Time to think about visual neuroscience

by Poppy Sharp, PhD candidate at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento.

All is not as it seems

We all delight in discovering that what we see isn’t always the truth. Think optical illusions: as a kid I loved finding the hidden images in Magic Eye stereogram pictures. Maybe you remember a surprising moment when you realised you can’t always trust your eyes. Here’s a quick example. In the image below, cover your left eye and stare at the cross, then slowly move closer towards the screen. At some point, instead of seeing what’s really there, you’ll see a continuous black line. This happens when the WAB logo falls in a small patch on the retinae of your eyes where the nerve fibres leave in a bundle, and consequently this patch has no light receptors – a blind spot. When the logo is in your blind spot, your visual system fills in the gap using the available information. Since there are lines on either side, the assumption is made that the line continues through the blind spot.

Illusions reveal that our perception of the world results from the brain building our visual experiences, using best guesses as to what’s really out there. Most of the time you don’t notice, because the visual system has been adapted over years of evolution and then been honed by your lifetime of perceptual experiences, and is pretty good at what it does.

WAB vision

For vision scientists, illusions can provide clues about the way the visual system builds our experiences. We refer to our visual experience of something as a ‘percept’, and use the term ‘stimulus’ for the thing which prompted that percept. The stimulus could be something as simple as a flash of light, or more complex like a human face. Vision science is all about carefully designing experiments so we can tease apart the relationship between the physical stimulus out in the world and our percept of it. In this way, we learn about the ongoing processes in the brain which allow us to do everything from recognising objects and people, to judging the trajectory of a moving ball so we can catch it.

We can get insight into what people perceived by measuring their behavioural responses. Take a simple experiment: we show people an arrow to indicate whether to pay attention to the left or the right side of the screen, then they see either one or two flashes of light flash quickly on one side, and have to press a button to indicate how many flashes they saw. There are several behavioural measures we could record here. Did the cue help them be more accurate at telling the difference between one or two flashes? Did the cue allow them to respond more quickly? Were they more confident in their response? These are all behavioural measures. In addition, we can also look at another type of measure: their brain activity. Recording brain activity allows unique insights into how our experiences of the world are put together, and investigation of exciting new questions about the mind and brain.

Rhythms of the brain

Your brain is a complex network of cells using electrochemical signals to communicate with one another. We can take a peek at your brain waves by measuring the magnetic fields associated with the electrical activity of your brain. These magnetic fields are very small, so to record them we need a machine called an MEG scanner (magnetoencephalography) which has many extremely sensitive sensors called SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices). The scanner somewhat resembles a dryer for ladies getting their blue rinse done, but differs in that it’s filled with liquid helium and costs about three million euros.

A single cell firing off an electrical signal would have too small a magnetic field to be detected, but since cells tend to fire together as groups, we can measure these patterns of activity in the MEG signal. Then we look for differences in the patterns of activity under different experimental conditions, in order to reveal what’s going on in the brain during different cognitive processes. For example, in our simple experiment from before with a cue and flashes of light, we would likely find differences in brain activity when these flashes occur at an expected location as compared to an unexpected one.

One particularly fascinating way we can characterise patterns of brain activity is in terms of the the rhythms of the brain. Brain activity is an ongoing symphony of multiple groups of cells firing in concert. Some groups fire together more often (i.e. at high frequency), whereas others may also be firing together in a synchronised way, but firing less often (low frequency). These different patterns of brain waves generated by cells forming different groups and firing at various frequencies are vital for many important processes, including visual perception.

What I’m working on

For as many hours of the day as your eyes are open, a flood of visual information is continuously streaming into your brain. I’m interested in how the visual system makes sense of all that information, and prioritises some things over others. Like many researchers, the approach we use is to show simple stimuli in a controlled setting, in order to ask questions about fundamental low level visual processes. We then hope that our insights generalise to more natural processing in the busy and changeable visual environment of the ‘real world’. My focus is on temporal processing. Temporal processing can refer to a lot of things, but as far as my projects go we mean how you deal with stimuli occurring very close together in time (tens of milliseconds apart). I’m investigating how this is influenced by expectations, so in my experiments we manipulate expectations about where in space stimuli will be, and also your expectations about when they will appear. This is achieved using simple visual cues to direct your attention to, for example, a certain area of the screen.

