About Me

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Melbourne, Australia
City of Melbourne Chair in Urban Resilience and Innovation at the University of Melbourne, and Visiting Professor at the Institute of Environmental Design and Engineering at University College London

Thursday 9 January 2020

The wrong reasons for doing a PhD

Late last year The Economist published an article titled ‘The disposable academic – why doing a PhD is often a waste of time’. This was much discussed among colleagues and students at the time, including on our UCL Engineering Sciences Linked In Group (which is open for anyone to join). Many of my academic colleagues reacted strongly to the idea that a PhD is a waste of time given the large number of doctoral graduates each year compared with academic posts available. The PhD is the pre-requisite qualification for an academic career, but that is not its only purpose. People with PhDs go on to make strong contributions in many fields, outside universities and research institutions, and the higher skills in analysis and critical thinking that are an outcome of the intensity of the PhD process are invaluable on their own terms, not simply as entry requirements for academia. I agree that the PhD is a unique and important qualification. However, I think the article raised some important points about the relative costs and benefits to people who are brave enough to embark on doctoral studies.
The article also raises important questions about the reasons why people choose to do a PhD. People do PhDs for many reasons, mostly the wrong ones. My three favourite wrong reasons are: avoiding the job market, aspiring to social prestige, and wanting to be an academic.

Avoiding the job market is a bad reason to do a PhD. We like to assume that people doing PhDs are the best and brightest graduates. Most people doing PhDs are in fact very bright, especially those who have been successful in securing funding. However, particularly in engineering, our top graduates are competing for the best posts in industry. It is a sad fact of capitalism that most of the smartest people in society today are running the biggest corporations, not beavering away in research laboratories. For some people a PhD might be a fall back to a prestigious graduate post, or it may be a default position for students who are academically bright but lack the ‘get-up-and-go’ that graduate recruiters are looking for. Far easier to ‘stay-in-and-take-studentship-with-friendly-professor’ than iron a shirt and face the scrutiny of an interview panel. There are many good reasons to opt out of the corporate career ladder and there are many options for people who wish to do so. Falling back on a PhD as a way to prolong the supposedly care-free student life and avoid making grown up decisions about your career path is only likely to make things more complicated in the long run. As The Economist points out, a PhD adds very little to your future earnings or career prospects and can actually hinder entry into some fields. Finding a job that suits your qualifications, interests, lifestyle and values gets more, not less, complicated with a PhD.

Coming from a somewhat anti-intellectual background it has taken me a long while to realise that some people actually do a PhD for the prestige or to make their families proud. When I told my Grandma I was leaving my engineering job to do a PhD she said ‘What? Are you going to be at university forever?’, to which I sheepishly replied ‘maybe?’. As a young Australian I was more than familiar with motto ‘those that can, do, and those that can’t, teach’ and so following an academic career path meant coming to terms with being deemed useless in most social circles. Thankfully, this inured me against the delusion that doing a PhD is somehow glamorous or a shortcut to higher social standing or respect, and it has come as a surprise to discover that for many people, especially young men from hierarchical cultures, the PhD is just that. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to high social standing, but a PhD is a very weird way to go about it.

Returning to the The Economist article, wanting to be an academic is not a strong enough reason on its own to do a PhD. The main point of the article is that academic jobs are scarce and PhD graduates are plentiful. For many people the path from PhD to academic post involves a long series of short-term research contracts, often moving between universities and countries, taking big personal risks for very uncertain returns. If your only objective in doing a PhD is an academic post then you are likely to be frustrated and disappointed, even if you are ultimately successful. For such a sought after career, university academics actually moan about their jobs an awful lot. The reality of day-to-day work, dealing with difficult colleagues and students, doing the boring admin, always worrying about funding and resources, responding to changing political landscapes, coping with the rejection and humiliation that are part of peer-review processes, justifying your esoteric research interests in terms of its social and economic impacts, all mean that life in the ivory tower is just as grubby as any other workplace. There are some wonderful benefits, like academic freedom, flexible conditions, and the joy of creating and sharing knowledge, but in the end it’s a job. Putting yourself through the intensity of a PhD for the slim chance of becoming a university lecturer is insane.

