Interview with Emma Chapman

The winner of the Royal Society’s Athena Prize talks about tackling sexual harassment and learning that scientific heroes are people, too

September 6, 2018
Emma Chapman

Emma Chapman is a Royal Astronomical Society research fellow at Imperial College London. Her research focuses on the epoch of reionisation, when bubbles of ionised hydrogen formed around the first stars after the Big Bang, and attempts to detect this hydrogen using radio telescopes. She is a member of the 1752 Group, which campaigns to end sexual harassment in higher education. In July, she was awarded the Royal Society Athena Prize for her efforts to promote national policy changes in this area.

Where and when were you born?
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, on 4 April 1988.

How has this shaped you?
Most obviously in my education at an all girls’ grammar school. Aside from the debate about grammar schools, it meant that I grew up in an environment where it wasn’t odd for a girl to study physics and maths, [and] I was never told that I shouldn’t do something because of gender stereotypes.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I think the word is “dedicated”. I didn’t drink (well, I can count the times I got drunk on two hands) or miss lectures. I’m not ashamed that this might seem lame, I loved it.

Have you had a eureka moment in your career?
I’m still waiting. We have entered an era of such precision cosmology and science that [such moments] are rare. Incredible results, such as gravitational wave detection, come after decades of incremental progress, and even when you have one, you have to cross-check for years before you dare say “eureka”.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t shy away from confrontation or place people on pedestals. I’ve realised that debating someone’s viewpoint isn’t equal to disrespecting them. Tied up with that is the terror that senior scientific figures used to strike in me. They’re normal people, who go on holiday, watch rubbish TV and have character flaws.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best is flexible working. Having two very young children, the ability to work at home to some degree is essential. Academia, done well, is one of the most family-friendly careers, so it annoys me when it is unnecessarily ruined by outdated sexist policies and opinions (the worst thing about my job).

What’s your biggest regret?
I love the group I am in now, studying the first stars and the excitement of seeing the universe 13 billion years ago, but I’d give it all up if it meant that I hadn’t had to suffer the life-destroying sexual misconduct that I [experienced] during my PhD. That’s why I fight to prevent it happening again – I don’t want anyone to regret choosing to do something they love.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you implement?
I would implement a standardised set of professional expectations for staff in higher education. We expect our undergraduates to follow zero-tolerance policies on sexual harassment, yet the staff are under much weaker expectations. One-third of UK universities have no policy on staff-student relationships, and the rest have extremely weak policies. Students are wide open to exploitation, and so many careers are in tatters because of the niche nature of the academic environment. At the 1752 Group, we are drafting guidelines and lobbying Universities UK and the Office for Students to take the safeguarding of students seriously.

What brings you comfort?
The selfless acts I have seen from my colleagues in order to keep their students safe and on track. The dedication of people who use all their spare time to enact real change, like Jess Wade writing Wikipedia articles to highlight incredible women and encourage girls into STEM.

What saddens you?
The pointlessness of all the women leaving academia because they are exhausted from fighting for equal treatment, because they have been sidelined or harassed out of doing something they love. There’s no reason for it: it’s inertia, cowardice and fear of change from those benefiting from the inequality.

What do you do for fun?
Computer games, reading and tearing down the patriarchy.

If you were a prospective undergraduate now facing £9,000-plus fees, would you go again or head straight into work?
I would go to university. I adore learning – if I won the lottery I would go back. Saying that, I got through university only because of the maintenance grants, so whether I could have afforded to go now is a different matter.

What advice would you give to students considering your field?
Diversify your skills: you never know how your field is going to go. Code in transferable languages, talk to lots of people at conferences, read widely and understand the larger context of your research.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
If I had £1 for every time someone introduced me as an astrologer…

What would you like to be remembered for?
Being a great parent. I hope that my campaign work and science have lasting effects, but I don’t need to be personally remembered for them. I want my kids to think “that was a fun childhood I had”, then I will have got the balance in my life right.

What one thing would improve your working week?
A shorter commute. I come in to South Kensington [in London] from Kent. More seriously, an equal working environment in academia. I dream about all the extra science that could get done if women didn’t have to fight for the right and opportunity to do it in peace in the first place.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

James Milliken has been named chancellor of the University of Texas System and will take up the post later this month. He will oversee about 235,000 students and more than 20,000 faculty at 14 health and academic institutions, including eight universities. Professor Milliken, who succeeds William McRaven, previously spent four years as chancellor of City University of New York and a decade as president of the University of Nebraska. He said: “I’m eager to get started at the UT System and do everything I can to help ensure that our institutions are successful in their roles that have never been more important to the people of Texas and our nation.”

Andrew Stockley is the new dean of the City Law School at City, University of London. Professor Stockley was previously executive dean of law at the University of Auckland for seven years, having been a senior tutor and fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford. Sir Paul Curran, City’s president, said that Professor Stockley “brings considerable experience as an academic leader and a legal scholar from his roles in New Zealand and at Oxford, and will steer the school through an important period of strategic development and growth”.

Peter Barker has been appointed head of Plymouth College of Art’s School of Design and Communication. He returns to the UK after three years in Denmark, where he was head of industrial and communication design at Design School Kolding. He is a former design course leader at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

The University of the Highlands and Islands has named Martin Jones principal of Argyll College. He is currently senior lecturer in law at Glasgow Caledonian University. UHI has also appointed Sarah-Anne Muñoz, currently senior lecturer in rural health and well-being, a reader.

Adrienne Bloss has been named Shenandoah University’s first provost. Dr Bloss is currently vice-president for academic affairs at the private liberal arts college in Virginia.

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