When stimuli rapidly follow one another in time, sometimes it’s important to be parse them into separate percepts whereas other times it’s more appropriate to integrate them together. There’s always a tradeoff between the precision and stability of the percepts built by the visual system.  The right balance between splitting up stimuli into separate percepts as opposed to blending them into a combined percept depends on the situation and what you’re trying to achieve at that moment.

Let’s illustrate some aspects of this idea about parsing versus integrating stimuli with a story, out in the woods at night. If some flashes of light come in quick succession from the undergrowth, this could be the moonlight reflecting off the eyes of a moving predator. In this case, your visual system needs to integrate these stimuli into a percept of the predator moving through space. But a similar set of several stimuli flashing up from the darkness could also be multiple predators next to each other, in which case it’s vital that you parse the incoming information and perceive them separately. Current circumstances and goals determine the mode of temporal processing that is most appropriate.

I’m investigating how expectations about where stimuli will be can influence your ability to either parse them into separate percepts or to form an integrated percept. Through characterising how expectations influence these two fundamental but opposing temporal processes, we hope to gain insights not only into the processes themselves, but also into the mechanisms of expectation in the visual system. By combining behavioural measures with measures of brain activity (collected using the MEG scanner), we are working towards new accounts of the dynamics of temporal processing and factors which influence it. In this way, we better our understanding of the visual system’s impressive capabilities in building our vital visual experiences from the lively stream of information entering our eyes.


How your brain plans actions with different body parts

Got your hands full? – How the brain plans actions with different body parts

by Phyllis Mania

STEM editor: Francesca Farina

Imagine you’re carrying a laundry basket in your hand, dutifully pursuing your domestic tasks. You open the door with your knee, press the light switch with your elbow, and pick up a lost sock with your foot. Easy, right? Normally, we perform these kinds of goal-directed movements with our hands. Unsurprisingly, hands are also the most widely studied body part, or so-called effector, in research on action planning. We do know a fair bit about how the brain prepares movements with a hand (not to be confused with movement execution). You see something desirable, say, a chocolate bar, and that image goes from your retina to the visual cortex, which is roughly located at the back of your brain. At the same time, an estimate of where your hand is in space is generated in somatosensory cortex, which is located more frontally. Between these two areas sits an area called posterior parietal cortex (PPC), in an ideal position to bring these two pieces of information – the seen location of the chocolate bar and the felt location of your hand – together (for a detailed description of these so-called coordinate transformations see [1]). From here, the movement plan is sent to primary motor cortex, which directly controls movement execution through the spinal cord. What’s interesting about motor cortex is that it is organised like a map of the body, so the muscles that are next to each other on the “outside” are also controlled by neuronal populations that are next to each other on the “inside”. Put simply, there is a small patch of brain for each body part we have, a phenomenon known as the motor homunculus [2].


Photo of an EEG, by Gabriele Fischer-Mania

As we all know from everyday experience, it is pretty simple to use a body part other than the hand to perform a purposeful action. But the findings from studies investigating movement planning with different effectors are not clear-cut. Usually, the paradigm used in this kind of research works as follows: The participants look at a centrally presented fixation mark and rest their hand in front of the body midline. Next, a dot indicating the movement goal is presented to the left or right of fixation. The colour of the dot tells the participants, whether they have to use their hand or their eyes to move towards the dot. Only when the fixation mark disappears, the participants are allowed to perform the movement with the desired effector. The delay between the presentation of the goal and the actual movement is important, because muscle activity affects the signal that is measured from the brain (and not in a good way). The subsequent analyses usually focus on this delay period, as the signal emerging throughout is thought to reflect movement preparation. Many studies assessing the activity preceding eye and hand movements have suggested that PPC is organised in an effector-specific manner, with different sub-regions representing different body parts [3]. Other studies report contradicting results, with overlapping activity for hand and eye [4].