The only good reason to do a PhD is a driving urge to find the answer to a complex problem and to find out how far you can push yourself in the search for knowledge. For this you must be prepared to put aside any other extrinsic outcome you might hope for. The PhD is hard. If it wasn’t there would be no point. It requires a level of determination and self-discipline that few people possess. As The Economist points out, it can involve significant sacrifices in terms of earning and career prospects. The PhD changes you. It changes the way you see the world, and in the process it can disrupt personal relationships and your sense of self. Many of my students and friends have suffered fairly serious anxiety or depression at some point during and after their PhD. Doing a PhD is harder than holding down a job, you will rarely receive the recognition you deserve, it can strain personal relationships, and it is no guarantee of entry to academia. The only things that make it worthwhile are: knowing that you have made some small contribution to knowledge; and discovering the full extent of your own intellectual capability. These are high rewards indeed, more significant but more elusive than the prospect of sleeping until noon, the thrill of being ‘Doctor’, and scrambling onto the bottom rung of the academic career ladder.

Friday 11 March 2016

Widening the pipeline: reconsidering entry requirements for engineering

It was International Women's Day this week, celebrated in force at UCL. I went along to a few events, and two of them have got me thinking about physics, girls and engineering. My thinking led me to do some calculations. I am now more convinced than ever that requiring physics A-level for engineering is a bad idea. If we dropped this requirement it is possible that we could double the number of women undergraduates in engineering, without undermining standards.

Alexa Bruce, a former student, spoke to our department on Tuesday. Alexa graduated with a first class MEng, was a founding member and twice president of UCL Engineers Without Borders, now works for Arup, and is a bit of a star. Alexa didn't study physics at A-level. She told us that at the age of 16 she wanted to be an actor, not an engineer, so didn't bother with physics. She soon changed her mind, only to find that nearly all civil engineering schools require physics A-level, except UCL. Based on her good GCSE physics results, and good A-level results in the subjects that she had taken, we offered her a place. Lucky for Alexa, luckier for us. Alexa was very clear in her message that requiring physics A-level for undergraduate engineering is a massive, unnecessary barrier to women who are forced to make career defining decisions much too early in their lives.

On Thursday Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, astrophycist and scientific superstar, told UCL Women that around 20% of A-level physics students are women. Nearly half of state schools and colleges in the UK have no women in their A-level physics classes. I'll write that again, in capitals. NEARLY HALF OF A-LEVEL PHYSICS CLASSES IN THE UK HAVE NO WOMEN STUDENTS.

There are lots of reasons why girls don't study physics and lots of reason why that needs to change. The Institute of Physics, Dame Jocelyn and many others are on the case, but it is unlikely that we will see a major step change soon. There are big, heavy cultural factors at play, like ye-olde stereotyping, as well as some basic practical measures, like improving the quality of physics teaching.

One very important consequence of requiring physics A-level to study engineering, in a country where so few girls choose physics, is that we constrain the pool of talented women for our profession to draw from. Women like Alexa.

Colleagues will argue that you can't do engineering without physics A-level. Alexa is proof that you can. She had A-level maths and chemistry, and good GCSE physics. She is smart and hard working. Whatever was missing from her knowledge of physics, she managed to pick up very quickly at university.

Alexa could have studied chemical engineering at most universities. Chemical engineering courses usually require maths and chemistry, not physics.

Chemical engineering provides a good case for considering the impact of physics A-level requirements for undergraduate engineering. Nearly three times as many women in the UK take A-level chemistry compared to physics. Roughly 48% of students who achieved A*-C results in A-level chemistry were women in 2012, compared to 22% in physics, and 21% in both maths and physics. That same year, 25% of acceptances to study first degrees in chemical engineering in the UK were women, compared to 13% for all engineering. In 2012 in civil and environmental engineering at UCL, where we have no subject requirements at A-level, 30% of our undergraduates were women compared to 16% nationally.

Engineering needs more women undergraduates. We have a choice. We can stick with the requirement for physics, and wait for schools and physicists to sort out their mess, or we could drop physics A-level requirements. My quick analysis of the data indicates that this single measure could double the proportion of women undergraduates in engineering.

