By day, Dr Jessica Wade is a post-doctoral researcher working with Professor Matthew Fuchter on chiral organic light-emitting diodes. By night, as @jesswade, she works tirelessly to engage with the public, champion women in STEM and tackle the gender bias on Wikipedia. The Biochemist spoke to Jess about her work in gender equality.

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For those readers who might not know who you are, can you introduce yourself?

Hi! I’m a physicist, I am a post-doc (post-doctoral researcher) at Imperial College London and I work on new materials for light-emitting diodes. The part of my work that might be of interest to your readers is that these are organic (carbon-based) light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). In particular, we create OLEDs that emit circularly polarized light. There are several applications, but the most relevant to you is that circularly polarized light can differentiate left- and right-handed biomarkers in biological sensors.

Biology, chemistry and physics are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and my work has certainly given me a better appreciation for how interesting biochemistry is. I work with chiral molecules and nanostructures, which are totally fascinating. Of course, biochemists have been aware of that for a very long time. I am super appreciative of interacting with experts in different disciplines who can explain complex concepts in an easy to understand way.

Outside of research, on evenings and at weekends, I advocate for marginalized groups in science – those who have been historically underrepresented, primarily through Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a phenomenal platform for sharing knowledge which is used by millions of people around the world. I want the information on the encyclopaedia to be as up-to-date, exciting and representative as it can be.

As we ask all our interviewees, what drew you to the molecular sciences?

I was really lucky. I grew up in a family full of doctors and was always interested in science. I also had great teachers at high school; I was very lucky to have great physics and chemistry teachers and in deciding to study physics at undergraduate, and I guess now I am super happy that I now have a job which combines both.

You’re very passionate about gender equality in STEM subjects. What is your take on why women are underrepresented in these topics?

There may be different factors involved for physics and biochemistry. In physics, engineering and computing, underrepresentation of women starts at high school/A-level. Girls make up only one in five physics A-level students and one in 10 computer sciences A-level students, so the underrepresentation is from age 15 onwards. Low numbers at A-level impact the number of undergraduates, which impacts the numbers at post-graduate level and beyond. I think a lot of women students, and students in general, are not aware of what these subjects can enable you to do, what a career in physics can look like. There is a shortage of skilled, specialist teachers of these subjects, which means that every physics lesson isn’t as inspiring as it should be. Alongside that, we live in a society of stereotypes that is holding girls back. All this impacts the subject choices young women make.

For senior positions, I think it’s the same in physics as in biochemistry – we don’t have particularly supportive institutions and academia is quite out of date. We also don’t do a good job in representing and celebrating scientists from minority groups. When you look, most of the people doing the work to encourage equality, diversity and representation are from underrepresented groups themselves, but that work is not recognized when considering a promotion or tenure.

There is a lot of unconscious, but also quite conscious, bias built into academia – whether that is the peer review process, research grant funding, award nominations or prestigious prizes. All of this has an impact on the recognition people get for their work, and of course their likelihood to be promoted to professor. It’s the culture of academia itself – which I guess is what you’re looking at in this issue of The Biochemist. Unfortunately, academia doesn’t do a good job of protecting people from underrepresented groups.

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I think improvements are happening, but it’s slow to see changes and it needs to be more comprehensive. We see endless reports on gaps – pay gaps, career gaps, between men and women, between white men and men of colour. Money needs to be put into evidence-based initiatives to tackle these gaps, we already know that there is an issue – we don’t need any more studies to prove it.

My big message is that we need to think about it, we need to spend money on activities rooted in evidence – in education, particularly high school, or more broadly the science engagement culture. At the moment, hundreds of thousands of pounds are being spent with very little tangible change – people are shouting about “girls in STEM”, but not looking at the approaches that actually work; they’d rather make flashy YouTube videos. We really need to get better at how we do engagement. Wikipedia is beautiful. It offers the potential to connect with billions of people at all hours of the day or night. It’s also completely free to edit.

Some of our readers are post-16 students, is there anything you would specifically like to say to them to encourage them to take up STEM?

Yeah, I would say, the biggest and most exciting challenges our world faces aregoing to require STEM – from helping to tackle misinformation, designing new vaccinations to eliminate the next pandemic, designing economic solutions for a global recession, fighting antibiotic resistance or climate change, we’re going to need more people with STEM and technical skills than ever before. It is tricky deciding the subject/subjects that will define you for the rest of your life, but it is always a good idea to have a STEM background – you can contribute with research, better inform national policy and support our politicians making decisions, or even go into science journalism. Communicating research is more important than ever before, and we need people who can understand the concepts as well as write in an engaging and entertaining way.

