Posted by: Jamie | March 24, 2010

Finding Ada in Physics

Today, March 24th, is Ada Lovelace Day. Rather than attempt to explain it myself, let me just quote from the website:

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

The first Ada Lovelace Day was held on 24th march 2009 and was a huge success. It attracted nearly 2000 signatories to the pledge and 2000 more people who signed up on Facebook. Over 1200 people added their post URL to the Ada Lovelace Day 2009 mash-up. The day itself was covered by BBC News Channel,, Radio 5 Live, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Metro, Computer Weekly, and VNUnet, as well as hundreds of blogs worldwide.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ada Lovelace, well, she’s 100% awesome:

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was born on 10th December 1815, the only child of Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella. Born Augusta Ada Byron, but now known simply as Ada Lovelace, she wrote the world’s first computer programmes for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine that Charles Babbage had invented.

Ada had been taught mathematics from a very young age by her mother and met Babbage in 1833. Ten years later she translated Luigi Menabrea’s memoir on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, appending notes that included a method for calculating Bernoulli numbers with the machine – the first computer programme. The calculations were never carried out, as the machine was never built. She also wrote the very first description of a computer and of software.

Understanding that computers could do a lot more than just crunch numbers, Ada suggested that the Analytical Engine “might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent.” She never had the chance to fully explore the possibilities of either Babbage’s inventions or her own understanding of computing. She died, aged only 36, on 27th November 1852, of cancer and bloodletting by her physicians.

Women have made great strides in representation in the sciences since Lovelace’s time. In many science fields, women comprise 50% or more of the population. In physics, however, the inclusion of women has risen very slowly – such that as of this time only 20% of physicists are women, overall. If one separates the demographics into levels of education, each higher level has subsequently fewer women. Ethnic minorities face still greater under-representation.

It is for this reason that when I think of physicists who are women and to whom I look as a role model, the first name that comes into my mind is that of Dr. Patricia Rankin. Professor Rankin established herself as a particle physicist, eventually coming to work on questions of matter/antimatter asymmetry in the universe at the University of Colorado at Boulder. As extraordinarily interesting as I find that research, it is not the reason why I want to bring her to your attention.

Currently, Dr. Rankin serves as a Faculty Director in the Provost’s office at UC Boulder and is the PI on a project called LEAP. I’ll quote from her faculty page (I have made a few grammatical edits):

[Her] current focus is on a program to increase the number of women in leadership positions in the sciences and engineering. This project is supported for five years by the NSF – more details can be found at the LEAP web site. LEAP is focused on working with all faculty members – irrespective of their gender or discipline – to improve their professional skill set. Workshops funded through LEAP have sessions on topics such as time management collaborative leadership and conflict management. Research studies cover topics such as networking, salary equity and demographic inertia studies.

I first met Dr. Rankin at the 1st Annual Midwest Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, in 2008 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She gave a presentation which summarized for us the overwhelming data indicating that women and minorities face real, though generally unintentional, biases based on their gender and/or skin color in attempting to navigate through their chosen profession. I felt as if I’d been struck by lightning. Here was an explanation for the confusion poking at the back of my mind. Here, an explanation for why so many of my friends had opportunities simply fall into their laps. Opportunities that I had to seek out and cultivate. I was energized. Dr. Rankin offered an explanation, a sense of no longer being alone and at fault, and – best of all – she offered solutions. Rankin has worked with the physics department at UC Boulder to make impressive strides in improving the department’s inclusiveness. And she isn’t stopping there. Dr. Rankin is actively seeking to improve the situation for women in physics. Here is her vision for the LEAP program, in her own words:

LEAP began in January 2002, after receiving $3.5 million in funding from the NSF as one of the first projects funded through the ADVANCE initiative. This funding was matched by a further $900,000 from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

We work with the premise that models of effective institutional change emphasize the need to work at multiple levels of the organization on multiple aspects of the problem. LEAP therefore has programs aimed at individuals and at the department level, as well as activities promoting changes in policies at the highest levels.

The goal of the leadership workshops is to give faculty the skills they need to thrive within the institution. In the process, we believe that faculty will develop an understanding of how the institution works and of how it can be changed. The primary goal of the coaching program is to improve the support structure for junior faculty and to help them achieve success at the institution. These are key LEAP program elements.

The leadership workshops and the coaching program, while focused on individuals, are producing a growing community of people who are realizing that they share a vision of a better CU. The goal is to develop an institutional environment at CU within which different styles and different approaches are not only accommodated but encouraged. While LEAP cannot eliminate problems associated with “two-career couples”, raising a family while pursuing a tenure track appointment, or moving from an instructor position to the tenure track, it can provide a framework within which to hold discussions on these important issues. It can also help empower faculty to work to create solutions within the system.

As the program matures, it is broadening its reach and growing in influence. LEAP is working to formulate specific policy changes and promoting the adoption of practices that promote LEAP’s core goal of changing the environment at CU. These include working on the implementation of a professional code of conduct for faculty, making chairs training compulsory, addressing changes in recruitment practices, and encouraging the centralization of faculty development programs.

It is our hope that LEAP will have a permanent impact on the institution and beyond by producing a set of best practices for any institute to follow in fostering an inclusive environment.

In addition to her presentation at the Midwest UWiP conference, the physics department here at the University of Louisville invited her to come speak at our weekly colloquium. I was fortunate enough to attend a luncheon with her and various department chairs, where she offered advice on, for example, how to address a department’s willingness to accommodate a two-career couple without breaking hiring laws or scaring off potential hires who think they will be discriminated against for wanting to start a family. Her presentation covered the evidence for unconscious bias and was attended by administrative-level faculty from across the campus.

Dr. Rankin’s UWiP presentation was the first inkling that I ever had that I could do physics and activism at the same time – a notion that has subsequently been the driving force behind my career plan. Whether she knows it or not, I will eternally be grateful to her for showing me that I can be an agent for change, and a physicist, and be successful.

Thank you, Dr. Rankin, for being an amazing physicist, an amazing woman, and for believing fervently that there should be nothing odd about being both of those simultaneously.


  1. Ada Lovelace rocks!

  2. […] Twenty-Something Science […]

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