Dropping physics as an entry requirement has not diminished the quality of our degrees in civil engineering at UCL. Our degree programmes are fully accredited for UK engineering professional requirements. This is the fundamental standard against which engineering courses in the UK are judged. We have not 'dumbed down' our course content. It turns out that whatever students learn in A-level physics isn't critical to succeeding in civil engineering. I suspect the same is true for most disciplines. 

Undergraduate entry requirements aren't the only thing in the way of gender equality in engineering, but they are something. This is one very simple change that our universities can make that could have a significant impact. It's certainly worth a shot.

My sources of data were the Engineering UK annual reports for 2013 and 2015.

Friday 9 October 2015

Working with the media: a guide for scientists and engineers

Last summer I decided to have a change instead of a holiday. It was just as good. Instead of the beach I went to Londonist, as part of the British Science Association's Media Fellowship Scheme. They let me pretend to be a journalist. I also skived around the media centre at the British Science Festival in Bradford in September. I learned a few lessons about the media and what engineers and scientists can do to improve their relationship to it.

Answer your email

Most people get a lot of email. Most of it is junk. An email from a journalist is not junk. If you see one in your inbox, reply promptly.

Unless you have a very good reason, your reply should be 'thanks for getting in touch, I'd be happy to talk, please give me a call'. If you do have a good reason you should reply 'thanks for getting in touch, I am sorry I can't help, please contact our media office who may know of someone who can'.

That sentence took me 16 seconds to type. We are all very busy. We can all spare 16 seconds.

Good reasons for not speaking with journalists

There aren't many. Scientists and engineers spend a lot of time congratulating ourselves about how important our work is. We moan that the public doesn't understand or appreciate us. Those of us in universities spend a lot of tax payers' money. When someone from the media needs our help to explain a complex topic or to find out what we are doing with all that money, our default position should therefore be to say yes.

A good reason to decline is that you physically can't respond before their deadline. This is not 'talking to journalists isn't going to help with my next promotion or grant application so I don't want to waste my precious time'. This is 'I am lecturing all day, my baby has a fever, and my partner is in prison'. For a feature article or a documentary the journalist might be prepared to wait until your baby is healthy, your partner's legal troubles have been resolved, and you have a break from teaching. For a news story they'll need a quick response, so spend that 16 seconds and say no.  

A very good reason not to speak with a journalist is that their query is truly outside your area of expertise. Every field has its blabber mouth professor who spouts theories based more on insights from their wine collection than their research. You don't want to be a blabber mouth.

Journalists don't want blabber mouths either, but sometimes those are the only people who will speak to them. Before you turn down an enquiry it is worth checking what they want.

What journalists want

Journalists might be looking for an alternative view on a story that has been picked up through the news system of press releases and conferences. Good journalists will always want a second opinion. You might be asked to comment on the work of a colleague. Think of this as public peer review.

If the work is truly ground breaking and flawless, say so. If you think their work is good, but overlooks an important issue, this is a chance to demonstrate the complexity of science. If the work is rubbish, think carefully about your answer. You probably don't want to get caught in a public slapfest, but you also don't want bad science getting a free ride because no good scientist was prepared to speak up.   

Sometimes journalists are after a simple explanation of a general scientific or technical concept - closer to a talk you might give at a schools careers fair than your latest Transactions of Arcane Scientific Microdiscipline paper. Explaining basic science and engineering to journalists is a worthy public service.

Occasionally science and engineering expertise is needed to respond to a news event, like an earthquake or plane crash. You may be the expert the media are looking for. This is when your friendly local press officer comes in handy. They can filter media enquiries for you. They can give you advice on how things work, what the journalists are looking for and what pitfalls to avoid. They might also provide some training in advance, so that you are ready when events call upon you.

A journalist might just be looking for a fun story to inform and entertain their audience. My most successful article for Londonist was about the impact of the 24 hour tube on tube mice - High Science. I love tube mice. The 24 hour tube had been a big story in London (strikes). Prof. Bill Wisden and colleagues from Imperial College had just published a paper on the brain chemistry of sleep deprivation. Brain chemistry isn't the kind of thing Londonist usually covers, but anything to do with the tube is. Bill was incredibly generous in speaking with me about tube mice and how they might compare with their gentile cousins in their lab at Imperial. I managed to squeeze some science in, and the article played well with Londonist readers.

