnels! I get on the London Underground (the tube) pretty much every day, and I don’t tend to really think about it, but when I started hanging out with tunnel engineers I developed a real love and affection for tunnels. Somewhere deep inside me, there’s a train nerd! That is my favourite part of the ‘today’ science. As for the ‘tomorrow’ science, I’m excited about research around trying to reduce landfills by letting mealworms eat the plastic waste. This seems to be completely fine for the mealworms, and it gets rid of our non-biodegradable waste! I also spoke to an architect in Colombia who is using waste plastic to build houses. He melts down the plastic and turns it into what are almost lego blocks that clip together. The reuse of plastic is really interesting; we’re so silly with our use of plastic – it takes so long to biodegrade.

WAB: What inspired you to write the book?

LW: It’s been a combination of living in London, and my research background. I’ve lived in London for eleven years now and I think you get a bit obsessed with the city – even if you’re complaining about it, you’re still talking about it! Getting from A to B is a big thing for everyone in London, and that’s where my love of transport came from. My research background is in material science, which tends to be quite a practical, hands-on research area and is very applied to the real world. I kept coming across new technologies, building materials, battery technologies, the use of nanotechnology in food packaging, for example, and I thought ‘you know what? Maybe I can help people understand how cities work today, and also do some future-gazing’.

Thermoelectric energy harvesting

WAB: You’ve had a really cool career – you have a BSC in Physics with Astrophysics from Trinity College Dublin, an MSc in Space Science from University College London, you worked as a researcher at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory for seven years, and you work in science communication. Your pet topic is thermoelectric energy harvesting – tell us a bit about that.

LW: Thermoelectric materials are solid materials, with no moving parts, but they can transform heat into electricity. They can do it because they use these two separate properties of materials that overlap. Think of a hot cup of tea in a cold cup – eventually the cup will get warm and the tea will cool down, so the temperature equalises. With thermoelectric materials, if you can keep that temperature difference – keeping the hot end hot and the cold end cold – what you end up doing is you give energy to the atoms inside the material – which is what heat does all the time. Whether you realise it or not, we live in a universe of jiggling atoms. The higher the temperature is, the more atoms jiggle. That’s basically how we measure temperature – it’s how jiggly atoms are. So, an atom will only ever stop moving at absolute zero, which we can’t really reach. When you’re giving out hot and cold you’re getting all this heat energy; the atoms are jiggling like crazy! But in thermoelectric materials, that also spits out electrons, and a stream of electrons is electricity. If you strap loads of these thermoelectric materials together – for example a square of 64, 120, or 500 of these blocks of thermoelectric materials –  even though each one is only producing tiny amounts of electricity, you turn the waste heat into electricity.

WAB: What was your own research in this area on?

LW: My research was on the car industry in particular. It looked at how we can capture all of that waste heat in car exhausts, because car exhaust temperatures can be almost 500 degrees Celsius – that is energy that is not helping to move the car forward. It is wasting fuel. In fact, only about a third of the energy in fuel actually moves our car. Almost all of the rest is thrown away as heat. We were trying to design devices made with thermoelectric materials that we could strap on to car exhausts. Then you’d have the car exhaust hot, the air outside a bit cooler, and harness that temperature difference to have electricity being produced. We could then use that to do other things in the car, like run the radio or some of the electronics, so that fuel doesn’t need to be used for those things.

mars-curiousity

The Mars Curiosity Rover, which is powered by thermoelectric materials. You can follow the Rover on Twitter here! Photo: NASA

WAB: Amazing! What else can thermoelectric materials be used for?

LW: There are lots of other ways you can use thermoelectric materials. The Mars Curiosity Rover is powered by a thermoelectric generator. It has a tiny piece of a plutonium on the inside. Because plutonium is radioactive, it naturally decays and produces heat, and then there’s all these fins around it so the outside is much cooler, and that powers the entire Rover! They’ve been using thermoelectric materials in the space industry for a long time – we’re just catching up on Earth now!

WAB: What do you think will be the next big application of thermoelectric materials?

LW: One thing that people are really interested in is power plants. Most electricity plants produce heat. A lot of them will burn fuel, usually coal or gas, which heats up an enormous tank of water. That tank of water turn to steam, the steam turns a turbine, and the turbine produces electricity. So actually, a generation of electricity is all about heat. There are lots of researchers who are now asking ‘can we capture some of the heat that we’re producing to make power plants more efficient?’. We want to move away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, but this is a good stop-gap in between: making fossil fuels a bit more efficient until we get to the point at which people realise the value of renewables.

Science – the natural option!

WAB: What inspired you to go into science?

