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Interview with Jess Wade

📷 Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Journalist: Allison Yan

Allison: Hi everyone! Welcome to SciSection! I’m Allison and for this week’s Scientist of the Week, I have with me, Dr. Jess Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London as well as a vocal advocate for increased diversity in science. So thank you for joining me Jess!

Jess: Thank you so much for having me! It’s so exciting!

Allison: Ya, so just to start, you work with developing OLEDs at Imperial, which to me as a non physicist, when I hear LED, I just kind of think of light. But can you tell me more about these organic light emitting diodes and what it is you do with them?

Jess: For sure! So you’re exactly right, as a non physicist, to think of it as light. That's what we work on. So, we’re looking at new materials to make more efficient, ultimately flexible, and low cost light emitting diodes. So these could be the pixels that form your mobile phone or your television display or even your laptop display actually. And some of you might have noticed that the new model of iPhone and brand new, smart, shiny smartphones have really really incredible resolution and fantastic colors, and that’s because we are using organic materials for the light emission. And the organic parts just mean that they’re based on carbon based semiconductors. So semiconductors that mainly are formed from carbon rather than the inorganic semiconductors that we’ve used before. And the kind of beauty of it, the incredible part… and i'll stop talking about it soon because I know that’s not the focus of the interview… the incredible part is that we can tune the optical and the electronic properties of these semiconductors by changing their chemistry. So you have this incredibly versatile collection of molecules and materials that you can create just by kind of tweaking a few different chemical bonds or putting in a few different elements. And then you can create OLEDs, these beautiful pixels that emit completely different colors of light, completely different brightnesses of light, or work in different kinds of environments. So it’s a super cool area of research and one that, maybe one day you’ll get into even as a non physicist

Allison: Ya actually, from what you’re describing it as, it kinda seems like it’s almost related to chemistry and biology. During your research, do you find what you do becoming interdisciplinary?

Jess: Oh completely! I think probably the last time I thought of myself as a fully fledged solo physicist was during my undergraduate. And then I started kind of more and more chemistry and materials during my Master’s project, and then my PhD was a lot of chemistry and spectroscopy so you still feel a bit loyal to your physics roots. But now I primarily work with chemists. Actually I mainly work, I think I’m paid for by a chemistry department! So ya, I've got a lot of chemistry in my blood. And then I’m moving in October, I start a new fellowship in materials, so then I’m fully gonna have switched and left the physics. So ya, I do work in a completely interdisciplinary environment. And I think it’s just given me so much continued enthusiasm for science. You know I learn everyday. All of those fears you have as an early career researcher, well certainly that I have, that you’re not good enough to be there, that your questions are stupid. When you work in an interdisciplinary team, of course your questions are stupid! Because you’ve had no training in chemistry. So I have to ask and like yesterday I was reviewing a paper with my colleague and I had to be like just sit down and talk me through NMR spectroscopy. Tell me what this means, show me what each of these peaks mean. And everything I said was completely made no sense, but he was really, really helpful. So ithink interdisciplinary science has kept me super excited about science but also completely not afraid to ask questions that I think might sound silly.

Allison: Oh ya that’s great! And then also, like I was mentioning, when I hear LED, I just think of light or light bulbs. And LED light bulbs are traditionally developed to be more sustainable. Does the work you do have a similar environmental benefit?

Jess: Ya, completely. So not only are the materials we’re trying to use more sustainable. You know we’re trying to create materials that could ultimately be recycled but are made from much more low cost, less environmentally damaging starting products. A big problem that we have with lots of electronics is we rely on a huge amount of kind of rarer metals and different kinds of complexes that are really tricky to get and often obtained in really dangerous and war conflicted parts of the world. So what we’re always trying to do is be innovative in the ways we design those materials, not just for the kind of active layer. So, for the light emitting materials, that’s the part that emits light over a solar panel, it’s the part that absorbs. But we’re also trying to be innovative on all of the electrodes and the other layers that go into creating the tech that we rely on. So there's a big, big focus on sustainability. Actually, what my particular research does within OLED worlds is to try and make the pixels that we have more efficient. So to try and make them emit twisted light. And there’s a whole long explanation about why this is the case. But if we got them to do that, if we fully got the light that came out of OLED pixels to be twisted, then it would bypass some of the filters in our screens, which are currently blocking out some of the light intensity, which would give you a much much better return on your battery life and you’d consume less power in your television. So there’s a big focus on sustainability in material design but also in these kinds of tech innovations that I think I work on .

