Rebecca Bowler

An interview with our new president!

Congratulations to Becca on becoming President of the Oxford Women in Physics Society! Becca is a post-doctoral researcher in astronomy. We caught up with her the other day to learn a bit more about her work and what makes her tick.

So first, what do you do?
I thought you might ask me that! Most of the time I’m coding, trying to analyse data. I’m looking for galaxies, and once I have them, I can look at their properties in more detail. Specifically, I’m looking for high redshift galaxies. These are very distant objects, and because of the light travel time to us, you can look far back in the universe. These galaxies are from the first billion years of the universe, so by studying them, we’re studying very early galaxy formation and evolution.

And when you’re not doing physics?
I mostly just do physics and a bit of sport – triathlon. Well, I’m injured at the moment, but last year I did a few short novice events. I really like cycling, and did a bit of swimming over the winter. I like the variety of triathlon – I think you can do a bit too much of one thing. I would usually train six times a week, so it does take up most of your life! I think it’s only for people with some of obsessive tendencies – a bit like doing a PhD!!

As someone who’s done both, I’m sure you can compare! Where did you do your PhD?
I did my PhD in Edinburgh. I could have stayed in Cambridge, where I was an undergraduate, but I always wanted to go to Scotland. Scotland is fantastic. For me, the place is as important as the work – if you’re going to be living there, you want to have fun things to do at the weekend. I’m from Norfolk so I always wanted to go somewhere with mountains. Cambridge was just the same – even flatter than Norfolk! –and after living there I was just desperate to go somewhere with hills!

What piece of work are you most proud of?
During my PhD I was looking for the first sample of redshift 7 galaxies – so they’re from about 800 million years after the Big Bang. The exciting thing was that we used a brand new data set that no-one had used before, and instead of finding very faint galaxies like the galaxies you find in Hubble Ultra Deep Field data, we were finding brighter objects. These were really interesting because they’re very rare, and have different properties to the more common, fainter galaxies. They’re also great to compare to computer simulations - the simulations predicted way too many galaxies compared to what we found.

Are you hoping to stay in physics?
Yes – at the moment. In the last year I’ve been successful getting time from a range of different telescopes so we can actually test some of the model predictions for the early universe. In the next few years I really think the whole field will change. It should be an exciting time. Particularly in my field, it’s so fast-moving. You don’t get stuck or bored. There are papers coming out every month on different aspects and we’re learning so much.

What’s your field like in terms of gender balance?
I don’t know how to compare it I suppose. But as an example, I went to a conference last month and the majority of the senior members of staff in my field are men, by far. On the first day, I noticed that I was the eighth speaker, and I was the first woman to stand up. It’s quite shocking sometimes.

Is that what’s motivated you to take on the presidency?
Yeah. It’s something I didn’t really notice when I was an undergrad. I didn’t really think about it, or I thought about it and then I thought it wouldn’t apply to me. As I’ve become a post-doc and been to lots of conferences, I’ve started to notice it more. Sometimes you’re in a situation and you look around and you realise you’re the only woman. It happens quite often to me just in day-to-day reading groups and things like that. And while I have no problem with that as such, it’s a strange situation and it makes me think about why there aren’t more women, especially when it’s such an interesting field.

What do you think is the most important role of the Women in Physics Society?
The fact is that women are a minority in the physics department. I’m not saying that it should be 50:50, or that there should be quotas or anything like that, but that’s a true statement – that women are in the minority. So, especially as it tends to get worse towards more senior positions – most of the invited lectures are given by men for example – I just think it’s important to be surrounded by women sometimes. Also it’s important to realise that there are a lot of women doing physics, you just may not see them day to day, or they may not be on the seminar list.
The tea sessions are a great way to meet people. When I moved here it was really nice to go to the tea sessions, and speak to people. It’s a very welcoming environment.

Favourite colour?

Favourite music?
Drum and bass.

Favourite film?
The Matrix.

Favourite book?
Something by John Steinbeck.

And finally, what was your favourite subject at school?
That’s hard! It wasn’t physics, though, I can tell you that. I found physics at GCSE quite boring – it was just a lot of equations, balls rolling down slopes, that kind of thing. I’m not sure. I wanted to be an architect though, so maybe art? And then I realised I couldn’t actually draw, so that changed!

Well, we’re certainly glad you stuck at physics! Thank you for sharing your stories and thoughts with us, and we look forward to hearing more from you through your presidency!