About Me

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London, United Kingdom
I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Enthusiasm Deficit Disorder

The quality of teaching and the 'student experience' have been rapidly rising up the agenda for universities in the UK. This is partly driven by a sharp jump in student fees and partly in anticipation of the Teaching Excellence Framework which will form the basis of government funding allocations. It is disappointing that money seems to be the main motivation for universities to give student learning the attention it deserves. But here we are.

At the heart of the new emphasis on student learning, the National Student Survey (NSS) is a key measure of the quality of student experience. Completed by undergraduate students at the end of their course, it highlights areas of strength and room for improvement. This can be very useful in helping to improve professionalism and performance of university departments and academic staff. However, the NSS is not a checklist of what constitutes a good education, nor should it be a to-do list for teaching staff. Identifying actions in response to the NSS and any form of student evaluation requires thoughtful analysis and creativity which universities should be good at. I am beginning to worry that we might not be living up to the possibilities that a renewed emphasis on student experience provides.

One of the statements on the NSS is 'Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching'. This seems like a reasonable way to evaluate how engaged staff are with the courses they teach. Staff and students should be on the same side - no-one wants to teach material they have no enthusiasm for. 'Enthusiasm' seems like a quick win for university administrators looking to improve student experience and NSS scores. We are encouraged to 'be more enthusiastic' and 'friendly' in our interactions with students. Surely we can all manage that?

I am not sure its quite that simple. Enthusiasm and joy for teaching is not something we can just switch on. If university teachers aren't 'enthusiastic' about their subjects then it might be a sign that something has gone wrong. Are people being asked to teach material they think is irrelevant or outside their areas of expertise? Are they so terrified about being judged for their accent, appearance and delivery by large classes raised on TED Talks that they have lost the love they once had for learning? Are academic staff so overwhelmed by pressures to bring in funding, publish in high impact journals, work with industry, engage with the public, make YouTube videos, speak at the right conferences, figure out the latest expenses system, monitor students against their immigration visa requirements, book rooms for tutorials, chase accounts payable on behalf of suppliers... that they are walking into class under prepared and exhausted?

Even when we are doing our be very best to use innovative teaching methods, teaching and learning will not always be fun. Our work is serious. Some of the stuff we teach is hard. We should be professional and respectful in our teaching but it is not always possible, or desirable, to be cheerful and enthusiastic. I expect my GP to be knowledgeable, respectful and to listen to my needs, but I don't expect her to be 'enthusiastic' when she gives me her diagnosis. It is curious given everything university teachers have to offer students, 'enthusiasm' is deemed to be important as an end in itself.

And so it is with many of the items on the 'higher education checklist' that the NSS has become. The NSS is not intended for this purpose, but this is how it is being translated in departments under pressure to get the right answers. Student feedback is essential in delivering a high quality education. We need to listen to what our students tell us about their experiences, and we need to be thoughtful and professional in response. We also need to demonstrate the critical and creative thinking that universities exist to provide. The renewed emphasis on student learning and feedback is an opportunity for us to improve the quality of university education in an increasingly complex world. Like students who ask 'will this be on the exam?', if we focus our efforts at improvement entirely on NSS questions and answers we might miss the point entirely.

Thursday, 25 August 2016

The ways of the sexual harassment ninja warrior

In the last 24 hours I've had two separate conversations strategising with friends about how to deal with idiot men in the workplace. The sort who don't understand 'boundaries', who call you 'young lady', who make fun of your work in meetings 'just to get a rise'. Not all, but many, men.

I then noticed a retweet of a Guardian Academics Anonymous post about how terrible it is that women in science have to strategise about how to 'cope with' sexual harrassment. The Anonymous Academic was collaborating on a grant proposal with a senior colleague who had harassed one of her students. The post described how the student, her mother and the supervisor had to figure out how to work around such bad behaviour. The 'scientific community' and 'professorial staff' should take more responsibility for making such bad behaviour unacceptable, so women don't have to 'deal with it'.