Allison: Wow that’s awesome!

Jess: Ya! I love it!

Allison: And then to start transitioning over a bit, I read that you attended Chelsea College of Arts for a little bit before your physics degree. And I was just kinda curious, did the time and the things you learned over there carry over to your education or your work in STEM?

Jess: Ya I think so. Everyone, you, everyone who’s listening knows as a scientist how important being creative is. When you’re designing an experiment or when you’re trying to put together data for a presentation, the story you tell is gonna ultimately convince people or not convince people whether your theory is correct. Obviously not being creative with your manipulation of data! But being creative in the way that you tell a narrative, I think that’s really crucial. Recently, actually during lockdown, I’ve completely upped my skills in Adobe Illustrator to make all the figures for our papers, so I think certainly I felt a lot more of my arts training there. But it gives you a complete appreciation a) for that kind of interdisciplinary aspect of science that we spoke about before. You know, I went to Chelsea, and then for a while before I studied physics at Imperial, I lived in Florence with an Italian landlady. And I spoke no Italian, and she spoke no English. And you know I later found out that she was this incredibly eminent professor of history of art and I was just *gibberish* in trying to make sense of her in the corridor! But when I lived there, you really, really learned that the Renaissance artists, the kind of masters that we so look up to as a society were incredibly multi skilled. They were scientists, they were artists, they were metal workers, they were woodworkers, they could build cathedrals, they knew about transition temperatures in metals. And things that now, I just think we don’t really value as a society. We make people specialize really soon and decide whether they’re artistic or scientific. So I think that that’s one big aspect it’s given me. But also that kind of freedom to know there’s not just one typical path that scientists follow. Like you can go to art school and go do physics and that’s ok. You can take time out if you wanna go work in industry, you can go and follow that one thing and come back. I think our professors and our supervisors were taught that this very linear ‘go to undergrad, Master’s, PhD, assistant professor, associate professor eventually become tenured, get professor,’ and I just don’t think that’s true anymore. And certainly going to art school made me think differently about that.

Allison: Ya! I think especially today, especially kids who are my age, just going to college, we don't really know what we wanna do, so it’s nice having that opportunity to kind of explore different things and figure out what it is we wanna do for the rest of our lives.

Jess: For sure! And actually in the UK it’s free. So if you’re under 18, and you apply to art school it’s free to go for a year. So I was like, why wouldn’t I?

Allison: Wow that sounds great! Oh ya, and then beyond your work in physics you’re active in a very unique form of advocacy, which is diversifying Wikipedia. And I believe you’ve written over a 1000 of these Wikipedia articles now which is so crazy! And I read that you began after reading the book Inferior by science journalist, Angela Saini. I was just kind of wondering, what after reading that book really inspired you to turn to Wikipedia as the platform you’d be using to create change?

Jess: Ya I think it’s fascinating. I mean Angela’s book Inferior is one of - probably the most - powerful book I’ve ever read. It’s called, the kind of full title is Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It. And it looks at all of the science and societal impact on women’s representation and success. And just how biased people and biased scientists have impacted the way that women have progressed and become leaders in all different kinds of disciplines. Actually the title Inferior is from Charles Darwin, who said that women were intellectually inferior to men, but morally superior. But intellectually inferior. And that was only just over 100 years ago right? So we had these thoughts and sentiments then. But they've kind of been propagated and accelerated I think in recent years. We’ve had this kind of big gender divide between men and women where people still say, despite the advances, despite being given the opportunity to vote and own property and graduate, women are still held back in so many different ways. We don’t see equal representation in government, we don’t see equal representation in senior leaders of any company or in scientific departments. So I kind of read this book knowing that and learned so much about bias and how it impacts science and society. And I was kind of fascinated by all of these women who I was reading about who really stood up to Darwin and other proporgaters or these lies and kind of wrote to him and said ‘This is absurd right? You can’t judge me on the same level as men when you can go off and get degrees and we have to stay home. There's absolutely no way that you can equally judge intellect like that.’ And I became interested in this idea that we've had all these champions throughout history that have been kind of standing up and doing the right thing, but we've completely erased their stories and we just haven’t told them. And when you look at the majority of western history certainly, it’s been written by kind of old white men, about old white men, for other old white men. And I then learned, a couple of months after reading Inferior, that Wikipedia is basically the same thing. So Wikipedia is this phenomenally important platform. It’s accessed probably, English speaking Wikipedia is accessed about 70 million times a day. It influences policy, it influences education, it influences who we see on our televisions. It influences Amazon Alexa and Siri: all of the questions that you ask to them, they go to Wikipedia for the answer. And yet it's incredibly biased: I think between 10 and 20% of contributors to Wikipedia are women although it’s difficult to get those numbers. But only 17 or 18% of the biographies on English speaking Wikipedia are about women. So I’ve been working since the beginning of 2018 formally, to try and better represent women and people of color on Wikipedia in kind of the biographies about their science

