Jenny Gristock

Jenny Gristock

storytelling, with data


And now the living forecast
issued by the DET office
at 1330 on Wednesday 30 November 2016

The regional forecasts
for your living hours

pension at 67

NORTH, stopping short at 73.
just past pension.

occasional pain
but GOOD.


A decade less.



Retire at 67; Dead in just 3 years.

Glasgow, 68. On average.



What’s changed?

As I start populating this new website, I discover an old opinion piece called Maternity Ware.

I smile and remember my pregnancy. But I also remember the disappointment of not being able to use the sputtering machine as an undergrad because cleanroom suits didn’t come in maternity sizes.

I wonder: has anything changed?

A few googles and telephone calls later, and unbelievably, I don’t think it has. It is time to harness the social network on Twitter.

Science 2.0

Why are so few women writing scientific papers? It is a question that is being asked in New Scientist magazine this week, as it highlights a study which shows female authorship of scientific papers going backwards. A US study – published in the British Medical Journal – has found that since 2009, the proportion of women as lead authors has gone down, not up.

Findings like these usually provoke the ‘More girls in science!’ response: organisations wheel out a spokesperson to explain why we need more girls studying science at school and university. This month, for example, both the Welsh Government and Soapbox Science have done this. They aren’t wrong. But they aren’t right, either.

The problem with the rallying cry, ‘Let’s get more girls doing science’ is that although it is a fantastic way of persuading science funding bodies to reach into their pockets, it just doesn’t fit with the data. Women are doing science. And not only ‘more women than ever before’, as New Scientist puts it. The quiet truth is this: in lots of scientific subjects, women outnumber men.

Here are the data. In the UK, 69% students studying medical technology related degrees are women, as are 86% of those studying degrees in polymers. A whopping 77% of students studying veterinary science are female. The figure for psychology is even higher at 79%. The majority of students studying degrees in anthropology (72%); ophthalmics (69%); anatomy, physiology and pathology (64%); zoology (63%); forensic & archaeological sciences (61%); astronomy; pharmacology, toxicology & pharmacy (61%) are female.

More women than men study clinical dentistry (59%); clinical medicine (55%); biology (58%); molecular biology, biophysics & biochemistry (54%); archaeology (56%); and ’agriculture and related subjects’ (67%).

The story in the same, even in subjects like genetics (57%) and microbiology (56%). For programmes classed as ‘other courses in medicine & dentistry’, the percentage of female students is even higher, at 76%.

New Scientist says the US researchers pinpointed this decline in female authorship in the top 6 medical journals, including the British Medical Journal and the Lancet. The proportion of women listed as lead author has “plateaued” in recent years and has declined since 2009.

So how do we explain that?

This is unlikely to be simply about the number of women studying medicine. Women have accounted for more than half of all new medical students since the 1990s. Today, even at postgraduate level, 64% of students studying medical and dentistry subjects are female.

New Scientist blames the ‘choice’ to have a family. It points to a study in this month’s American Economic Review which shows that women incur earnings penalties in science if they have children. A recent House of Commons report goes into more detail; it says that scientific research careers are dominated by short term contracts with poor job security at the very time that women need to have children (if they want them). The female postdoctoral scientist faces difficult decisions with very little in the way of institutional support. Women should not have to choose between career and family, says the science magazine. But surely male scientists face similar choices?

Social science research has shown that male and female scientist parents suffer differently in this scenario because they often have different types of partners: male scientists more frequently have a stay-at-home partner looking after the children, whilst female scientists are more likely to have another scientist as a spouse. Male scientists might not need family-friendly working practices to have a successful career*, but female scientists do. Hence the ‘leaky pipeline‘, where high student numbers at university do not translate to equal participation in scientific careers.

Does this matter? It does. Because this is a world where women drivers were killed by car airbags that were designed for male bodies (at speeds of only 20mph, breasts close to the wheel pushed the airbag up towards the neck); where scientists waited 20 years to tell parents to put their babies to sleep on their backs to avoid cot death  (costing over 60,000 lives worldwide); and where the anatomy of the clitoris is forgotten on a regular basis (indeed, we can’t even say the word ‘clitoris’ without raising eyebrows). Yes, female participation in science and technology really matters.