I hate having these conversations. I hate reading these blog posts. My inner nineteen year old is screaming 'THIS WAS MEANT TO BE SORTED OUT IN THE 1980s'. My outer forty-two year old is bored and annoyed.

So here are some tips.

Sexual harassment isn't acceptable. Anywhere. Not at the bus stop. Not in the lab or at a conference dinner or the tea room.

It is simply not possible for anyone who has been in the workforce anywhere in the free world in the last 30 years not to know what sexual harassment is. 'But I was trying to be nice' is never an excuse.

No-one wants to be sexually harassed. No-one deserves it. Don't even go there.

If someone sexually harasses you or anyone you know, you should not accept it. You have options. Your options depend on the stage of your career and your circumstances.

All institutions have formal procedures for dealing with harassment and bullying. This might be the right thing for you to do. Find out about it, and make your own mind up. You'll need to weigh up the personal costs of going through the system, your urge for 'justice', and the greater good that might come from properly holding the creep to account.

Most of the stuff we feel crappy about are those annoying moments of ickiness that don't add up to enough for a formal complaint. In those moments, we just want to be that badass with the perfect one liner. We want to deal with the creep then and there. But sexual harassment comes as a surprise, and we are left paralysed and tongue tied.

Badasses are made, not born. In an ideal world we wouldn't need to be badass sexual harassment ninjas. We wouldn't need to 'deal with it'. Unfortunately we work in the real world with men, some of whom are creeps, many of whom are clueless. And we are real people too. We aren't born knowing how to defend ourselves. We need to learn.

Practice the ninja arts of badassery. All those things you wish you'd said, say them out loud. Hear your own voice say 'thank-you for the compliment, but I'd prefer it if you didn't comment on my appearance.' Practice your withering stare. Imagine yourself physically taking his hand off your shoulder, or maybe just start with a really big shrug. Concentrate on not doing the girly giggle that makes everyone feel OK about stuff that's really not. Workshop all this with your friends, while you make fun of the slimeball who looked you up and down in front of your team. Don't just 'wish' you'd said something, or hate yourseful for not standing up and walking away, practice it for next time. Next time you just might say something. It might be in a small, shaky voice. You might feel like an even bigger idiot, but it will be something.

If someone is a creep, tell people you trust. You don't have to publically bad mouth the sleazoid, or assassinate their character. Don't gossip. Just quietly let people know 'so, this happened'. Reputations get around.

If someone relatively vulnerable tells you they've experienced creepy behaviour from a more powerful person, believe them. Don't try to explain it away. If you can't act on it imediately or are not sure if it is quite right, just file it away for future reference.

Be choosy who you work with. When you are early in your career this can be difficult, but after a while you'll build your own reputation and you'll have more options. Don't work with anyone who has a reputation for being a creep. This is what I found most baffling about the Anonymous Academic. To me the answer to the dilemma was clear  - you harass my student, I never work with you again. There won't be any drama, I'll just prioritise other commitments. Your sales rep sends a dirty message to my purchasing offer, you don't get our business. Make a pass at the adminstrator who checks you in for your interview, you don't get the job. This is not cutting off my nose to spite my face, and it is not kangaroo court. It's clarifying priorities. So many people complain about being overworked. 'Don't work with creeps' can be a handy workload management strategy. There are more than enough non-creeps out there to build a successful career.

Change the conversation. If you know that your workplace isn't doing enough to eliminate harassment, make a fuss. Suggest that everyone takes a really boring sexual harassment training course, again, in person, not alone on their computers. Re-write the policy. Call out the bosses on their 'pinkwash' gender diversity clap trap if it doesn't ring true.

Step up. There are creeps so creepy, and sleazeballs so slimey and institutions that are so structurally dangerous and chronically dysfunctional that sometimes the nuclear option is the only option. Sexual harrassment in the workplace is illegal. There will be times when the law is the best answer. There may come a point where it is right to go public with your experiences, particularly if others share those experiences. At some point the Anonymous Academic might need to take off his mask. Doing this on your own takes a lot of courage and can be costly, but the cost of 'putting up with' degrading and demeaning behaviour can be much higher.

