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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Jessica Turner of Particle Physics Phenomenology of Durham University On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Learn to say no. As a woman in a male-dominated field, you may get asked to be on committees, organise social events and act as a listening ear more often than your male colleagues. Striking a balance between being a good team member and learning to say no to specific tasks is essential, especially if the allocations of tasks are disproportionate.

As a part of our series “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jessica Turner.

Jessica Turner is an assistant professor of theoretical physics at the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology, Durham University in the United Kingdom. She is globally recognised as an expert in neutrino and early Universe physics. In addition to her scientific research, and university teaching, she is an enthusiastic educator and co-author of the popular introductory textbook “Quantum Computing for the Quantum Curious”.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always loved how we can use maths to understand the physical world at its smallest and largest scales. So, following my passion, I studied Mathematics and Physics at the University of Glasgow. I secured a summer studentship at CERN (2012) during my undergraduate studies. It was a great time to be at CERN as the discovery of the Higgs Boson was announced, and the atmosphere was thrilling. This solidified my ambitions, and after my master’s at Glasgow, I decided I would like to pursue a PhD in particle physics.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began of your career?

During my time as a postdoctoral researcher at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (USA), I co-supervised two high school teachers during the summer of 2018. We constructed and designed an introductory course for high school students on the subject of quantum computing. We turned the introductory module into a textbook, Quantum Computing for the Quantum Curious”, which has been very well received. Many people, students and science enthusiasts alike, use it as an introduction to this fascinating technology. Communicating with high school students, publishers, lawyers, and teaching professionals was rewarding, eye-opening and very interesting for me.

Can you share a story about your funniest mistake when you first started? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

During the second year of my PhD, I had an original idea for a research paper. I told a colleague about this idea, who expressed their approval but informed me that they were doing something similar and that I had six weeks to calculate and write up my results. So I worked furiously for those six weeks, completing my single-author paper. It was a real challenge! A year later, seeing the same colleague, they informed me they were not serious about the six-week deadline but were impressed that I managed to meet it. In the end, I can chuckle about it now; it taught me a great deal.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am interested in two main research topics: the first is neutrinos, the fundamental particles we know the least about. There is much work to discover their properties and interplay with the Universe. My second research area is understanding how there came to be more matter than antimatter in our Universe. This is one of the most challenging open problems in fundamental physics, and in fact, our very existence hinges on the fact that there is this imbalance between matter and its counterpart. More concretely, beyond my research, teaching, supervising and guiding students from undergraduates to graduate level bring goodness to the world as they are part of the generation that will tackle some of humanity’s most immense challenges.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

Changes need to occur institutionally and on the individual level. For example, at an institutional level, we have an EDI seminar in our department that gives people a platform to share their experiences and thoughts, which we hope will help make a welcoming work environment. Listening, and being open-minded, while open to the possibility that we can be wrong should be normalised. Events such as EDI seminars are a helpful step towards creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment. On a personal level, checking our own subconscious biases, and questioning our opinions and judgements towards others, would be a step in the right direction. I regularly do this myself.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Firstly, I find that many women in STEM tend to have partners in STEM whose work is just as demanding as their own. In contrast, more men in STEM have partners who can do more at home. In addition to having added demands at home, women are often asked to be on more committees, social organisation events and outreach projects than their male peers. Depending on their situation, allowance for peoples’ home lives (both men and women) and the added workload of committee meetings and organising social events should be accounted for in promotion and workload modelling.

Second, there are sometimes doubts that women can perform technical tasks. Such doubts may be openly expressed or maybe held as a “hunch”. Pursuing this hunch means that some women can come under undue, and indeed greater, scrutiny than their male peers. Again discussion of subconscious bias, checking and questioning ourselves, would be helpful.

What are the “myths” you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

Perhaps the word “myth” is not entirely accurate, but certain misconceptions about women in STEM and Tech must be dispelled. The first is that women are less technically skilled than men. For example, a professor from another institute asked if I worked with a particular male colleague as they did “all the calculations”. This was discouraging, revealing and certainly not true. At some point, the need to prove oneself from a technical standpoint can be weighty, and there is a danger of overworking yourself. The second misconception is that women can be gossips at work. Maybe it is because I primarily work with men, but I find some male colleagues to be more gossipy than I am!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why?

  1. I have been fortunate to have worked and been mentored by excellent women. I have learned so much from them, both professionally and personally. I would suggest seeking a mentor who can share their experiences with you and act as a sounding board for your ideas.
  2. Sometimes I was discouraged from pursuing specific goals as some doubted I could achieve them. I pursued them nonetheless, and many of these endeavours worked out. So acquiring a balance between listening to advice and having self-confidence is valuable.
  3. Attending workshops and conferences has been key to striking up new and innovative collaborations. I am privileged to work with academics from the USA, Europe and Asia, and this collision of ideas and perspectives makes for fruitful projects. But finding these excellent collaborators is the key, and there is no better way than attending events.
  4. Learn to say no. As a woman in a male-dominated field, you may get asked to be on committees, organise social events and act as a listening ear more often than your male colleagues. Striking a balance between being a good team member and learning to say no to specific tasks is essential, especially if the allocations of tasks are disproportionate.
  5. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Being able to work and lead a team involves identifying those strengths and weaknesses and making the most of them.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Good leadership can take many forms, and I believe it depends more on the individuals’ personalities than their gender. In my experience, giving each team member time to speak and listening to their concerns is crucial. Accepting when you’ve made a mistake, accepting that others make mistakes and finding solutions to move forward is also crucial. A climate of fear does not inspire creative, synergistic work. On a more practical level, I try to behave as I would like my team to, be respectful and helpful, respond to messages on time, and carry out tasks when I say I will.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

The most formative people would be my father and my PhD supervisor. My father instilled in me the value of hard work and determination and always encouraged me to pursue various opportunities. How he lived his life was a great example to me on this. My PhD supervisor also has been instrumental in helping me grow scientifically by presenting me with exciting projects, scientific discussions, and networking opportunities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Then, can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Taking the risk of sounding mundane, a phrase I live by daily is “Fail to plan, plan to fail”. I have found the career of an assistant professor rewarding and challenging as there are several aspects — research, teaching, and citizenship — that one needs to balance carefully. I can perform more optimally if I am well organised and have medium to long-term goals in all three aspects.

Is there a person in the world or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber for years, and I particularly enjoy reading fiction pieces. I listen to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast, where a writer chooses a New Yorker story to read and discuss with the Fiction Editor, Deborah Treisman. I find Deborah’s analysis insightful, and I’m passionate about literature, so I’d love to have lunch with her.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.