Small wonder, then, that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee argues that the usual emphasis on inspiring girls into science careers is not enough, saying ‘Efforts are wasted if women are subsequently disproportionately disadvantaged in scientific careers compared to men’.

And yet we still hear the rallying cry: ‘We need more women in science”. For example, this year alone, UNESCO, the Welsh Government, and initiatives like ‘Soapbox Science‘ (at the South Bank this week) have all bemoaned the lack of representation of women in science. Whilst this is still true for many countries and subjects, organisations are nevertheless much more vocal about the need to recruit women into science than they are about what needs to be done to retain females in science after graduation.

rare article in this Month’s issue of the Journal ‘Science’ might explain why this is so; after detailing shocking examples of discrimination and misogyny – from inappropriate discussions about rape and female anatomy; to colleagues’ failure to acknowledge female expertise – the author writes “It may be too much to ask women in science organizations to change misogynist culture in a world that remains misogynistic.”

Yes, we need more women, and initiatives like Soapbox Science are valuable for widening people’s ideas of who scientists can be. But the repeated public calls ‘more women in science’ are the result of politics; it is simply much easier for a lobby group to say “we need more women in science” than it is to stand up, look the (mostly male) leaders in science and Government in the eye and say, “Your laboratories, hiring procedures, grant-allocating processes and publishing routines are all sexist, and this results in science and technologies that aren’t good for at least half the population. How can you allow this to continue?”

Jenny Gristock is a freelance science writer. This article appeared in The Guardian on 31 May 2016.

Niagra revisited

This week, I write a story for New Scientist, describing the work of Meghan Provost and her colleagues from Queen’s University, Ontario, who say that women appear to walk less sexily at ovulation. In her research paper, she writes, ‘If women are trying to protect themselves from sexual assault at times of peak fertility, it would make sense for them to advertise attractiveness on a broad scale when they are not fertile, yet still being attractive to people they choose to be with (i.e., during face-to face interactions).’ In other words, the swaying walk becomes less pronounced at ovulation as a protective measure. The story was picked up by BBC NewsGMTV, the Daily Mail, the Metro, the Telegraph, and in Canada, the The Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen.

Strangely, in some places, the research findings have been reported as evidence that a sexy walk is a lie [Telegraph] or a con [Daily Mail]. I think about the hostile reaction to Jenny Eclair’s choice of gadget (her lipstick) in the technology section of the Guardian, and ponder over the interaction between science and gender in the media.

Its Not Over ‘Til the Whole Cafe Sings

At Brighton’s Café Scientifique last night psychotherapist Dr Nick Read talked about ‘The Neuro-Emotional Basis of Modern Ailments‘.

Dr Read is author of ‘Sick and Tired: Healing the Illnesses that Doctors Cannot Cure‘, which will be published by Orion Books later this year. He is a Marathon runner and a keen walker; he trained for this year’s London Marathon by walking in the Tasmanian outback with a 40lb rucksack on his back. Reed is also an advisor to a patient support group called the IBS network, which helps people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and lives in Sheffield.

Read spoke to us about his journey from physician to psychoanalytical psychotherapist, which started when a female technician began to tell him about the traumatic life events that his IBS patients were experiencing. “Doctors are trained to listen for symptoms that they can treat with drugs,” said Read. “My technician would tell me these personal stories, and I would say, ‘Don’t tell me that, I’m a scientist'”. But gradually, as he spent more time listening to patients at his Friday IBS clinic, he started to notice a pattern: the IBS patients were dealing with separation, redundancy, grief, domestic violence and other abuses. “Suddenly my perspective broadened out. I began to see that each patient’s symptoms were unique and fragmentary,” he said.

Read spoke of the findings of the Office of National Statistics’ General Household Survey, which point to a 13 per cent increase in the number of people who say they feel ‘ill all the time’ between 1972 and 2004. He said these numbers were not the result of an ageing population. “It is the younger people who are feeling more ill,” he said.