Be like Bill. Science doesn't have to be serious all the time. If you want science and engineering to be meaningful for people who think it is dull (most people?) then you might need to be playful.

Don't be a snob

Secretly, a little part of many of us wants to be the dazzling expert in the newspaper we read or the TV and radio shows we watch and listen to. That is, most academics want to be in The Guardian, The Times and on the BBC. We want to talk to 'people like us'.

The middle classes need good science. There is nothing wrong with speaking to the good people who work for high minded news outlets. A problem arises if those are the only journalists that good scientists and engineers engage with.

185,000 people read The Guardian. 1.9 million read The Sun. You might despise its politics and editorial policies, but The Sun is what people read.

A journalist from The Sun will have a particular set of priorities and pressures in coming up with a story that will make it into the next edition. Nonetheless, for the most part they want to report good science. Take a chance. Work with them. They aren't monsters (mostly) and their readers probably need to be informed about science and engineering more than 'people like us'.

This is a lesson I first learned from Dan, a writer for FHM magazine, and I wrote about it at the time.

The media machine

At some point in your career your work might become a news story. Someone might write a press release about it. This could be a client, your employer, your professional body, your funding agency or the journal where your work is published. For really big stories - a space mission, a new species of hominin, a new cancer treatment - this will be highly orchestrated. For smaller stories this might just be a press officer hoping it gets picked up for a bit of publicity.

When you are in the midst of a news story things can happen very quickly. Beforehand you should have plenty of time to prepare. Spend time with your press officers. Get any training you need. Don't be caught out at the last minute, flumoxed by a question you didn't anticipate, unable to clearly explain what the story is.

Once the press release is out, the press conference is over and you've given all the interviews, there is not much you can do. In some cases it is OK to ask a journalist to send you any quotes they plan to use. It is never reasonable to expect to approve their final copy.

The story might not come out exactly as you would have liked. Some scientists have been treated very badly by the media, but this is rare. Mostly scientists and engineers are worried that journalists have sensationalised their work, or haven't reported the nuances of their findings. Some science actually is sensational and should be reported as such. Sometimes the nuances just aren't important.

Most scientists and engineers write stuff that few people will ever read. When a journalist takes on our story to get our work out into the world we should expect that a few of the finer details will be lost in translation.

The truth

Engineers, scientists and journalists are ultimately after the same thing - the truth. It sounds old fashioned and high minded, but that is our basic, shared purpose. Journalists need to sell newspapers, click-bait readers, keep people watching or listening. Parts of the media are cynical, and sales trump truth. Science and engineering can be cynical too, when grant income, self-promotion, journal impact and profit trump rigour. We all have different pressures and priorities, but ultimately our work is important to underpin a well informed democracy, an innovative economy and a fair society.

It is easy to focus on the superstar scientists and engineers who are on our airwaves every day. We might adore them or loathe them. The 'science communicator' has an important role and can be an exciting career path. Most of us, however, are happy beavering away doing the science and engineering. This does not mean we can leave the media work to the people with the shiny hair.

Working with the media can feel risky for scientists and engineers, but it can also be rewarding. Sharing our love for our work, helping people to understand the complex world we live in, and showing them why it is worth investing in science and engineering are all good reasons to spend 16 seconds saying yes to a journalist.

Thursday 30 October 2014

Wearing clothes, doing work.

This week some parts of the internet have been getting hot and sweaty about what academics wear to work, particularly the difference between what men and women academics wear. Given everything else going on in the world, in universities and in gender relations this seems absurd, and it is a great personal disappointent that I have failed in my attempts to simply ignore it. By way of recap - in his regular column in the Guardian Jonathan Wolff wrote about why male academics are so scruffy, and then Francesca Stavrakopolou responded in a blog post that he had reinsated a 'masculine' dress code as normal for academics, which undermines women in universities.

