Remembering women in STEM

As International Women’s Day was just last week it is a good time to reflect upon the  women of today in STEM, and the pioneers of the past.

The role of women in STEM cannot be overlooked as it has been fundamental to the growth of science (including social science), technology and society as a whole. The history of science tends to under-represent women, however, there is a range of examples of women in the ranks of physics, chemistry, biology, archaeology, anthropology, civil engineering and many other fields throughout history.

I have had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing many brilliant women scientists, mathematicians and engineers throughout my career. People who have inspired countless others through research, teaching and simply living.

This video showcases some famous women scientists and engineers, some you may have heard of, others perhaps not so much. It’s important that we tell the stories of women in STEM for whom without science would be at a great loss, not to mention our future.

Now is the time more than ever for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to lead us forward in creating the future we want, and for the betterment of all.

Some more famous historical women of science, medicine, mathematics and engineering worth remembering:

And some exciting contemporary portraits of amazing women in STEM mentioned above plus a few others available from illustrator Katie Chappell here.

Last but not least a video about a past project called Forgetting to Remember that reflected on the role of women in science and music composition. It culminated with an interactive, public performance at the Sage in Gateshead.

Achieving water security for all

Water security is a major challenge for countries throughout the world, especially urban and rural communities in developing countries. Water related disease kills more than 3.4 million people every year, making it the leading cause of death.

While water is a human right according to the United Nations, for everyone to have access to safe, potable drinking water and adequate sanitation requires significant advancement in water infrastructure, governance and education.

To provide the 2.1 billion people on the planet who lack readily available drinking water at home requires more than technological innovation, it demands collaborations that may appear ambitious in scope, but nevertheless are necessary for resolving deep rooted problems of water security.

The GCRF Water Security Hub led by Newcastle University makes possible the collaborations needed to address water security in the developing world in a holistic way. I had the pleasure of speaking with some of the key researchers in the Hub from Newcastle in engineering and the social sciences.

In Part 2 of this episode of the Science Perspective podcast they explain the importance of water security, and how the Hub is working with multiple stakeholders to achieve SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation.


You can also catch up on Part 1.


Maths to the rescue for predicting gas demand

While electricity tends to be seen as number one in terms of energy use, gas makes up 22% of the world’s energy needs and it’s growing. Many countries are transferring from coal to gas power stations resulting in reductions in CO2 emissions, methane leakage however is still a problem, which is far from climate friendly. 40% of the UK’s electricity actually comes from gas, and 83% of its homes are heated by gas. The trend is likely to continue globally with China’s future gas demand forecast to grow by 60% in future. This means better infrastructure and demand forecasts are needed

Gas clearly plays a major role in making the low-carbon transition a reality, especially since it’s not only natural gas we’re talking about here – it’s also methane (biogas), hydrogen and other cleaner alternatives. The gas network itself is also an immense infrastructure that could be used to store energy as well as distribute it. But to do this efficiently you need to make accurate forecasts, which can be challenging if you’re a network operator and you don’t know how much gas they will need to satisfy demand.

Continue reading Maths to the rescue for predicting gas demand

What’s this for? The age of human-computer interaction

 …through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket. Nikola Tesla (1912)

The possibilities of technology are seemingly endless. I would not be writing to you in cyberspace right now if this were not the case, and as Tesla rightly predicted you may be reading it from a device small enough to fit in your pocket. Yet despite the ubiquity of mobile wireless technologies there remain potential applications that have not yet been discovered or used yet.

We tend to take technologies for granted because they are intertwined with our regular lives, but how we interact with them is still far from straightforward.

Sometimes there are problems that are simply too unique, too individual that current off the shelf technologies cannot address them. How do you build devices to solve human problems if they’re not focused on the values and needs of people?

And how do you take available communications technologies and use them to solve real-world problems?

There’s still time to get human-computer interaction right. The ethos behind human computer interaction is not merely to get computing to work better for people, but to find ways for technology to improve and transform their lives, and create agency.

Work in human-computer interaction takes an alternative approach to what is generally assumed – instead of starting with the device, start with the user, understand their own needs and values, and work with them to co-design the technology to meet them. Continue reading What’s this for? The age of human-computer interaction

Four key solutions to sustainable development 2019 & beyond

Looking to the near future — 2019 — there are four topics, four ideas I wish to highlight that could revolutionise not only how we tackle climate change, but many other global challenges the world is facing for sustainable development.

  • Revolutionise the energy system
  • Make circular economy a reality
  • Clean water and sanitation infrastructure for all
  • Spread electric vehicles

Revolutionise energy

Energy? On this planet it all begins with the sun really.

It’s a simple yet powerful (no pun intended) scientific fact that energy underlies everything. If we didn’t have it we wouldn’t exist and without the concept our lives would be radically different from what they are today. But let’s keep it to things like electricity and heat for the moment.

We need to generate more of them and use what we have more wisely, but the energy dense yet carbon heavy materials we’ve relied on since prior to the industrial revolution are a no go for the future. Embarrassingly, they’re on the rise despite progress made in renewables and decarbonisation.

Beyond emissions there were already in place good reasons NOT to burn fossil fuels. Remember acid rain? How about air pollution? Which cities finally seem to be paying attention to again because people are dropping like flies because of air contamination. Did you know that communities downwind of coal fired power stations are more likely to have children with birth defects? How about the impacts coal has on landscapes, water and air, all resources we cannot live without?