Read also spoke about unexplained illnesses in the past, which were given labels such as hysteria and ‘the vapours’ saying, “It doesn’t really help us to divide it up into different names.”

Read’s view on unexplained illnesses such as IBS is that “These illnesses are the bodily expression of the feelings of what has happened. That is not to say that drugs do not help some people, that they don’t help give people control over disease. But disasters and life events are associated with illnesses.”

Read gave the example of ulcers, which were associated with stress, but are now known to be associated with Helicobacter pylori infection, saying that both factors appeared to be relevant. Particularly with illnesses such as IBS, he said, it is important to address psychological/emotional issues to help people get better.

“Emotions are bodily feelings put into context. If I can say I am upset about something, I can deal with it. If we can put the symptoms into context, we can form an emotion from them.”

Café Scientifique participants challenged the notion that unexplained illnesses were more common, pointing out that the rise identified by the General Household Survey could be due to different tendencies to report, rather than different numbers of people experiencing these symptoms.

Most of those present were particularly interested in the different possibilities for recovery. Read discussed psychoanalysis and cognitive behavioural therapy as ways to restructure people’s thinking. “If you have a good relationship with your therapist, you will get better,” he said. “We live in the here and now, but the here and now is informed by what went before. We are not free choosers, we have been conditioned to choose in a specific way”.

Other points raised by those present were the ways in which language appears to recognise the idea that symptoms of illnesses were the expression of emotions made through flesh. “We say that ‘so-and-so is a pain in the neck’, we have a ‘gut feeling’,” said one Brighton resident. Others spoke of their own personal experiences and asked for advice on what they could do to take control of their illness. Medical experts had not been able to help them.

Organiser Jim Grozier (Department of Physics, Sussex University) told everyone about next month’s Café Scientifique, which will explore the science of dating. Host Jenny Gristock (City University’s Department of Journalism) pointed out that Chris Turney would not be talking about romance, but rather, bones, rocks and stars (carbon dating).

After everyone thanked the speaker for traveling to Brighton and talking about his work, and Jenny thanked the audience for coming, Jenny brought the discussion to a close by saying that she hoped everyone present would take comfort from the idea that although the science of many of these illnesses were not understood, this did not make the symptoms any less real for those experiencing them.

Finally a participant suggested that the evening should end with a rendition of the song “Always look on the bright side of life” by Monty Python. Those present duly obliged.

Empty Nest

Back to school has a different meaning in our house tonight. It is a little after midnight, and an overflowing suitcase, tuck box and shiny new uniform sit in the hallway. Thanks to a spectacular performance in a scholarship exam, and the persuasive skills of my ex, F. will not be going to the local comprehensive.

Tomorrow morning, I will be taking him to a charity boarding school. An hour ago, when the reality of what was about to happen hit home, I cried my heart out.

Regular readers may remember my son F. appearing in this column before. In 1996 he was a bouncy toddler with the chickenpox. In 2000 he asked questions about the nature of computers, the colour of the sky, or the workings of a video-cam. He is all grown-up now: size-nine shoes and a voice as deep as Sean Connery’s.

His new school offers facilities and opportunities that most can only dream of. But how will he cope? Will he be able to sleep alright? What if he is ill? I try to remember why I am doing this: the prize scholarship, the Elizabethan theatre, class sizes of 10 or fewer, archaeology field trips, music tuition, and the school’s charity status, which ensures that he won’t be surrounded only by the privileged.

But right now my head says yes but my heart says no. Despite the hardships – perhaps because of the hardships – our bond is just too strong. I think back to 1993. Back then, I was a pregnant student studying engineering at Swansea University. From the fourth to the seventh month of my pregnancy I had no income at all. Sadly, despite having no savings or income, I was ineligible for benefits.

F.’s dad and I lived in one room of a shared student house that was heated mostly by the mountains of cigarette butts in the lounge. I’d recently been diagnosed as having epilepsy. By month five I was having seven seizures a day.

This summer, the Government announced it was setting up a task force to try to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies. It is easy to see why; for many people, becoming pregnant at a young age is the worst thing that can happen. But for me, at the age of 21, it was not the end of my life: it was just the beginning.

