E&D Anyone?

Eh! what’s that?

Exactly! That sort of response probably sums up the scientific community’s collective attitude towards Equality and Diversity. After all is not E&D HR speak, or something that our colleagues in Sociology and Business Schools worry about? How does it concern us?

I wonder if that is how it ought to be.

Who is (arguably) the most  famous living scientist of our times? An icon who is known in every part of the world? Image of Stephen Hawking in wheelchair

Probably Stephen Hawking.

This chap held the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge from 1979 till 2009 and is Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. You may have read his book ‘A Brief History of Time’ which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.

This chap also sits in a wheelchair and is completely paralyzed. In our language he is disabled.

So his wheelchair bound status hasn’t stopped him being one of the greatest theoretical physicists of our generation, or writing best selling science books, getting loads of honours and degrees, or indeed, doing brilliant science. As scientists we would be poorer without him.

Now look around yourself.

  • How many disabled colleagues do you have in your department/centre/laboratory/university?
  • How many Deans, Heads of Departments, Directors of Research Centers, Vice Chancellors of universities do you see that are black (or Asian/Hispanic/ethnic minority)?
  • When you attend a key international conference, how many keynote speakers are female? Especially in STEM subjects.
  • How many of your colleagues are openly gay?

Simple statistical analysis will tell us that in a given population, some x% would be disabled, y% female, z% gay, p% ethnic minority, q% religious minority, etc. with these percentages differing slightly based on sample. So for STEM disciplines as a whole, why don’t we find these percentages reflected in the number of female/ethnic minority/disabled/gay/religious minority etc. colleagues, especially in the upper levels of the academic , scientific career ladder [1]?

Moreover, why should we care?

Research indicates that gender balanced teams are more productive and profitable than all male/female teams [2,3]. I am inclined to believe that overall teams with more ‘diversity’ perform better. Getting into a room the best people, with differing characteristics (gender/disability/race/sexual orientation etc.) can bring in more ideas and unique ways of thinking. Increasingly the business world has realised  customers want to see some of their own identity and values reflected in the people they do business with. Consider, for example:

A university, ABZ, that comes across as unfriendly to a certain characteristic (let’s say race). Would the best students who are of this characteristic, go to ABZ? They would probably move to another university with a better reputation on E&D and take their tuition fee, good grades, research potential etc. with them. As would potential employees of that characteristic or those who just care about E&D.

Do we want to do better research, play with more exciting ideas, solve some really challenging problems, more success?

By ignoring, sidelining or mistreating people based on equality characteristics rather than fairly assessing on performance, we risk losing out some brilliant scientists, visionary thinkers and possible great leaders.

So, why is there such a lack of E&D in the scientific world?

When unconscious bias [4,5 ] (probably the larger factor) and active discrimination (hopefully less and less) become systemic and enter the machinery at every stage we end up where we are: people becoming seriously disadvantaged because they seem to belong to a particular race/gender/caste/religion/sexual orientation/have a disability.

A concrete example of systemic bias studied rigorously is that of gender discrimination:

The number of women in STEM subjects in academia is lower than men especially as Cartoon on gender stereotypingwe go up the  ladder and there is some evidence to show that women are disadvantaged because of their gender in the peer review process of publications, awards and honours, as well as in the letters of recommendation written for them [6-12]. At this time there is a lot of discussion on around increasing the number of women in boards of companies through quotas. The scientific community has produced many reports about women in STEM, but the situation is not improving the way one might hope for.

How do we incorporate E&D?

That is a tough one! To me one key is that we should not approach equality and diversity in a piecemeal way. Some equalit/ies should not be more equal than other equalit/ies! The other key is that we have to really want this, believe in it and then work for it. Simply ticking boxes to prevent falling foul of the law is not sufficient.

It is also contextual: geographical, cultural, economic and discipline related factors must be accounted for in solving this problem. My (ahem) approach would be to devise a system such as this:

  • get the data: for each organisation (be it a country/professional society/university/company) collect the numbers on the factual position, quantify and understand (qualitatively as well!) the problem
  • set targets: where does the organization want to be in x years from now in achieving E&D
  • consider organization specific means to achieve these targets
  • monitor: learn from failure and emulate success, share best practices. A collective effort would probably yield more than the sum of its individual parts.

What some specific means could be to implement each of the above has been discussed in some of the excellent studies I have referred to. I have some ideas too, but that is for another day and another blog post!