Allison: Oh that’s really wonderful, I love that! And then, so normally when I’m trying to find information about someone like you said, when you google something it kind of turns to Wikipedia, so where do you find your information that you’d put on the site?

Jess: So I spend a long time trying to find and identify people who are worthy of a Wikipedia page. It’s an encyclopedia - it’s a general interest encyclopedia so obviously not everyone should be on there, not every road should be on there, not every you know town and city should be on there. But certainly what I've found was, more often than not, I was coming across incredibly eminent women researchers, black researchers, other ethnic minority researchers who weren't on there, despite having qualifications and achievements that were comparable to their white counterparts who were on Wikipedia. I mean it’s barely a week goes by that I don’t get an email from someone who’s like ‘I was looking at this page of ‘professor white old man so and so’ and I realized that his women counterpart or women collaborator doesn’t have a page.’ She’s not even mentioned on the page about their science, so you quickly realize that there have been these sensational people who we just don’t talk about. They're not in our textbooks, they’re not on Wikipedia. So I just do - you know, you have been trained, I have been trained in how you do scientific research, in how you do kind of a literature review on a topic that you don’t know. And honestly I feel like every night I have that literature review experience. I start on university profiles or archived journals or something. Like you can get a huge amount of history from kind of local and community newspapers. Professional societies so things like the AAAS or something like that often have really fantastic profiles. Sometimes its’ peer reviewed scientific journals and they've done a really, really great introduction to what someone does. So I just do a huge amount of research. It probably takes me between an hour and two hours to write a really, really good page about someone, especially if they’re easy to find information about. If they’re really really difficult, particularly if they’re from the global south actually, it’s quite hard to find all of those links. And then it can take a little more time, but then the stories are just completely fantastic

Allison: Ohhh ok that’s so cool! So we’re running low on time, so just to finish us off I wanted to ask what's the best piece of advice that you have ever received and would like to pass on to our listeners, especially our student listeners?

Jess: The best piece of advice I’ve ever received? That’s such a good question. I think often I’m just like ugh I don’t need advice. So probably it’s from my mom. My mom is a psychiatrist I should warn everyone before. So whenever I got particularly low during my research or during my PhD and felt really really lonely which obviously everyone does when they’re at university or when they start their scientific career or probably during it. My mum always says find the thing that you do that makes you the most happy and do that. And when she says it I’m like ugh useless advice, completely silly. But then you realize that when you’re in the lab or when you’re analyzing data or when you’re training people in how to edit Wikipedia. That’s when you’re completely happy. It’s when you're completely blissed out. And it's when you’re responding to annoying horrible emails or trying to respond to comments on an article that you submitted- that’s when you're not happy and that's not what academia and science is. So I think, find that thing. It might be starting everyone morning by going out for a run or a swim to kinda clear your head but find that and keep doing that because when you're happiest you'll do the best science that you can do.

Allison: That’s wonderful I love that! That’s great advice by your mom!

Jess: Well I'll tell her. Actually I won’t tell her because everytime she says it to me I’m like please don't say that silly thing again!

Allison: Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me! This was so interesting, I wish we had more time!

Jess: Well thank you so much for having me on, and I wish you the best of luck with the rest of the series.

Allison: Thank you! And so that is it for this week on SciSection! Make sure to check out our podcast available global platforms for more of the latest interviews!


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