Motherhood brings joy as well as exhaustion, and before long, I began writing for the Evening Post, to bring home enough money to support my family. Later in 1995, I finished my degree. I went on to complete two more, becoming Dr Gristock in 2002. I’ve worked with the top UK scientists in my job as an academic. But best of all, F. is a kind and thoughtful person, and as happy as a child from a one-parent family can be. He does see his Dad, but of course it is not the same. For all of us.

What the Government task force doesn’t realise is that it is poverty, and not pregnancy, that makes life miserable for young parents. I may have missed out on my youth but if I had my time over, I would not change a single thing. My hardest times were also my happiest: I remember our kitchen, decorated with pictures from the food pages of newspapers; our house, shabby but full of laughter. I remember how it was before the struggle drew a painful wedge between F.’s father and I.

Tonight, as F. sleeps, I realise that I won’t just be feeling the absence of my beautiful son, I will also be missing my best friend.

But best friends don’t act selfishly. So I think about his future, zip up his suitcase, and pour my grief into the computer.

Science’s Skipped Homework

Thanks to science, humans have taken a stroll on the moon, created models of DNA, played billiards with sub-atomic particles and doodled their names with atoms.

Given that scientists accomplished such such feats of technical wizardry, One might think they’d already got the basics well and truly covered.

But in the current issue of New Scientist magazine, Australian scientist Helen O’Connell shows us how wrong this view would be.

O’Connell, a surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia, has been drawing detailed maps of a women’s bodies and has discovered that science has been working from incorrect anatomical diagrams for over 300 years.

The clitoris has in its time, been likened to tiny things like peas and pearls.

Indeed, this so-called mound of erectile tissue owes its name to the Greek word kleitoris, which means ‘little hill’.

But O’Connell’s research has shown that even the most up-to-date anatomy textbooks have no idea what the clitoris looks like. Far from being a little pea, it looks more like an enormous pearl-topped bluebell, with the hood of the flower stretching down around the vagina.

The hitherto unknown part of this flower is also astonishingly large – a whole 9cm long. This is important.

Surgeons carry out many operations in this area, operations which, some claim, have caused their love lives to suffer.

But, as Naomi Wolf notes in her book Promiscuities, the clitoris has always been science’s skipped homework.

Male scientists discovered it in 1559. And again in 1671. And in 1740.

It was forgotten about for a lot longer than usual in the 18th Century before being re-discovered (again) in 1910.

And then in 1926. And again in 1930.

And now, it has been rediscovered in 1998.

Let’s hope they don’t forget again.


First published in the South Wales Evening Post on 15 August 1998

How to Chop an Onion

Last week, I was chasing bits of onion around the chopping board like an arachnophobic with a rolled-up newspaper, and a thought struck me. Why not use science to come up with a better method?

When I chop an onion, I want little slices, no dismembered digits, and dry eyes. The last bit is the trickiest. Onions contain pongy, volatile chemicals which are remarkably mobile for vegetable extracts. These tiny molecules will escape from their moist surroundings and float high into the air, given just a whiff of encouragement.

What happens is this: an air molecule comes down, it crashes into a wet onion surface, and hey presto! Thousands of pongy chemicals are knocked right up our noses. So what should we do? Stand on one foot? Hold our breath? Well, the latter option is scientifically correct, but it’s hardly practical.

The thing to do is to work out how to chop the onion so that your cuts expose just the absolute minimum of wet onion surface to the air. Without a wet onion surface, there is no way those pesky chemicals can be knocked upwards. So as you are chopping, keep the onion bunched tightly together for as long as possible.

One way to do this is to top and tail the onion, then quickly peel it. Whip off an extra layer if you find this too fiddly. Cut the onion in half and bang the wet, exposed sides down on the board before those chemicals get any ideas.

Then carefully slice the onion, but not all the way through- leave a thin bit along the edge to hold it all together. The longer the onion stays bunched together, the less chance there is that it will all end in tears. At this stage, it should look a bit like a big, round, long-toothed comb: the slices are the comb ‘teeth’. Now do the other one.

