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Q&A: Jessica Wade is passionate about chirality and inclusivity

10 January 2023

The materials researcher believes that transformative technologies and a more welcoming physics culture will aid in tackling global challenges.

“If I’m going to ever make it as a professor, I’m not going to just assimilate myself to some culture that I don’t like,” says Jessica Wade. “I’m going to be a professor who changes things.” For example, she says, she would make sure that people in her lab have normal working hours. Often hiding behind brilliant science are awful people, she adds. “I want to change that.”

Photo of Jess Wade
Credit: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London

Wade, who earned her physics PhD at Imperial College London in 2016, is already doing many things to improve the culture for women and others in physics and related fields. Perhaps most visible is her prodigious contribution to Wikipedia: As of early January, she had posted 1850 articles about people in groups that have historically been excluded from science and engineering. She also mentors, engages with schools, has written a children’s book about nanoscience, and more.

In her research, Wade investigates spin-selective charge transport with an eye to new materials and applications in optoelectronics, spintronics, and quantum technologies. Currently she is a research fellow in Imperial’s department of materials. “I really feel like I’m starting to make my own space and my own vision in science. It’s quite exciting. I’m in an engineering department, where we are thinking about putting our results into technologies that benefit society.”

PT: What was your path into physics?

WADE: Like many physicists, and probably all women physicists, I had an amazing teacher in high school. She was phenomenally competent, and she gave us the opportunity to explore the subject for ourselves. She conveyed the excitement of what physics is currently doing as well as the history.

I was incredibly lucky in a lot of ways, including that I went to an all-girls high school. There is quite a lot of evidence that women are more likely—two and a half times more likely—to choose to study physics if they go to an all-girls school.

After I graduated from high school in 2007, I went to art school in Italy for a year. It was important for me in a growing-up sense. I lived in Florence. Walking around renaissance Italy, you see all of these incredible engineers and artists and architects and feel this powerful connection between creativity and science. I think, subtly, the experience was inspiring for me scientifically as well as artistically. Studying art full time was always going to be only for a year for me, but it was kind of critical.

PT: How did you figure out that you wanted to stay in science?

WADE: I never thought that women studying physics was in any way strange until I got to university, where I suddenly was surrounded by a lot of men. I was at Imperial College London, one of the biggest physics departments in the UK, and the course was about 80% men. At the beginning of my physics degree I found it hard to see where I fit in to any of it. It took me a few years.

Lectures and exams basically showed me I could do exams; they didn’t make me feel confident as a physicist. But when I started a master’s project I found that doing experiments and being in a group was completely thrilling. I loved the research and teamwork and found it interesting to learn about other people’s motivations for studying a subject and what they wanted from research.

PT: Describe your research.

WADE: I look at new materials for low-power quantum technologies. I and my students and collaborators think about how to manipulate molecular chirality to bring new functionalities to materials. We come up with fabrication strategies, characterization techniques, and device architectures and think about new technologies where chirality could be useful.

PT: What types of applications?

WADE: Low-power computation, highly selective sensors, bright displays, efficient solar panels, things like that. If we are going to have a quantum revolution, we will need more sustainable materials to do it with. At the moment, to power qubits or any quantum computing architecture, you have to cryogenically cool materials or make materials that are incredibly complicated and expensive to prepare. I think chirality will solve it all.

PT: What is it about chirality that inspires you?

WADE: Chiral materials seem to be able to control electron spin at room temperature. We know they can control photon spin, so we can generate left- or right-handed light, which is important for quantum information processing. Emerging evidence suggests that depending on the handedness of a structure, you can generate systems that preferentially transport up or down electrons at room temperature. That is zany. Usually that would require cryogenic cooling and ferromagnets.

If we can manipulate electron spin with a low-cost, simple-to-prepare organic layer, then we have a bounty of new applications. So I think that molecular chirality, and how chiral layers interface with other layers within a device—and how we control that—has huge potential for transforming future technologies.

PT: What’s your role in this effort?

WADE: I take molecules that my chemist friends make, process them into thin films and devices, and try to work out ways to arrange them in a chiral supramolecular structure. The idea is to be able to optimize and streamline the fabrication process and turn the materials into something that is technologically useful. A real challenge is scaling up so that everything becomes cheaper.

PT: Where are you in your career? And where do you hope to go?

WADE: I am a research fellow. I have a fixed-term contract. I research and supervise students, and I teach only if I want to, which I do. My contract is for another two years, and I am always looking for another job and applying for fellowships. My dream is to be tenured faculty here at Imperial. The facilities, faculty, and students here are amazing. The expertise and collaborative atmosphere are fantastic. But getting a permanent position here is sensationally competitive.