EEG photo, as before.

But here’s the thing: We cannot stare at a door until it finally opens itself and I imagine picking up that lost piece of laundry with my eye to be rather uncomfortable. Put more scientifically, hands and eyes are functionally different. Whereas we use our hands to interact with the environment, our eyes are a key player in perception. This is why my supervisor came up with the idea to compare hands and feet, as virtually all goal-directed actions we typically perform using our hands can also be performed with our feet (e.g., see http://www.mfpa.uk for mouth and foot painting artists). Surprisingly, it turned out that the portion of PPC that was previously thought to be exclusively dedicated to hand movement planning showed virtually the same fMRI activation during foot movement planning [5]. That is, the brain does not seem to differentiate between the two limbs in PPC. Wait, the brain? Whereas fMRI is useful to show us where in the brain something is happening, it does not tell us much about what exactly is going on in neuronal populations. Here, the high temporal resolution of EEG allows for a more detailed investigation of brain activity. During my PhD, I used EEG to look at hands and feet from different angles (literally – I looked at a lot of feet). One way to quantify possible effects is to analyse the signal in the frequency domain. Different cognitive functions have been associated with power changes in different frequency bands. Based on a study that found eye and hand movement planning to be encoded in different frequencies [6], my project focused on identifying a similar effect for foot movements.


Source: Pixabay

This is not as straightforward as it might sound, because there are a number of things that need to be controlled for: To make a comparison between the two limbs as valid as possible, movements should start from a similar position and end at the same spot. And to avoid expectancy effects, movements with both limbs should alternate randomly. As you can imagine, it is quite challenging to find a comfortable position to complete this task (most participants did still talk to me after the experiment, though). Another important thing to keep in mind is the fact that foot movements are somewhat more sluggish than hand movements, owing to physical differences between the limbs. This circumstance can be accounted for by performing different types of movements; some easy, some difficult. When the presented movement goal is rather big, it’s easier to hit than when it’s smaller. Unsurprisingly, movements to easy targets are faster than movements to difficult targets, an effect that has long been known for the hand [7] but had not been shown for the foot yet. Even though this effect is obviously observed during movement execution, it has been shown to already arise during movement planning [8].

So, taking a closer look at actual movements can also tell us a fair bit about the underlying planning processes. In my case, “looking closer” meant recording hand and foot movements using infrared lights, a procedure called motion capture. Basically the same method is used to create the characters in movies like Avatar and the Hobbit, but rather than making fancy films I used the trajectories to extract kinematic measures like velocity and acceleration. Again, it turned out that hands and feet have more in common than it may seem at first sight. And it makes sense – as we evolved from quadrupeds (i.e., mammals walking on all fours) to bipeds (walking on two feet), the neural pathways that used to control locomotion with all fours likely evolved into the system now controlling skilled hand movements [9].

What’s most fascinating to me is the incredible speed and flexibility with which all of this happens. We hardly ever give a thought to the seemingly simple actions we perform every minute (and it’s useful not to, otherwise we’d probably stand rooted to the spot). Our brain is able to take in such a vast amount of information – visually, auditory, somatosensory – filter it effectively and generate motor commands in the range of milliseconds. And we haven’t even found out a fraction of how all of it works. Or to use a famous quote [10]: “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

 [1] Batista, A. (2002). Inner space: Reference frames. Current Biology, 12(11), R380-R383.

[2] Penfield, W., & Boldrey, E. (1937). Somatic motor and sensory representation in the cerebral cortex of man as studied by electrical stimulation. Brain, 60(4), 389-443.

[3] Connolly, J. D., Andersen, R. A., & Goodale, M. A. (2003). FMRI evidence for a ‘parietal reach region’ in the human brain. Experimental Brain Research153(2), 140-145.

[4] Beurze, S. M., Lange, F. P. de, Toni, I., & Medendorp, W. P. (2009). Spatial and Effector Processing in the Human Parietofrontal Network for Reaches and Saccades. Journal of Neurophysiology, 101(6), 3053–3062

[5] Heed, T., Beurze, S. M., Toni, I., Röder, B., & Medendorp, W. P. (2011). Functional rather than effector-specific organization of human posterior parietal cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience31(8), 3066-3076.