LW: I’m quite a curious person. I always have been, and I always wanted to study science – I can’t remember when I first thought ‘I want to be a scientist.’ I like taking things apart, and trying to put them back together again – I used to do that and have bits left over and think ‘oh no, I haven’t done a good job!’ I’ve always enjoyed hands-on, practical work. I like using my hands and questioning the everyday, so science was a natural option for me!

WAB: Tell us about your career path, how did you go from working in a lab to science communication?

LW: My career path has felt more like random leaps around! I did science communication alongside my research, and I was always visiting school, fairs and festivals to talk to the public about science. I decided to take a break from the lab to try and develop communication skills and see if I was any good, and I got the book deal out of that! I really enjoy science communication, and I think that helps. You give more of yourself to something when you enjoy it. People engage with you more. I wanted the book to be authentically myself, because as a scientist, when you’re writing papers, you are often editing your personality out – and that’s an important thing, it has to be neutral. But when I’m not writing papers, I can show a bit more of my personality. I was very nervous about doing that, to be honest. I think it was easier to be logical and very neutral, and I was very anxious about writing the way I talk because I felt it was too informal. It’s scary!

WAB: It is scary! We were very nervous when we launched Women Are Boring, both about putting ourselves out there and wondering whether we’d be taken seriously.

LW: Exactly! You feel like there’s a nakedness, don’t you?

WAB: Its something you’re not used to really doing when you’re in an academic environment.

LW: Definitely. And I think, for sure, not everyone will enjoy it. But the book helped me get braver at being myself. One of the nicest compliments I’ve had about the book has been that it sounds like I’m sitting beside you on the sofa as you read the book. That’s a hugely positive and flattering thing for me. That was the hardest thing to do.

Women in STEM and the ‘leaky pipeline’

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WAB: What has your experience as a woman in science been like?

LW: I have to say, I’ve had very few negative experiences as a woman in science, and those negative experiences have almost never included my colleagues. I think a lot of my colleagues were completely gender-blind! I never felt treated any differently. The only time I did feel treated oddly was by ‘outsiders’, for want of a better word. For example, I had a situation in the lab once where we had a contractor in to install a high-voltage line for a piece of equipment that I had designed. My male colleague was in the lab with me, but it wasn’t his research project. The contractor just kept speaking to my male colleague – and my colleague was really embarrassed by this! It wasn’t his project, it wasn’t his thing. Eventually, my colleague said to the contractor ‘I really don’t know why you’re asking me this – she’s the boss.’ The contractor looked around at me and was shocked by this! Ordinarily I would be quite patient with things like that, but he got me on a bad day, and I said ‘if you could start speaking to my face, that would be great. I’d appreciate that.’ I then told him what we needed, when we needed it done by, and asked ‘do you think you can do it by this time? Because if you can’t, I can get someone else’. He was taken aback, but I shouldn’t have had to lower myself to that. But as I said, there have been so few moments like that, so experiences like that have really stood out. I’ve been lucky – others have been less lucky than I have.

WAB: What about the issue of keeping women in science? We know there’s a dearth of women in science once we get to a certain level in many areas.

LW: That is a big challenge. We’ve got a leaky pipeline. Like me, for example – I graduated with a STEM degree, I worked in research, and now I’ve stepped sideways from research into communication. But that decision wasn’t to do with me thinking that I couldn’t develop as a scientist – I just wanted to try this, to see if I was any good at it. However, many other women have left science careers at a similar time to me, or later, so we get to the point where we have very few female physics professors, for example. I think part of that is to do with how we can treat people as equally as possible. In an ideal world, things would be a meritocracy, but they so rarely are. That a bigger problem in STEM.

WAB: Absolutely. We attended the L’Oréal – UNESCO Women in Science awards in London in June, and one of the things we found really interesting was that many of the nominees, and those who were awarded fellowships, felt that an important thing about that funding is that it is flexible – they could use it towards childcare. Without that, they might have had to cut back on lab hours, for example. What do you think of that?

LW: In some research areas, a year out of research can be seen as career suicide. If you are a woman, and decide you want to have a child – which is a totally personal choice – you’re accepting the fact that you’re going to be a year out of the publications cycle, a year out of the grants cycle. That puts you back two or three years. You’re constantly on the back foot. We definitely need to be flexible around that kind of issue. But for those woman who don’t want to have children, there is also a problem that isn’t related to childcare. I don’t think its as simple as just being more flexible. I think the whole culture needs to change – which it is, slowly, but it needs to change faster!

let-toys-be-toys

Let Toys Be Toys!

WAB: What do you think we can do to encourage more women to go into STEM? Do you think we need to start encouraging girls quite early – is it too late by the time they’re going into university?