'The scientific community' shouldn't accept sexual harassment. This is true for everyone who is part of that community. It is not the responsibility of women, particularly young women, to hold every creep to account. Our brighest minds should not be wasting their precious brain cells figuring out workarounds to 'deal with it'. And yet we can't wait to be rescued by enlightened professors. We need to empower ourselves and each other, because that is ultimately what sexual harassment is about. It is the abuse of power. There are formal and informal ways of taking back some of that power from the creeps. These are the ways of the sexual harassment ninja badass. Be more ninja.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Democracy, knowledge and universities

I was one of the 78% of people in the London Borough of Hackney who yesterday voted for Britain to remain in the EU. I work in Camden where 75% of people voted to remain. I am an academic in one of the highest ranking universities in the country. I was born overseas, as were most of my students, colleagues and friends. I have a PhD, I eat quinoa and I ride a bicycle. I am a member of the global elite.

This is not an easy identity for me to own up to. I was the first generation of my family to get a degree. I grew up in a country town in Western Australia. When I was a child both my parents were always in work and we always had food on the table, but most of my clothes were hand-me-downs. For a long while my Mum did a special contortionist trick involving keeping her feet on all three pedals at once to prevent the car from stalling at every intersection. During 'the recession we had to have' in the late 1980s when interest rates rose to 18%, my parents couldn't pay their mortgage.  

I know what it feels like to sit in a car full of kids, in a second hand school uniform, hoping we won't stall, listening to politicians on the radio talking about how all this economic reform is in our best interests.

I get it.

But twenty five years later here I am. One of the metropolitan, global elite. Completely out of touch with the 'real people' out there who chose to leave the EU.

The 'real people' aren't stupid, and most of them aren't racist. Some of them have legitimate concerns about the impact of immigration on their communities. Mostly it seems that  people want more control - over their own lives, and the people who govern them. Everyone voting yesterday knew the risks, and they chose to take their chances.
What troubles me is how far away the conversations I have in Hackney and Camden are from the issues that motivated the majority of the country to vote as they did yesterday. How have those of us who work in universities and urban professions become so detached from the worries and aspirations of so many people?

Colin Macilwain wrote about this problem from an American perspective in Nature News back in March. Universities and scientists have enthusiastically aligned themselves with the interests of big business and centrist politics. We've pursued a 'deficit model' of public engagement, preferring to talk at rather than listen to 'real people'. Too often we fall into lazy political arrogance assuming 'if you knew what I know, you'd agree with me'. If people disagree with us, it's because they are ignorant, possibly stupid. We've been complacent, and we're becoming irrelevant.

In coming years we all have to work together to figure out a positive future for a UK outside the EU. Those of us in universities also need to think harder about our role in all this. How is knowledge used in these messy debates? How well are we preparing our students to participate in this new style of democracy? Why do people choose to ignore evidence and expert opinion? Who is it that we serve? How can we better fulfill our primary purpose - to create and share knowledge for the greater good?

I don't know the answers. With colleagues we are trying our best with the Engineering Exchange and modest research and citizen science projects. We'll have to adapt to a changed funding and policy landscape. Collaboration with European colleagues will be more difficult. But the biggest challenge might be how to bridge the divide that seems to be opening up between power and knowledge.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Sewers, the EU, Jo Cox and me

Last night in London we had a torrential downpour. This means the sewers have overflowed into the Thames. It's a fairly warm day so dissolved oxygen will be low. This is just about the worst case scenario for the health of our magnificent river.

This morning I voted to remain in the EU. I was almost in tears at the enormity of the decision.

Now I am in a French cafe drinking coffee on my way to a walk along the route of the historic Fleet River. The Fleet was turned into a sewer 150 years ago. One of those sewers that overflowed last night. The sick old Fleet, breaking through to the Thames again.