[6] Van Der Werf, J., Jensen, O., Fries, P., & Medendorp, W. P. (2010). Neuronal synchronization in human posterior parietal cortex during reach planning. Journal of Neuroscience30(4), 1402-1412.

[7] Fitts, P. M. (1954). The information capacity of the human motor system in controlling the amplitude of movement. Journal of experimental psychology47(6), 381.

[8] Bertucco, M., Cesari, P., & Latash, M. L. (2013). Fitts’ Law in early postural adjustments. Neuroscience231, 61-69.

[9] Georgopoulos, A. P., & Grillner, S. (1989). Visuomotor coordination in reaching and locomotion. Science, 245(4923), 1209–1210.

[10] Pugh, Edward M, quoted in George Pugh (1977). The Biological Origin of Human Values.


Maths: the same in every country?

by Rose Cook, PhD candidate at the Institute of Education, University College London.

Think women aren’t good at maths? Depends on where you’re a woman. 


(We never miss a chance to quote Mean Girls here at Women Are Boring)

Do you know the difference between Celsius and Fahrenheit? Can you interpret information from line graphs in news articles? Calculate how many wind turbines would be needed to produce a certain amount of energy (given the relevant information)?

These may seem like basic tasks, but if you are a woman living in the UK, Germany or Norway, the chances are you would struggle with them more than a comparable man. If you live in Poland, however, you might even outperform a male counterpart.

Why this variation in skills, and why does it appear in some countries and not others?

For some, these findings, from the 2011 international survey of adult skills, run by the OECD,  will confirm their existing beliefs. In spite of women being more academically successful than men, the perception that ‘women can’t do maths’ is widely held. A recent experiment [1] showed that both genders believe this to be true: both male and female subjects were more likely to select men to perform a mathematical task that, objectively, both genders fulfil equally well. In her successful book ‘The Female Brain’, Louann Brinzedine argued that women are ‘hard wired’ for communication and emotional connection, while men’s brains are oriented towards achievement, solitary work and analytical pursuits.

Another camp of social scientists argue that such narratives misrepresent the facts.  Janet Shibley Hyde and colleagues insist that, at least in the United States, men and women’s cognitive abilities are characterised by similarity rather than difference. Reviewing findings across many studies of gender differences on standardised mathematics tests, these authors found that ‘even for difficult items requiring substantial depth of knowledge, gender differences were still quite small’[2].

The fact that gender differences show up on an international survey of numeracy skills is a puzzling addition to an already contentious picture. Of course, not all maths tests are created equal. The difference may in some way reflect the way the survey conceptualises skills. Distinct from mathematical ability, applied numeracy skills are described as:

‘the ability to use, apply, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas’.[3]

Crucially, individuals who are ‘numerate’ should be able to apply these abilities to situations in everyday life. Perhaps these ‘everyday’ maths skills are more biased by gender than the measures used in other studies?

Numeracy: the ‘new literacy

I argue that we should take these gender differences seriously. More and more, jobs now require numeracy skills, both to perform basic tasks and to support ICT skills. Outside work, numeracy skills are increasingly required to make sense of the world around us. They help us to grasp concepts such as interest rates and inflation, which help us to deal with money. Moreover, according to the British Academy,

‘the ability to understand and interpret data is an essential feature of life in the 21st century: vital for the economy, for our society and for us as individuals. The ubiquity of statistics makes it vital that citizens, scientists and policy makers are fluent with numbers’.

The importance of numeracy has been recognised recently in the UK with the establishment of an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Maths and Numeracy, the National Numeracy charity, and initiatives such as Citizen Maths.

International variation

Particularly curious is the large variation across countries in the size of the gender difference. Figure 1, below, shows that, among adults aged between 16 and 65, the male advantage in applied numeracy skills is particularly large in Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, while it is virtually non-existent in Poland and Slovakia. The graph shows raw differences in average skill scores; although gaps reduce somewhat when controlling for age, family and immigration background and education, they remain.