  1. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/wmpd/pdf/nsf11309.pdf
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/nov/01/gender.world
  3. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1468-0432.00129/abstract
  4. unconscious bias: people can consciously believe in equality while simultaneously acting on subconscious prejudices they are not aware of; take the Implict Association Test
  5. http://www.ndsu.edu/fileadmin/forward/documents/Unconscious_Bias_2009.pdf
  6. http://www.advance.arizona.edu/resources.cfm#academia
  7. http://sss.sagepub.com/content/42/2/307
  8. http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/files/2010/10/science-and-gender-in-academia1.pdf
  9. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0169534707002704
  10. http://arxiv.org/vc/math/papers/0701/0701537v2.pdf
  11. Zuckerman, Harriet. “The careers of men and women scientists.” Women, science, and technology: A reader in feminist science studies (2001): 67.
  12. Trix F, Penska C (2003) Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society 14: 191–220

The Solar Cell Diary – part 1

As I have stated at the bottom of the  ‘my research‘ page, I am keenly interested in solar cell research. I thought I’d do an experiment here on my blog: I’ll report from the very cartoon on solar energy beginning about a piece of research my team are starting on solar cells and provide update on the progress: the difficulties, the issues, successes etc. I hope that those of you who read the posts, will give their views and may be even suggestions.

So, on with it!

The work: Designing a Si solar cell with a microstructure on the surface with the express intention of reducing the reflection of solar light incident.

My team and our task: is to model the reflectance and absorption of light of this solar cell. We will be looking at which microstructure gives optimal performance and searching for those design parameters. We will use the FDTD as a simulation tool to model the evolution of the light as it is made incident on the cell (and then its reflection/absorption).

The key: this work is an amalgam of experimental and theoretical approaches. My collaborators have the facilities to fabricate and experimentally characterize the solar cell. They will make the cell and introduce the microstructure, then measure the Reflectance (R),Transmittance (T) of the cell. My job will be to supply them the cell and microstructure parameters that are the most suitable.

The first challenge: The experimental characterization (measuring R and T) set up uses an ‘integrating sphere’ layout. However, the software we are using, Lumerical, does not have a measuring monitor in that configuration. So we first need to figure out how we will perform simulations that will be equivalent to the experiment my colleagues will perform. If the two are not equivalent, we cannot look for a correspondence between the results.

Together we hope to come up with designs that have higher efficiency, lower costs and are feasible to fabricate.

So, look out for future updates, do write in with your ideas/suggestions/experiences.

Nice conferencing with you!

I looked rather wistfully at the conference calendar – all the conferences on in the next few weeks which I want to attend.

Alas, teaching commitments and insufficient funds mean I can attend a very few.

But, why this allure (of conferences)?

Apart from the technical knowledge to be gained, the networking and connections to be made, and the latest advances to learn about, there is more.

I like travelling and seeing new places, meeting local people and eating local cuisine. Usually conferences are in towns/cities where there is some sightseeing to be had: at Specialty Optical Fibers in Colorado Springs, USA, I went to see the Manitou cliff Indian dwellings and the Garden of the Gods. The natural beauty of the place was breathtaking and exhilarating.

While at my hotel, I had conversations with other guests, including an amazing couple from Texas who were touring the United States on motorbike. We chatted about Colorado and the conversation ended with my friend saying, “nice visiting with you”. Ah, the southern pleasantry delivered in a genuine Texan accent by a warm, friendly person was the highlight of that morning. It brought alive an entire culture for me.

Of course, at the conference, I had the occasion to meet people from all over the world. I had drinks with a very mixed bunch of students: Chinese, Indian and Mexican. I met an esteemed colleague from Japan and one from Scotland presently working in Malaysia. It’s like a melting pot in the best possible way.

And I cannot not talk about the shopping! One thing I enjoy enormously when  travelling abroad is browsing in shops and buying little gifts to take home to my friends and family (and big gifts for myself!). Invariably, I strike up conversations with other shoppers, leading to much fun. In Colorado, a fellow shopper and I spent 30 pleasurable minutes finding the ‘perfect’ notebook for me while we discussed our stationary fetish.

Scientists can be a serious lot, concentrated and hardworking. At conferences that we’ve spent a lot of money to attend, obviously we want to maximise the benefit. However, the image of geeks who dont have any fun is not the stereotype to adhere to! for me, personally, the correlation between technical benefits and fun is extremely large.

So, maybe I’ll run into you at a conference, and we can swap conference stories.