On Saturday 50 year 12s took over the prestigious Institute of Physics building at 80 Portland Place. These weren’t just your ‘average’ UK A-level physicist, these were seventeen year old girls, who had applied for spaces independently of their teachers, and were mainly the only female student in their class. Even without the packed schedule (academic breakout sessions, furious hour of coding and frantic lunch spent speed networking), the IOP is on a pretty inspirational road: a Nash terrace populated by the Chinese Embassy, BBC and Royal Institute of British Architects. If the girls weren’t convinced by physics before, this would totally do it for me.
The students were split into groups and spent the first hour in maths, extended questions, electricity and practical skills workshops, before reconvening in the aptly named Rosalind Franklin lecture for a discussion on pathways beyond physics A-Level. Champion of the Girls in Physics programme at the IOP, Jessica Rowson wears the hats of a civil and structural engineer and a teacher. The girls spent 60 minutes speed networking with 18 professional women, whose similarities stop at their A-Level physics qualifications: there’s an astrophysicist, a film editors/theme park ride designer, engineers, bankers, a biophysicist, an architects, senior lecturers, a medical physicist, teachers, systems engineers. There are women who have used their physics A-Level to cross the world to do what they love, and women who are only just starting their journeys. You can read their bios here.
Before today, the majority of these students had never met. Loaded on the infamous IOP cake offerings, the girls raced up the marble staircase of Portland Place to the IOP branded Photo Booth. Whilst queueing they chatted about their classroom insecurities, hopes and aspirations. The girls spent an hour coding their own java programs with CISCO. I took an army of undergraduates from Imperial College– fresh-faced Kathryn, Trisha and Yuyin, my third year superstar Meriame and three final year students, Nikita, Aalisha and Uttara. We worked in teams to work out what it was that we found tricky and awesome about studying physics, how we could overcome unconscious biasses and really shine. One. We exchanged our favourite physics websites, current research and compared revision techniques- even though mine are a bit rusty! I was amazed by the group of young women around me; they’ve learn physics in 20-30 person classrooms with only 1-4 girls, they’ve always had an uninspired teacher and every other teacher in the school trying to win their A-level choices, but these girls are fighting: they’re going to do physics A2 whatever anyone says.
Out of our 50 year 12 students, we had the chemical, civil, aeronautical, biochemical, nuclear, mechanical (a staggering 6/50!) and design engineers (3/50- and it’s only available at Imperial College of the future. We had budding astrophysicists, physicists, chemists and vets- even the rogue English literature students. These were wise ladies indeed.
I cannot express in words how much I enjoyed the day. Me and my Imperial cohort realised how lucky we were to be studying physics at one of the best universities in the world. The speed-networking professional women, who described so eloquently how useful their A-Level had been for opening doors throughout their lives they left the students buzzing with enthusiasm for hours, were reminded of what incredible women they were. These scientists were no different than the majority of physics A-Level classrooms across the country: curious, committed and passionate. Without any unconscious bias telling these young women what they could and couldn’t do; they realised how much they were capable of. The IOP should be proud.
If a picture can paint a thousand words, how many can a 4 minute HD video illustrate?