Figure 1: Mean numeracy skills by gender, International Survey of Adult Skills, 2012


Source: Author’s calculations using data from the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Survey and replicate weights are applied. Numeracy scores range from zero to 500. For more information on the survey, please see: http://www.oecd.org/skills/piaac/publications.htm

Any genetic component is unlikely to vary internationally [4], suggesting a substantial role for cultural, institutional or economic factors that vary across countries.

My PhD study

Given that the survey tests adults who have many experiences behind them, isolating the causes of gender differences and cross-country variation is far from simple. We are socialised into gendered preferences, motivations and skills from our earliest years [5]. We go on to make gendered choices in our educational lives, our careers and our leisure activities. All of these life domains contribute to the skills we end up with in adulthood. To some, a choice-based explanation is unproblematic; determining one’s own destiny is a core value in many contemporary societies. However, this side-steps the question of where preferences come from. Skill differences in adulthood may well reflect individuals’ choices; however, the choices themselves are likely to be influenced by a complex mixture of cultural, educational, economic and institutional factors; which vary in their salience across countries.

In my PhD study, I focus on education and labour market explanations. A key task for my research is disentangling why gender differences in numeracy skills are relatively large in countries typically considered ‘gender egalitarian’. For example, Scandinavian countries consistently top the rankings of  the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, and are held up as bastions of gender equality. Yet Norway, Sweden and Denmark show among the largest gender differences in adults’ applied numeracy skills. Poland, Slovakia and Spain are not known for being particularly progressive on gender equality, yet they show among the smallest differences.

School and skills

One possibility is that gender differences arise from what girls and boys are exposed to while they are at school. Despite a similar basic structure, education systems across the world differ in the extent to which subjects are optional or compulsory. For example, in the UK, mathematics was not compulsory in upper secondary education until recently; whereas in other countries this has long been the case. Where numerate subjects are not compulsory, they may be less valued, and this could have created more scope for gender to affect subject and career choices. There is also wide variation in the types of mathematics learning boys and girls are exposed to across countries, as well as between schools and classes within countries.

Work and skills

Another possibility is that differences in skills are related to the types of jobs that women and men pursue once they leave education. In the majority of countries in the study, occupational segregation is still widespread in spite of female’s superior performance in education, and is partly to blame for the continuing gender pay gap.  Gender occupational segregation is particularly rife in Scandinavian countries, although this has been improving in recent years [6]. Countries with strong gender segregation in jobs promote gender norms about what careers are appropriate and accessible for men and women. This is likely to drive the early choices that contribute to skills in adulthood. In contrast, in some countries gender segregation of jobs is less pronounced, which may set more egalitarian norms for skill development. Moreover, given the link between more demanding, highly skilled jobs and skill development in adulthood, concentration into lower paid, more routine jobs could affect the extent to which women are able to gain skills at work. In some countries’ labour markets, women may perceive weaker incentives to develop mathematical skills than their male counterparts, preferring more typically ‘feminine’ ones, such as communication and literacy skills.

In my view, skills gaps are among the hurdles we need to overcome in order to attain full economic equality between men and women. Using international comparisons, my research aims to locate gender differences in applied numeracy skills within a broader, institutional context.  This is important both to correct the assumption that differences are ‘fundamental’ or ‘natural’, and to design effectively-targeted policies to equalise skills. I use a variety of quantitative techniques in my research which isolate factors associated with gender differences at both the individual and country levels. This should broaden the discussion beyond the common focus on encouraging girls to make gender ‘atypical’ choices in education, which neglects both males and the broader social context in which skill differences develop. Moreover, while there is a large amount of research on gender and education, skills inequalities among adults are less often addressed. Yet they affect adults’ lives in profound ways [7]. I hope to show some of the ways in which skill differences among adults are not fixed by early experiences and biology, but malleable according to social context.


[1] Reuben, E., Sapienza, P. and Zingales, L. (2014). ‘How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 (12), 4403-4408.

