Women in STEM: Verity Allan

Verity Allan is a graduate of Cambridge, Oxford, and The Open University. She is a PhD candidate at the Cavendish Laboratory and works as a project manager and programmer on the software for the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope.

I came to Cambridge from a town in the Midlands to study Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. My parents were the first in their families to go to university, and I was the first in my extended family to get an Oxbridge degree. I then tried to get a doctorate from Oxford, but this didn’t go to plan – I eventually left with an MLitt and an urgent need to get a job.

While job hunting I realised that the really interesting jobs required a numerate degree. So, I enrolled at The Open University to study Computing and Mathematical Sciences. I graduated with a First Class Honours degree five years later. While I was studying I got my first job in tech, doing tech support and technical writing for CARET, a technology innovation unit within Cambridge University. I then expanded my range and starting to do technical management work and software testing, before I moved on to my current job.

Retraining is totally a thing. It’s not as easy to do as it was when I did it as a result of the changes to funding and costs for part-time degrees. However, there are now a whole bunch of MOOCs out there, some of which offer qualifications at a more reasonable fee. But retraining opens a whole lot of opportunities in fields where you’re likely to find some really interesting questions to work on or interesting projects to support. There are a lot of jobs in science that need project management and communications experience but that don’t require you to do top-level research.

I’m now part of the group writing software for Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project. This will be the world’s largest radio telescope, and I’m part of the team that is designing the supercomputer to do data processing for it. We are producing an architecture for this computer, and testing whether this architecture will work by writing and running prototype code. I get to work with people all over the world.

This is a very interesting project to work on – it is stretching the limits of what a radio telescope can do. It’s also exploring the limits of what can be done computationally; it requires a completely new way of dealing with astronomy data because there’s just so much of it. I also do research as part of my PhD, which is aimed at providing astronomy researchers with a tool-kit for interacting with the ridiculous amounts of data that will be produced by the SKA and other next-generation telescopes.

My work is pretty varied. It involves some research, some programming, some technical project management; and maintaining the collaborative tools used by the project I work on. I also maintain the wiki, the ticket tracking system (we use this so we have some way of recording what work needs to be done), and manage the code repositories for the project. (These days, I delegate a lot of this.) I also managed the formal documentation for the Science Data Processor (SDP) project. As I’ve learned more, I started chairing technical meetings – I did the project management for the SDP architecture work, and for one of the key software components of the SDP. This involves tracking work, helping people fix problems, note-taking, and helping people work out what’s going well and what’s not. As part of the architecture team, I also read our documentation, to ensure it makes sense and check that it says what we think it says. As the project has developed, I’ve done more programming and policy development. I go fairly often to the headquarters of the SKA at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. I’ve also travelled to South Africa (where one of the SKA telescopes will be built), and to the Netherlands and Malta for SDP Conferences.

I have an ‘academic-related’ support position, but I’m also doing a PhD as part of my job. This involves a lot of meetings, usually teleconferences, a lot of email, and a lot of writing (because if you don’t write something down in an international project, it doesn’t exist). Cambridge is a great place to be doing my PhD work, because I’m part of an active community of scholars working in my field, and in adjacent areas. The University leads the work on the supercomputer for the SKA, so we are a hub for a lot of international activity. The University also has a Top 100 supercomputer, so I have access to world-leading infrastructure for my work, as well as a specialist platform developed for the SKA, P3-Alaska.

At the start of my PhD I visited Lord’s Bridge, the location of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, with other first year PhD students. This is a fascinating site – there are traces all around of how the site was used as an ammunition store during the Second World War. Since the war, it’s been used as a radio astronomy observatory, and you can see parts of several radio telescopes that had key roles in understanding the radio sky, winning Nobel Prizes in the process. (You can see the remains of the array that Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell used to discover pulsars.) Now the site is used primarily as a testbed for new technology for radio telescopes – there are test antennas there for the HERA project, and for the SKA. But you can see dishes and equipment that describe the history of radio astronomy and interferometry. As a personal project, I’m also finding out about the women who were “computers” in the Cavendish Laboratory, and the programming techniques they used.

Being diagnosed with a serious stress-related health condition meant I had to learn how to refactor my life to allow me to do what I want to do. This is a big part of my life that required major work to come to terms with. There are many compromises I have had to make in order to recover and be able to work full time. This includes discovering new things that can make my condition worse, and finding new ways to manage that. I rely on the support of my line manager to help keep things ticking over OK.

It’s important to be aware that in physics, computing, and mathematics, at the moment, women will have to get used to being in a minority. I am quite often the only woman or non-binary person in the room – this is something that’s changing, but it is currently the case. This is compounded if you’re also a member of another marginalised group. However, there are lots of networks you can join in order to deal with the sensation of being outnumbered. Finally, just because you’re finding the maths or science difficult doesn’t mean that you’re no good at it. Often, it will be hard, but as you work further, stuff that was previously hard will become quite easy to use. You don’t have to understand this stuff instantly to be able to make a useful contribution.

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