When you’ve finished, your onion halves should look almost untouched- at least, they are still tightly packed together. Take a deep breath, and go for the finale.

Turn the onion halves through 90 degrees and slice them again. There! Your onion is now chopped and your eyes are dry.

Science is for real life, not text books.

**From the South Wales Evening Post
*** Photo by Chris Gladis

Maternity Ware

“Windows turn rays of sunshine into power” bubbled the headline in New Scientist. Was it true? Was cheap, efficient solar energy just around the corner?

I decided to find out.

According to the magazine, this new type of solar cell had been invented by Professor Michael Grätzel from the University of Lausanne. Gratzelʼs solar panel was efficient because it had a microscopically lumpy surface, like the inside of an Aero chocolate bar. Writing in the journal, Nature, Grätzel explained that the surface could be made three times lumpier still. All I had to do was find a way of reorganising the holes; to make the surface even more bumpy, and we’d be able to get lots more power out of it. If I succeeded, the laboratory experiment would be turned into a real product, alternative energy would become affordable for developing countries, the Earthʼs resources would be more evenly spread and world peace would be ours.

Simple, really.

So there I was, mashing away; mixing my powder with water and spreading thin films of the liquid onto sheets of glass. My tutors laughed at my attempts to overcome equipment shortages. “This is Jennyʼs kitchen,” said Dr Hepburn, as he showed a visitor around my part of the lab. (My samples were drying nicely on cake racks.) Well, I wanted my films to dry without cracking, which required something raised, flat and airy. Thatʼs exactly what you need to cool a cake, isnʼt it?

At the beginning, I had foolish dreams of building my oxide films by selecting different sized powders, and stacking them in particular sequence. Iʼd use mathematics to produce a film as airy as a honeycomb. Iʼd pile up my microscopically small balls of powder like walls of tiny oranges, and seal them with just the right amount of heat…

“How many different sized powders do you stock?” I asked the only supplier of the titanium dioxide nanopowder I needed.

“Just the one,” said the salesperson, breezily.

I was devastated.

How could I increase the space between my oranges if I had no choice about their size? “You could try sputtering the stuff,” said another tutor. “Pop up to the cleanroom and have a chat with James.” The cleanroom was an electronics lab, so named because all the equipment had to be kept totally dust-free to work properly.

The sputtering machine, James explained, could be used to ‘bomb’ a chunk of oxide and deposit the debris in a tidy layer on my piece of glass. “Put on one of those ʻspace-suitsʼ and see for yourself!” he said, before disappearing behind a rubber-sealed door.

With great effort, I bent over and put my feet into the crinkly white body suit. Great expanses of surplus trouser material bunched up around my ankles (“Where is it written that all engineers have to be six feet tall?” I wondered) but the real problem was a bit higher up.

No matter what I did, the zip stuck fast just below my waist. I couldnʼt see where, exactly. Visual contact with my lower abdomen had been lost a few months previously. About the same time my belly button decided to turn itself inside-out.

“I canʼt get it on!!” I yelled through the door-window, gesticulating at the stubborn zip and my indifferent anatomy.

“Sorry,” said a senior scientist, on the way in. “You canʼt go in there without one.” So that was that.

In the end, I made quite a good few films. By some miracle, I caught an Open University TV programme, which showed about ten seconds of Professor Gratzel doing his stuff. That ten seconds was enough to prompt me into building a makeshift support rig, which improved my technique a great deal. No more cracking.

The most crucial part of the experiment – as I learned – frequently isn’t in the research paper at all.

Three months later, by examining my filmsʼ response to being cooked in a furnace, I was able to suggest why a particular temperature was so beneficial. To a non-scientist, this might seem rather unimportant. But in science and technology, our realisation of the importance of a discovery often comes long after an experimental result.

But the point of my research project, as I eventually realised, was not to change the world, nor to make great scientific discoveries. It was to teach me about the limitations that the world imposes on our work, and how to prevail or remain creative despite them.

Jenny finished her final year project in December 1993. Her son Finnian was born three days later.

reaping a harvest of young talent

Highly Commended by the Daily Telegraph, April 1996