This afternoon I am going to the Houses of Parliament for drinks with the Thames Estuary Partnership. People who care about the river and know about sewers and dissolved oxygen. They also know that the sewer overflows mean we are in breach of the EU Urban Wastewater Directive, which has been adopted by UK Parliament through various water acts in the last decade. Legal action and threat of fines is one of the key drivers for the London solving the sewer problem. Construction will soon start on the Tideway tunnel, which will stop sewage overflowing into the Thames, thanks in part to our membership of the EU.

The event in Westminster was to be hosted by Jo Cox, who lived in a boat on the river. She's dead now. She was killed for her politics, including her campaigning to remain in the EU. We'll remember her as we share a drink by the Thames.

And it is also National Women in Engineering Day.

I feel like I am living a badly plotted political short story.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Mind your own business

Universities are funny places. Those of us who have worked in the sector for a while have seen a lot of change, and like most people we are continually coming to terms with our place an uncertain world.

People who work in universities are developing new language to explain the changes we are facing. One common catch-cry is that 'we need to be more like a business'. This is often short-hand for 'we need to be better at managing our resources', but the relatively simple sounding aspiration to be more 'business-like' is curious.

I wonder what kind of 'business' we should be like. 

Sometimes it feels as if we are being asked to be like shop-girls in 'Joe's Fantastic Shoe Emporium', circa 1986. Buy low! Sell high! Shift product! Fill in your time sheet! Meet your targets! The customer is always right, even if they want to buy shoes a size too small for them. And of course Joe knows best. He hires and fires and does the accounts.

Surely this is not what my colleagues mean when they say we should be more like business?

Perhaps we should aspire to be more like 'Chumhum', the famous Chicago based internet giant. Chumhum have break rooms with free snacks and pool tables. People work together in teams on important, ground-breaking projects. They also have time to work on their own curiosity driven projects, and down-time to play pool and recharge their creativity. Some parts of the business bring in lots of money, other units play around with ideas that might never see the light of day. They attract the brightest young people on the planet to work with them. They nurture talent by putting people in challenging situations so that they can grow into future leaders and innovators... Sound familiar?

While universities are trying to be more 'business-like' the most successful businesses on the planet have been trying to be more 'university-like'.

This is nuts.

Universities exist to create and share knowledge. We do this primarily through our research and teaching, and also through our engagement with our local communities, the public, policy-makers and the private sector. To do this effectively in changing economic and political contexts we need to manage our resources wisely. This means we need to be responsible with how we raise and spend money. We need good systems in place so that we can do our work to the highest standards. We can learn from the business sector and they can learn from us, but we will not serve anyone well if we pretend to be something we are not. Instead of trying to be more like businesses, universities should aspire to be accountable public institutions, unflinching in our purpose to create and share knowledge for the benefit of humanity.

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.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Fear and Risk Assessment in Lahore

On 20th January terrorists attacked Bacha Khan University in Kyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, killing 22 people. On 28th January I gave an opening address at the Climate Change and Sustainable Development Conference at Lahore College for Women University. Some people say I'm brave. If bravery means doing things that scare you, then I agree with them. This was my sixth visit to Pakistan since 1997. This is the first time I've felt scared.

Most mornings, I listen to the Today programme on Radio 4 as I wander sleepily around my flat getting ready for the day. On 20th January I sat down at the kitchen table and listened to the 8 o'clock news from Charsadda. The attack was still going on. 'A university. Bastards,' was my first thought, closely followed by, 'I don't want to go'.

I sent a carefully worded email to the trip sponsors at the British Council to ask if their assessment of risk in Lahore had changed. In a worried haze I got my things together, jumped on my bicycle and headed to work.

Cycling through Islington I kept thinking 'I don't want to go'. At an intersection in Kings Cross my inner hardass woke up. 'Stop being a drama queen', she reminded me. 'Think this through'. By Bloomsbury I'd realised the irony of worrying about being shot by the Taliban while cycling through central London. I also remembered getting to work via Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005.

I live with risk every day, why is this any different?