[2] Hyde, Janet S., et al. (2008) Gender similarities characterize math performance. Science 321 (5888) pp. 494-495 (p.495)

[3] OECD (2013) PIAAC Numeracy: A conceptual framework (p. 20) Paris: OECD.[4] http://www.statlit.org/pdf/1999-Steen-ASCD-Education-Leadership.pdf

[4] Penner, A.M. (2008) Gender differences in extreme mathematical achievement: An international perspective on biological, social, and societal factors. American Journal of Sociology 114 (supplement) S138–S170.

[5] Maccoby, E. E., and D’Andrade, R. G. (1966) The development of sex differences. Stanford University Press.

[6] Bettio F and Verashchagina A (2009) Gender Segregation in the Labour Market: Root Causes, Implications and Policy Responses in the EU. Brussels: European Commission.

[7] Carpentieri, J. C., Lister, J., Frumkin, L., & Carpentieri, J. (2010). Adult numeracy: a review of research. London: NRDC.

The wonders of kelp, and why we need to save it.

‘Deforestation of the Sea: A closer look at valuable kelp forests in shallow seas around Britain’ by Jess Fisher.

 ‘I can only compare these great aquatic forests… with the terrestrial ones in the intertropical regions. Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp’

Charles Darwin (1834) Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Kelp forests: the rainforests of the ocean

A few weeks ago, I settled happily into Finding Dory on a Saturday night. Towards the end, the little blue fish drifts through the giant kelp forests, devoid of life, and sadly proclaims ‘…there’s nothing here but kelp!’. Having studied this oceanic plant, I can confirm that this is 100% scientifically incorrect: well done Pixar.

Kelp forests actually have around the same levels of biodiversity as a tropical rainforest. But why should you care?

Because kelp can do everything: it’s home to hundreds of thousands of marine species, it can be used as a fertiliser and a biofuel, it can be extracted to use in cosmetics like make-up and toothpaste, amongst many more uses. In 1908, Japanese biochemist Professor Ikeda isolated monosodium glutamate (or MSG – one of the things that makes Asian food so great) from kelp. Who knew science could be so delicious?!

Why is kelp disappearing?

Unfortunately, kelp is reported to be disappearing. This is mostly because of climate change making the oceans uninhabitable for some species, but also that more people are harvesting kelp from the wild. Lots of people are even beginning to call it a superfood. While its rapid growth rate (up to half a metre per day in some species) suggests that harvesting kelp should not really be a problem, conservation scientists are worried that all the marine life living in kelp forests will take quite a bit longer to return. Britain is especially important for kelp (because of the variation in habitats and rocky shores) which is why I started working on a project looking to test novel monitoring methods for kelp, so we can potentially measure what is actually happening.

How our project works

Kayaking into the open ocean near Plymouth, we fought through choppy waves into a prevailing wind, whilst I continually threw cold seawater with my paddle onto my kayak-partner, who was sitting behind me! Lots of kelp lives in the subtidal zone (beneath the sea surface even at low tide), and so the plan was to beam sonar onto the seabed from a kayak, look at the graph that the sonar gives back, and then use a GoPro camera to visually verify assumptions that we were making about which graphic patterns denoted kelp. For example:


 This was one of four kayak trips the team made to test the method. Amongst some other objectives, the main aim is to ask whether sonar can be used to monitor kelp at a Britain-wide scale. The findings will be given to our funder, The Crown Estate, who manages development on the British coastline (The Crown Estate is owned by the Queen of the United Kingdom). They would like to eventually create some guidelines for sustainably harvesting wild kelp, so that this valuable seaweed resource (and its associated flora and fauna) will be available for future generations for years to come. Some kelp snapshots from the seabed:

Counting the cost of losing kelp forests

Kelp forests are reported to be worth billions of pounds. In the northeast Atlantic, young lobster live in the kelp, and are eventually fished by a lobster industry worth £30 million alone. Is it worth keeping? Certainly. Is it worth monitoring incase of declines? Definitely.

 Inspired? Check out the Big Seaweed Search, Capturing Our Coast, and Floating Forests for some citizen science kelp-focussed initiatives. You can also read about the project on ZSL Wild Science.


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.


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’


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!

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.


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!