Whatever role you choose to have in the future, a science or engineering degree will stand you win good stead to deliver what the world really needs.

You also encourage the creation of Wikipedia articles about notable female academics, in order to promote female role models in STEM, what has been your biggest hurdle with this project? And your best result?

I think the big hurdle is that whenever you are trying to write about people who have been traditionally overlooked, it is hard to find enough references to prove your case. When writing an article for Wikipedia, as anyone who has written a literature review knows, you need to include citations to prove your points, from reputable and neutral sources. Women and scientists from ethnic minorities are underrepresented in all the sources (e.g. they are less likely to be asked for comment in the media); so, even if they are leading amazing major projects, they are always less likely to be spoken about than their male/white counterparts. So, it’s not just about writing the profiles, it’s about finding enough “good” citations. If journalists looking for sources turn to Wikipedia, and they see that 96% of the scientists on Wiki are men, they are likely to ask a male for comment – it’s like a cycle of privilege.

Last week I was at the Wikimedia annual meeting in San Francisco, which was honestly completely inspirational. Every member of their staff is really committed to tackling their knowledge gap. There are lots of articles on Wikipedia, but there are particular topics missing. The site is read by millions of people a day, but only contributed to by a handful of people (80%–90% of whom are men in northern America). They need better representation from the Global South, particularly Africa and India. Wikipedia certaintly wants to become a more inclusive platform that is welcoming and respective of women and people of colour. All the Wikimedia employees are completely on board – we just need more editors to get the job done.

Your work in physics looks at the very, very small, yet you’ve chosen to tackle a very large project – crowdfunding with Maryam Zaringhalam to raise $10,000 in order to share Angela Saini’s Inferior with every New York City public junior and high school library. How is that going?

We did it first for UK libraries, raising £23,000 to get a copy of Inferior into all state school libraries, my friend Laurie Winkless has done the same in New Zealand, there’s a guy called Craig running a project in Australia, and me and Maryam are trying to crowdfund for New York City. I think everyone should have the opportunity to read that book and have your life changed the way I did.

Wikipedia is part of a bigger journey and programme, that is to better celebrate the people who should be celebrated, both online and offline – and part of that is getting everyone to read Angela’s fantastic books in order to better understand how bias impacts science and society, and then using those books to better fight inequality wherever they see it.

As well as women scientists, you also campaign for the recognition of BAME researchers. How does that differ?

There are far fewer black and minority ethnicity (BAME) professors in the UK than there are white professors due to the inbuilt racism within academia. Women of colour are particularly badly represented when you look at the demographics of our institutions. The outcome of the Institute of Physics Improving Gender Balance report – removing even casual racism and sexism from school language, re-thinking careers advice, discussing stereotypes and their impact – will benefit everyone, not just girls in physics classrooms.

The ethnic pay gap is far bigger than the gender pay gap; we need to be more shameless in the way we talk about and combat these things.

We need universities to better understand why they are failing black and minority ethnic students: we know that students of colour don't fair as well in university exams, despite all students starting at university with the same academic attianment. UK universities are not training students of colour as successfuly as they are training white students. We particularly need to support black and ethnic minority students in science – the scientific community desperately needs diverse voices and ideas. Not having those voices is impacting the science that we do and the way we understand the world. So, we need commitments from school and university leaders, as well as the support of the government, to tackle this inequity.

How do you balance your public engagement work with your research?

I feel they are two parts of the same thing. Talking to non-technical scientists has taught me a lot about how I communicate my science – both to expert and non-expert audiences. Interacting with people outside my discipline has made me think more broadly about the potential applications of my work. Advocating for diversity and more considered public engagement with science has improved the way I do my research.

Work–life balance is important; we all need something to be passionate about to keep us thinking creatively about our research. I am doing two things I absolutely love and wouldn’t do anything different.

Thank you for your time, is there anything else you would like to tell our readers about?

If people want to come to a wiki “edit-a-thon”, they can find me on twitter – that’s where I share the upcoming details. Otherwise, I think that everyone reading can probably think about a phenomenal scientist who does not get as much recognition as they deserve – perhaps they could think about putting together an award nomination? It doesn’t take that long, is much easier than a wiki profile and would help those in our institutions who are not getting the recognition that they should do!

Further reading