My inability to simply ignore this ridiculousness stems from two personal issues. Firstly, I spend more time that I would like to worrying about what to wear to work and I think this has something to do with my gender. Secondly, I think that my worries about what I wear to work are also partly attributable to the constant reinscribing of 'masculinity' and 'feminity' in discussion about clothing and fashion. Some days I worry that my shirt is too tight or my skirt is too short and I might transgress the norms of feminine modesty. Other days I worry that my suit is too square and my shoes are too flat and I might transgress the boundaries into masculinity, abandoning the sisterhood and reinforcing the patriarchy. This is nuts.

I was happiest in my work clothes in the first job I had after leaving university. I worked at an aluminium smelter. We were supplied with a uniform. Thanks to carcinogenic raw materials that contributed to the dirt on our clothes, my uniform was even laundered for me. Oh how I long for those lost days when I could cycle in to work in my shorts, stop in at the changing room, pull on a uniform and get to work! The uniform was a light blue, long sleeved shirt and a dark blue pair of trousers, 100% cotton, minimal buttons. Was this masculine dress? No. It was safety clothing, appropriate for the working environment. In fact the reason why I was so happy when I was first allocated my uniform was that I was given women's trousers, rather than the standard cut men's work trousers that I had been forced to wear as a student. This was truly androgynous clothing, which someone else washed and ironed, in blue, which matches my eyes. Heavenly.

Ever since I abandoned that Nirvana of androgyny I have struggled to figure out what to wear to work. I don't want to dress like a man but I also don't want to be judged by my skirt length or breast size. From time to time I think I have found a personal dress code that I can consistently settle in to. Then the seasons change, fashion changes, and my body changes, and I have flipped again into a different zone of my wardrobe. In summer and when I am feeling fat, I tend to wear dresses, usually with leggings to cover up my saggy knees and bulging veins. In the winter and when I am feeling slimmer, I revert to trousers, shirt and jackets. My dress at work is often determined by what events I have planned in the evening - if I am giving a funny talk about sewers in a pub I wear jeans and a t-shirt, if it's a serious dinner with potential funders I opt for a smart dress and matching jacket, for meetings with community groups my dress is somewhere in between. I envy those men and women who have a consistent pattern of dress, and I enjoy having the choice, but mostly I wish I could just get dressed every day without having to worry about how I am constructing or transgressing socially determined gender norms.

Here's the thing. I have had enough of people scrutinising my body, including my clothing, for signs of my sexuality and gender when I am just trying to do my job. I am equally annoyed by claims that women who wear trousers or cut their hair are too 'masculine' as I am by ideas that women should completely hide their bodies at work. I have written before about trying to see the funny side of people who mistake me for a man because I have short hair and wear sneakers. Every time someone ascribes particular items of clothing or styles of hair as 'masculine' or 'feminine' I feel myself further torn between social norms, none of which have ever been kind to me.

Last week I went to buy hair product. The kind of product used to style short hair. In the eighties we used gel. In the nineties it was wax. Now its goop. I went to the 'hair products' aisle of the pharmacy, where I had last bought my 'goop' and couldn't find any. Hair shampoo, hair conditioner, hair mousse, hair spray, hair defrizzing lotion, hair colouring... no hair goop. Nothing for short hair. Then I realised I was in the 'ladies' hair products section. Off I went to the aisle with the blue razors and aftershave lotion and bought hair product in a grey container labelled 'for men'. The good news is that it works perfectly well in my womanly hair. The bad news is anyone who snoops around in my bathroom will now think I have a secret boyfriend. The product is actually for 'hair', but since every single bodily function apparently must be ascribed a gender, I am forced to buy 'men's' toiletries.