Continue reading Four key solutions to sustainable development 2019 & beyond

The internet of things and the fourth industrial revolution

“The business and academic community has set out a vision for much greater ambition needed for Britain to be a world leader in the fourth industrial revolution”.

Jürgen Maier

Thanks to the digitisation of nearly everything there are now vast quantities of data gathered by devices connected to the internet. I often notice them during my daily commute.

Prior to cycling through Newcastle I tap into local environmental sensors to see the latest info on air quality or weather data. On the road next to me I notice someone with a Fitbit or mobile phone strapped to their arm recording their heart rate, number of steps taken and how many calories they’ve burned.

If I catch the Metro or bus to work I will likely run into someone with a gadget I’ve never seen before, a new type of mobile phone, notebook, tablet or other digital device that’s streaming Netflix, or some other cloud based entertainment network. And if I get a lift from a friend I often spot a Tesla electric car or Nissan Leaf, both of which hook up to the national grid for charging, but could also potentially store energy for the grid as well.   Continue reading The internet of things and the fourth industrial revolution

Engineering life with synthetic biology

The possibilities for synthetic biology are numerous. It could play a key role in resolving global environmental challenges that policy makers and regulators are struggling with. It could make industry less polluting, more sustainable and likely more profitable. This is especially true for companies with large ecological footprints who are working to decarbonise. The chemical industry could also change drastically as new forms of life could be designed to produce chemicals that otherwise would have to come from unsustainable sources like petrol.

Plastic pollution could likely become a thing of the past if replaced with bio-based instead of oil based polymers. Cheap, clean ‘next generation’ biofuels are also a major prospect that would help countries succeed in phasing out petrol based fuels altogether. Politically speaking this will take time as oil is likely not to be replaced overnight by sustainable alternatives, but synthetic biology is without a doubt a major player in energy and decarbonisation for multiple reasons.

Imagine for a moment:

Continue reading Engineering life with synthetic biology

Getting to the root of endemic livestock disease in the UK

Humans and animals share a deep relationship going back to early homo sapiens. With the exception of pets, in many cases we eat each other, but since humans have dominated the planet — normally we eat them. This has not been more the case than in livestock farming where animals are raised for food and are depended on for survival, not only for nutrition, but people’s livelihoods.

Many of the farms in the UK produce cattle and sheep for food. Endemic disease in livestock is a major global challenge, and could likely continue in future if something isn’t done to prevent livestock disease from growing and spreading in the first place.

While TB and foot and mouth catch the headlines, endemic diseases like Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) have been a major problem. 11% of BVD cases in Europe have been in the UK and the national cost has been estimated as high as £61m per year.

Whether livestock disease becomes a problem largely depends upon the practices of farmers and their advisers. Not all farming systems are the same and many of them have a history that goes back a long time. This means solving the problem of disease may not be solely down to applying the ‘right’ scientific or technological solution.

Continue reading Getting to the root of endemic livestock disease in the UK

People want to talk about climate change

What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you’re listening. Because you’re listening, they feel good about talking to you. When someone tells me a thing that happened, what do I feel inside? I want to get the story out. It’s for the person who reads it to have the feeling… Studs Terkel

This week is Green Great Britain Week! And to help make a difference myself, colleagues and volunteers gave a public survey on what the people of Newcastle think about climate change, in collaboration with the Priestley International Centre for Climate at University of Leeds, University of York and University of Manchester.

According to the IPCC 1.5C special report released last week, carbon emissions must be urgently reduced even more than previously thought or the devastation caused by heating up the planet above the 1.5C target could cause it to veer in the direction of unlivable.

Global surface temperature in 2017 compared to the 1981-2010 average. High latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere were especially warm, though temperatures across most of the planet were warmer than average (red colors). NOAA map, based on data from NOAA NCEI.

Climate change is far from easy to communicate let alone contemplate on a large scale. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998 and the four warmest years on record since 2014. Although the global temperature is rising rapidly, it isn’t uniform across the planet. While climate change impacts are certainly felt by people all over the world, how they experience them may vary. Continue reading People want to talk about climate change

Testing green approaches for urban flooding

“Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! Thunder! I was caught In the middle of a railroad track, I looked round and I knew there was no turning back”

From the song “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC

In June 2012 the city of Newcastle endured one of its greatest floods in history, infamously named the ‘Toon Monsoon’. It unleased 50mm of rainfall, the equivalent of one month’s rain falling within the span of two hours, and most of the flooding took place in the first 30 minutes. I remember it well, particularly people canoeing down Chillingham Road in the nearby neighbourhood of Heaton.

I watched most of the carnage ensue from my upper floor flat on the top of Shields Road in Byker. At the time I was safe, many were not. More than 500 homes were flooded in the city and 1200 properties in total were affected. The collective damages caused by the deluge were large and the impact of ‘Thunder Thursday’ was felt throughout the city. Now Newcastle is a demonstrator city for blue-green infrastructure focusing on practical solutions to reducing flood risk. Times have changed.

Flooding is a major problem for many cities, particularly in the wake of climate change. It is generally agreed that rainfall has and will increase as a result of the anthropogenic warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. What is less clear is how we prepare urban areas for flooding caused by intense heavy rainfall, especially if it occurs suddenly without warning. Cities are actually ideal test beds for new sustainable ways to mitigate flooding because they are usually densely populated, with mostly paved surfaces and have many buildings which are vulnerable to flooding.

Continue reading Testing green approaches for urban flooding