LW: I believe so. I volunteer for an organisation called ‘Let Toys Be Toys’, which I followed on Twitter for a long time before getting involved with them. The idea of the campaign is to stop the artificial gendering of toys. Why do we need pink aisles for girls, and blue for boys? Why can’t boys play with prams? Why do some girls think they’re weird if they play with garages? Its so silly. However different individuals are, those differences are not necessarily along gender lines – society projects much of it. By the time that children are six or seven years old, they already have independent thought. They already have their own ideas about things. If we’ve been telling them for the previous seven years that girls should play this way and boys should play that way, that will naturally influence their own view of themselves. I think the choices we make in our own homes with our children as just as important as the teachers and mentors they’re surrounded by in school and the wider educational world. I was never made to feel weird for my choice of toy. I was equally happy to play with a drill and to learn how to use hand tools as I was to play with My Little Ponies! Neither was ever questioned in any way. I felt confident enough to follow the things I enjoyed doing, rather than the things I felt I should be doing. I hope to have kids in the future, and that is something I’ll want to try really hard to pass on. I know it gave me the confidence to never question whether I could be a scientist. There was never a doubt in my mind that I could do that! I have my family to thank for a lot of that.

Inspirational women in science

WAB: Do you have any female scientist role models? Is there anyone who you think, if you were a young girl or a woman who is interested in science, would be really good to look at for inspiration? Apart from yourself, of course!

LW: I feel very privileged in that two of the endorsers on the back of my book are female physicists. One is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who is originally from Northern Ireland. She’s an astrophysics professors, and she also discovered pulsars, and quite famously didn’t get the Nobel prize for it. She is a legend! To have her read my book and write a really positive comment about it was a huge, amazing moment – I almost cried, I was so excited! She is someone I’ve always respected. She has sometimes been presented as a victim, but she doesn’t see herself that way at all. She’s also been the President of the Institute of Physics, and has done lots of incredible stuff during her career, she’s written remarkable papers, and she’s also a thoroughly decent human being!

Another would be Athene Donald, also a professor of physics. She writes a lot about gender and about being a woman in physics, in a way that I really admire. She talks about the fact that barriers exist, but she’s not weighed down by them. I think that’s a great lesson for a young female scientist – to know that its okay to talk about those barriers, and we should talk about them. I felt so lucky to have her write a quote for the book, it’s really amazing!

There’s also an engineer called Linda Miller, who works on the London Crossrail project. I’ve been hanging out a bit with people working on that project for the past while. Linda is SO cool – as I said, she works on the Crossrail project so is rebuilding the Thames tunnel, which is very exciting. Before that, she was a civil engineer rebuilding certain sections of the Space Launch Complex at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and prior to that she was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Air Force! She’s had two incredible careers. She’s a brilliant communicator and a huge supporter of young women in engineering.

WAB: Are there any other science writers you recommend? We know you have further reading mentioned in your book, too.

LW: A writer I love is Mary Roach. She writes funny, popular science – I recommend everyone read Bonk, which is about the science of sex! Her and her husband had sex in an MRI machine as part of her research for the book, for example. She’s a legend! I love her too because she’s not a scientist but she takes science very seriously, and equally, she’s a brilliant storyteller. So she does that popular science interface really well. She’s very funny and very approachable, and I feel like we’re laughing together over a pint when I read her books. I love that. I’d love to aspire to that sort of work.

‘Look up!’

WAB: Back to your own book – what would you like the lasting result of the book to be? Would you like there to be something big that people take away from it?

LW: I really wanted the book to be a primer on how cities work. I went for breadth rather than depth, with enough detail so that people can get their teeth into it. My hope would be that this will be the kickstart for a lot of people to start thinking about science in a different way. That would be my ultimate dream – that it makes people think ‘I live in a city, and now I know how traffic lights work, where my water comes from, where my faeces go when I flush the loo! I’ve got a better understanding of the world around me, and now I’ll read the book she recommended at the back of her own book.’ I want it to be an entry point, to help people look at the world about differently and to realise that science and engineering has built everything around us. That would be an absolute dream! If I met someone in a few years who said ‘I read your book and that led me to do this, this and this’, I would cry! I’d be delighted! It’s a first book, and I saw first because I really want to write another one! I have an idea, but its very early stages. I’ve loved writing this book, as a project and as a process, and I hope my enthusiasm comes across.

WAB: Any final words to people as they walk around their cities?

LW: Look up! Look up when you look around your city and think about what you see. And also be a little bit more cynical about ridiculous reports about red wine both killing you and curing cancer! I hope the book makes people a tiny bit more scientific in their approach.

satc-laurie

Science and the City is published by Bloomsbury (ISBN9781472913227). You can buy it here from Amazon, or here from Bloomsbury. Go buy it for yourself, and for anyone you know with the tiniest interest in science. You never know who might be inspired, and who could be the next Jocelyn Bell Burnell or Laurie Winkless! 

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