I wear size 41 shoes. That's a ladies nine and a half in Australia and a seven or eight in the UK. I am just on the right side of the limit to ladies shoes sizing, except when it comes to sneakers. Like 'hair product', sneakers were originally conceived as androgynous. Sneakers were for doing sports or casual dress. Now, we have men's and women's sneakers. Women's sneakers only go up to about a size 40, just too small for me. Sneaker manufacturers rightly judge that the number of sales they will lose from size 41 women who refuse to buy a 'man's' sneaker is small enough for them to risk compared to the cost of producing a whole extra size for a relatively small group of consumers. This is sensible. Sneakers are after all androgynous. Except to sneaker sales people. These people are trained to sell one line of sneakers to women, and one to men. When I walk into the sneaker shop and start browsing on the 'men's' wall, I am politely directed to the 'women's' area. When I protest that my feet are too big for women's sneakers, the sale assistant usually ignores me, and I submit, entertaining the possibility sneaker manufacturers have changed their strategy and started making bigger 'women's' sneakers since the last time I went through this gender-bending ritual. The sales person then brings me several of their biggest pairs of women's sneakers. I try them on, and we all agree that they are about half a size too small and I am allowed to start trying on the 'men's' sneakers. I have been wearing 'men's' sneakers for all of my adult life (when I was a kid, I think they were just 'sneakers'). Does this make me 'masculine'? No. It does not. It makes me a person who wears sneakers.

In case you had any doubt, my worries about what to wear to work are bordering on pathological. A few months ago I got dressed for work, looked in the mirror and thought 'oh God, I look like Mark Miodownik', a colleague at UCL Engineering (also on the tellie). I look like a man, but does that necessarily mean that I look 'masculine', and does it matter? Mark does not strike me as someone who is uncomfortable with his gender, and maybe his style is just a little bit 'feminine'? The Miodownik dress code is something like this - sneakers (neutral), jeans (neutral), flowery shirt (girly), jacket (blokey). Jeans and sneakers first entered mass fashion in the sixties and seventies, as androgynous items of clothing worn by women's libbers and sexual revolutionaries. Mark, like many men these days, wears shirts that my Dad would think too girly. Men's fashion might not have caught up to Grayson Perry yet, but it has become more feminine. And the suit jacket gives an air of respectability, which might have been masculine once, but that doesn't mean it is only accessible to those who are male. On balance, I think it a fairly gender neutral style of dress, one that works in the university workplace.

Most days I wear my 'men's' hair product to work. Some days I wear dresses and shoes with heels, other days I wear my 'men's' sneakers. When I put my sneakers together with a pair of jeans, a shirt and suit jacket according to some I am falling unwittingly into the 'masculine' uniform of academic work. I am not. I am a person wearing clothes, to do work.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

How to fix a leaking toilet with a handful of pennies and a tablespoon of sunflower oil: confessions of a tinkerer

Last year my landlord very nicely paid for my bathroom to be completely renovated while I was away on holiday. The plan was for me to come home to a bright new bathroom, but it took several weeks of plumbing visitations after my return for everything to work properly, more or less. One minor issue that was never quite resolved was the tendency for the toilet flush mechanism to get stuck open. It was one of those problems that didn't occur if you knew how to flush 'just right', but invariably appeared when uninitiated visitors flushed any-old-how. My guests should not require a special induction to flush the loo, but it was relatively simple for me to 'unstick' each time and didn't seem worth the effort to call a plumber. Plumbers can be as unreliable as modern flush mechanisms. Eventually even a 'just right' flush stuck open and the valve became more difficult to 'unstick'. By yesterday morning the toilet was leaking constantly. Something had to be done.

This is the point at which I should have called the plumber, but that would require looking up the phone number, rearranging my diary to work from home for a day, and a few more days of a leaking toilet. The toilet was right there in front of me, leaking, tempting me to tinker. Why spend five minutes making a phone call and booking a day at home when I had a whole bank holiday ahead of me to spend pulling my toilet apart?

The flushing mechanism is very modern. It consists of a cylinder with a valve on the bottom that is pulled up by a cable, similar to a brake cable on a bike, when the flush handle is pressed. It should be released when the flush handle returns to the normal position, but the valve was sticking in the up position. The flush mechanism consists of two 'black-boxes' - the cylinder with the sticking valve and the housing for the cable attached to the back of the flush handle. Normal people avoid opening their toilet cisterns. Smart people avoid opening 'black-box' mechanisms inside their toilets. Sensible people spend bank holidays sunning themselves in the park. 