In the office I talked through my dilemma with a colleague who went to Sierra Leone as the Ebola outbreak was gathering momentum in 2014. Charsadda is a long way from Lahore, I told her. This attack was the Taliban, old skool bad guys. Of all the terrorists in the world, the Pakistani military probably has better intelligence on them than any government does on any of these creeps. They had closed schools in the PKP region because they knew something was up, they just didn't know quite what. If they knew about a specific risk to Lahore, they'd tell the university, and they'd cancel the trip. Right?

Later that day we met with another colleague who has worked a lot in Pakistan. She agreed. Lahore is a long way from Charsadda. No worries.

But I was worried. A bit. The British Council had cancelled a planned visit in 2014 when Imran Khan and friends were marching from Lahore to Islambad, but they didn't seem overly concerned this time. I was doubly thorough in filling in my own risk assessment, reading all the details of the latest Foreign and Commonwealth Office fact sheet with its morbid listing of bombings and deaths in far flung places. The risk was manageable. The trip worth taking. Off I went.

The conference started on Thursday with minor, but not unusual delay. There had been false rumours in the media that the university was closed due to the security threat. The university was open, but the Vice-Chancellor didn't make it to the conference opening because she was stuck in security meetings. The British Council representative was late and didn't stay for lunch, nominally because of security precautions.

I gave my talk about the interactions between Sustainable Development Goals and what this could mean for Pakistani climate change policy. The conference went on as planned. We ate samosas and talked about the prospects for coal-fired power in response to the appalling energy crisis. I looked for places to hide.

By the time my jetlag woke me at 2am the shadowy extremists were launching an attack on my mind once more. Lying in bed in a five star hotel I remembered stories from the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Stories of people tweeting from their hotel rooms. I would not be tweeting. I would be hiding the wardrobe, saving my phone battery. I calculated whether I would have time to make the room up to look like no-one was there. If I hid under my black coat would that make it harder for them to find me?

Checking your phone is a poor cure for sleeplessness, but I needed some sort of contact with the world outside my suicide bombing brain. Mashallah, a friend had SMSd, chasing up a long promised drink. I let him in on my insomania and talked myself back down to a calmer assessment of the risk. It was the middle of the night and I had finally let someone know I was scared.

Lahore is a beautiful city. Kites circle and hunt in the sky. I have watched them darting and drifting for hours. A cup of Kashmiri chai feels like a big hug from my mum with a fresh bath towel on a cold night. If I could choose one style of womens' fashion to take over the world, it would be the colourful Pakistani shalwar kameez. Mutton karahi with fresh roti is on the shortlist of dishes for my last supper.  I learn a lot everytime I come to work here, and my colleagues seem to like me being around. But things are difficult.

Pakistan has plenty of problems, and the one that gets all the press is security. Security is a problem not just for the risk it poses to life and stability, but because fear gets in the way of everything else. University VCs caught in meetings about security threats are not leading their staff and students to the higher learning needed to create a stable economy, clean environment and equitable society in Pakistan. Universities and schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (US) on razor wire and armed guards, instead of laboratories and libraries. Academics stuck in London afraid of the Taliban can't share knowledge and experience that might help us all learn how to live together in this complex world.

I am more likely to die on my bicycle on my way to work in London than in a terror attack in Lahore. Sometimes I get scared - of being run over by a lorry at an intersection and of being shot in a hotel bed by the Taliban. Fear can keep us safe. It makes us take precautions. I wear a helmet and a hi-vis jacket on my bike, and I check the FCO advice before travelling. Fear can also paralyse. It helps to talk things through, but the trick is not to give way to hysteria.

In a world that seems more fearful than ever it is impossible for the likes of me to know the difference between the real risk of terror and unhelpful panic. My own hysterics seem validated by ever more intensive and expensive 'security' measures, and yet my personal risk assessments rely on them to keep me 'safe'. I want more cycling lanes in London and I want the Taliban to be defeated. In the mean time, I rely on my own fear and calculations to keep myself safe.