Blue-sky thinking that led to an astronomical ambition

November 2, 2007

Profile: Lisa Jardine-Wright astrophysicist, Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge.

Lisa Jardine-Wright is on a mission: to change the image of physics, writes Rebecca Attwood.

With the number of applications to study the subject at A level down 50 per cent in two decades and university departments closing, you could say she has her work cut out.

But being young, female, state-school and Cambridge University-educated, media-savvy and eminently approachable, the 31-year-old astrophysicist seems the ideal candidate for a role devoted to shattering stereotypes about the science.

Dr Jardine-Wright has given up her research to run one of the country's most extensive programmes of physics outreach at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, designed to inspire young people to study the "queen of sciences" at A-level and university.

Her interest in outreach began during her PhD in astrophysics at Trinity College, Cambridge.

"Astronomy is one of those things where if people say to you 'What do you do?' and you say 'I'm an astronomer', everybody wants to talk to you about it. I became aware that it had 'wow factor'."

She discovered that it was something she enjoyed talking about and realised that her subject was a way of getting young people re-engaged with physics. "Anyone doing astronomy is in a unique position in that they are able to capture young people's imagination."

Soon Dr Jardine-Wright found herself organising open days and giving public lectures. Then came roles as a consultant for the Royal Observatory and a British Association media fellowship with the Financial Times . "It sort of snowballed."

And as a postdoc developing computer simulations of the formation of galaxies, the questions she was asked by young people were a reminder of how her own research fitted into the wider picture.

"They don't just ask simple questions, but really, really big ones, like 'What happened before the Big Bang?' and 'What happens if you go into a black hole?'

"I found that inspiring for my research. As a researcher you can get very, very focused on what you are doing, and you can become quite isolated. I liked the perspective that doing outreach gave me."

Her own fascination with physics began at an early age.

"I was one of those really annoying children who would always ask 'Why?' One that I remember is 'Why is the sky blue, and why does it go red in the evening?' "Questions like that seem fundamental when you are a child but are not always the easiest to answer. My parents were very good in trying to explain things to me."

Her northeastern state school encouraged her to apply to Oxbridge but quibbled with her choice of college.

"I was told by my tutor at college that applying to Trinity wasn't necessarily the wisest decision, but I think that just shows the misconceptions there are," says Dr Jardine-Wright, who stayed on for eight years of study.

As the Cavendish Laboratory's educational outreach officer, Dr Jardine- Wright maintains links with some 400 schools in London and East Anglia.

Year-round she devises activities designed to enthuse young people about her subject, from workshops that use lasers to teach young people about waves and oscillations, to events on the science behind Harry Potter.

But the biggest event in her calendar takes place each autumn, when some 2,000 young people descend on Cambridge for an exhibition called Physics at Work.

With exhibitors ranging from Rolls-Royce to Epson, it demonstrates a degree in physics does necessarily not consign you to a life in the laboratory - indeed, the latest CBI figures suggest that the number of jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics sectors will expand by more than three quarters of a million by 2014.

"This year we've had comments from teachers saying that Physics at Work has totally changed the students' opinion of physics. It is great to get that sort of feedback."

Because of physics' mathematical core, Dr Jardine-Wright does not think it is for everybody. Her personal view is that part of the problem with take- up of the subject lies with schools opting not to stream.

But she wants students to understand the opportunities, including the fact that physicists don't know it all. "Sometimes in schools students are presented with experiments as 'This is the answer'. So it is quite nice when a student asks you a question at the end of a talk and you say 'Well, actually we don't know the answer to that'. If students get the impression physics is 'solved', they will think 'What could I possibly add to that?'"

She believes the picture is beginning to change nationally - an assertion backed by the latest Universities and Colleges Admissions Service figures showing an increase of 10 per cent in the number of students starting physics courses at university this year.

"I think the stigma is gradually diminishing," she says.

I GRADUATED FROM
Trinity College, Cambridge with an MSc in natural sciences and a PhD in theoretical astrophysics.

MY FIRST JOB
was as a chambermaid for a local hotel.

MY MAIN CHALLENGE
is to dispel the perceived physicist stereotype, especially in students at secondary school.

WHAT I HATE MOST
is society's general lack of consideration and respect for each other.

IN TEN YEARS
I would like to have my private pilot's licence.

MY FAVOURITE JOKE
A physicist returns home late one night, looking dishevelled and with lipstick on his collar. His wife asks: "Why are you so late?". He replies: "I went for a drink with some friends after work, we had a few beers, a group of women started talking to us and one thing led to another." The wife responds furiously: "Don't lie to me, you've been in the lab again, haven't you?!"

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