The toilet was still leaking. I had removed the cylinder, I had a little 'black-box' in my wet hands. A voice inside my head said 'put the toilet back together, call the plumber', but my eye had spied the means to lifting the lid off the cylinder and my hand was reaching for the nail scissors and tweezers on the shelf above the sink. The voice inside was discussing options for plumbers, while my fingers discovered how the cable mechanism slotted into the valve mechanism. My fingers unslotted the mechanism, and then played with the molded bits of plastic, trying to figure out how it worked and why it wasn't. The voice inside let out a little squeak, but my fingers calmly reminded it that this was just another puzzle, like the wooden cubes or metal rings on the kitchen shelf at Grandma's house. Nothing had snapped or been lost, it would all come back together.         

If you are a parent, grandparent, teacher or otherwise concerned about the future of one or more children please make sure that they are never exposed to those darstedly little puzzles. They should come with a warning label 'keep out of reach of children, may cause brain damage'. They lead to irreversible neural re-structuring that causes vast overestimation of spatial and physical problem solving abilities. If one of those puzzles ever defeated me as a child there was always the option of putting the pieces in a plastic bag and waiting for Grandma to come over and show me how it was done. The stakes were somewhat higher with the tiny plastic pieces of my toilet. Grandma lives in Geraldton, my toilet is in London, and at 93 she is possibly past her puzzle-solving prime. 

I tinkered with the parts, and managed to put them back together, hoping that this reboot would be enough to solve the problem. The valve still stuck. The second black-box tempted me. My inner voice of reason was now whimpering with fear. Cable mechanisms have gone horribly wrong in my hands, leaving me stranded on the pavement with an upturned, brake-less bike halfway to work. My hands marched confidently on, now reaching into the cupboard for the spanners and screw drivers. If nothing broke and nothing was lost and if I moved slowly, everything would be OK. I opened the box, and the inner mechanism proved remarkably simple. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that lubricating the cable would probably help, but I didn't have any mineral oil or lubricating spray. The voice of reason could barely say 'walk down the street and buy a can of WD40', before my hands had reached for the sunflower oil from the kitchen. The cable was drizzled with edible oil and reinstated, and both black boxes returned to their rightful places in the cistern. The cable moved more freely, but the valve still stuck.

I picked up my purse and took out four pennies. I put the pennies on the top of the valve shaft to provide extra weight to help it drop down once the cable was released. The valve still stuck. I then found my jar of foreign coins and picked out the US pennies, Mexican pesos, Euro cents and Danish half-Kroner. I piled a few of them on top of the shaft, and placed some of them under the cylinder on top of the valve itself. 

It worked. 

I turned the water back on, filled the cistern and flushed, and flushed again, any-old-how. Every time the valve opened and closed on demand. There was a sunflower oil slick in the toilet and a rattle like a pocket full of change, but the cistern no longer leaked. I put the lid back on, packed the tools away and my sensible legs took me out jogging before my tinkering fingers could deny me any more sunshine.

Tinkering feels like a mental disorder. It is state of mental and physical obsession, a compulsion. Engineers are often characterised as tinkerers. The classic boy-geek engineer tinkers with TVs, cars or computers. I have never taken a TV apart nor deliberately looked inside a computer. I thought I was a different kind of engineer, interested more in the big picture than the nerdy mechanical detail. I thought I was special. I am not. It pains me deeply to come out as a tinkerer. Worse yet, I am a tinkerer of toilets.

Of course this is not the first time I have tinkered with a toilet. I have a secret history of opening cisterns and fiddling with valves. I usually take care not to tinker too long, lest people start to wonder what I am up to, but alone in the privacy of my bathroom my tinkering takes its own course. 

I know that tinkering is no longer something to be ashamed of. The 'maker' movement, including UCL's Institute of Making, positively celebrates this kind of behaviour, creating spaces for people to tinker together. Apparently there is honour in engaging directly and purposely with the material world around us. Matthew Crawford in his book 'Shop Class as Soulcraft' claims that working with our hands in this way is fundamental to our humanity. I should embrace my tinkering, be proud of it. 

So here I am. I am an engineer, and I tinker. I can no longer hide.