PT: What got you interested in gender and diversity issues?

WADE: When I started studying physics, I realized how lucky I was, and I realized that not everyone had that opportunity. I want it to be fair. Also, it’s ridiculous for physics to lose so many groups by not even giving them the opportunity to see how exciting physics is. During my PhD I became quite active doing things with high school students and teachers. And I’ve realized that we need to support early-career researchers.

Jess Wade high-fives a child at an outreach event
Jessica Wade high fives an attendee of an outreach event in 2019. Credit: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London

PT: Describe some of the things you do in outreach and education.

WADE: At the moment, the most well-known work I do is writing Wikipedia pages about women and people from other historically excluded groups in physics and related fields. I also nominate people for prizes and help women and others apply for fellowships.

After I was lucky enough to get the L’Oréal–UNESCO for Women in Science fellowship a couple of years ago, I tweeted that I’d be happy to help others who were applying. I’ve had so many conversations—probably about 100—with fantastic early-career women scientists about putting together an application. And then seeing the short list, I was like, “Know them, know them, know them.” I really like helping people realize how brilliant they are.

PT: Why did you start writing Wikipedia pages?

WADE: As I became interested in improving access to information and knowledge and really celebrating and recognizing the contributions of women and scientists from historically excluded groups, I realized how powerful Wikipedia could be—it’s the world’s most frequently used reference source. But this hugely important, democratized platform for knowledge sharing has huge content gaps: about women, about people from historically excluded groups, about science in general. So I started writing pages and putting them up. It seemed like low-hanging fruit. I never thought I’d write as many as I have done and continue to do, but the science I’m learning is so exciting, and the people I’m learning about are so exciting, and it’s good to see them being recognized.

PT: How do you go about it? And how do you find people to write about?

WADE: I have a bunch of places that I go to for reference and inspiration—I look for people who have won awards, professors at big institutions, and people who have historically contributed to a field. I do a dynamic literature search, writing as I go. It takes an hour or two to write a page. I started in early 2018 and I’ve done about 1800—an average of one a day.

PT: You’ve had pages taken down, right?

WADE: Yes, but not many. I fight to get them back up. If people are notable but not filling the criteria that Wikipedia specifies, we just need to prove that they are notable in some other way. It’s circular: If we get those people more visibility, then it’s easier to publish a Wikipedia page, and if they have a Wikipedia page, it’s easier to prove their notability.

PT: Why do you think it’s important to attract more people to physics?

WADE: If we want to have a resilient and safe world and a future workforce that can take on challenges like climate change, then we are going to need more physicists and engineers. But the challenge in my head is, if you have a field that is relatively dysfunctional, do you want to get a bunch of girls excited about science and then put them in an environment where they are not happy or safe or supported? We need to make the discipline more inclusive and more supportive for women and people from historically excluded groups.

PT: What needs to change to make physics more inclusive?

WADE: Some physics professors are great. Others behave in ways that push wonderful, ambitious people out of academia or create mini versions of themselves, trained to emulate their bad behavior. Although it can sometimes feel like physics is becoming more progressive and inclusive, there are still professors who make their group members work all weekend, treat people badly in meetings, perpetuate gender and racial stereotypes, and don’t support the career progression of their junior colleagues. They are saying, “Don’t bring your whole self to work; just be an ambitious monster.” They put people in the position where they are overworking and, frankly, under-producing.

If we want to change who goes into physics, we need to invest in high school teachers. Then, at the undergraduate level, we need to build in a sense of belonging. Capable women and others from historically excluded groups need to feel that their ideas are valued and that they have equal opportunities in peer review and in applications for scientific funding. They need to feel like they are part of the community.

PT: What are the challenges?

WADE: We have to stop recognizing and honoring only individual pursuits in science. The biggest breakthroughs come from big, international, interdisciplinary teams, and we need to say that is what we are honoring. We need to move away from low-paid, fixed-term contracts in academia; physicists can make a bunch more money somewhere else and we are losing talent. Even if it means fewer jobs, we should hire people with a view toward permanent positions. It shouldn’t be “Let’s hire as many people as possible and make them compete against each other.”

I also think the way we allocate funding is screwed up. If you join a lab that is publishing a lot, and the PI is friends with journal editors and is good at schmoozing with conference organizers, then your track record could be better than more brilliant and capable scientists who haven’t had that luck. So we need to reevaluate what science really values. We have to stop this kind of privileged legacy culture. Instead, we have to look for the best, most creative, most world-changing, most exciting ideas. And I reckon when you do that, you’ll see more women, more people of color, and more people from other historically excluded groups naturally staying in physics and science.

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