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Podcast: Jess Wade on Wikipedia and work-life balance

Stereo Chemistry shares a story from ChemConvos

by Kerri Jansen
June 21, 2022

Graphic showing the ChemConvos podcast logo.
Credit: Courtesy of ChemConvos/C&EN
Credit: ChemConvos/C&EN

This month, Stereo Chemistry is sharing an episode of the podcast ChemConvos featuring an interview with materials scientist, self-described “Raman spectroscopy enthusiast,” and prolific Wikipedia editor Jess Wade. On ChemConvos, hosts Henry Powell-Davies and Medina Afandiyeva seek to uncover the story behind the scientist. In this episode, the trio discusses not only Jess’s work as a research fellow at Imperial College London but also how she manages burnout and the importance of a supportive lab culture. And, of course, they dig into the origins of her Wikipedia project, which has resulted in Wade creating more than 1,400 biographies on Wikipedia aiming to highlight women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ scientists and engineers.

Follow ChemConvos on Twitter at @ChemConvosPod. Find new episodes at or on your favorite podcast platform.

Subscribe to Stereo Chemistry now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

The following is an automatically generated transcript of the episode.

Kerri Jansen: You’re listening to Stereo Chemistry. I’m Kerri Jansen. We’re taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming to work on our next season about the future of water. You can look for that later this summer. But this month, we’re sharing an episode from ChemConvos, a podcast that is all about finding the story behind the scientist. I have hand selected an episode that I think you’ll really enjoy. It features an interview with Jess Wade, whom you may know from her extensive efforts to create Wikipedia articles about people who are traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields—that’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Jess is also a research fellow at Imperial College London where she studies new materials for electronic devices, which apparently involves a lot of Raman spectroscopy. We’ll definitely hear more about that during the interview.

To help introduce the episode, I’ve asked the hosts of ChemConvos, Medina Afandiyeva and Henry Powell-Davies, to join me in the Stereo Chemistry virtual studio.

Medina and Henry, welcome to Stereo Chemistry!

Medina Afandiyeva: Thanks for having us.

Henry Powell-Davies: Thanks for having us.

Kerri: So we are going to talk about your show a little bit. That’s why you’re here. But to start off, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves? Who are Henry and Medina?

Henry Powell-Davies: Sure, I guess I’ll start then. I’m Henry Powell-Davies. Hi, everybody. I started, kind of my chemistry career, I suppose, I did an undergraduate degree at Cardiff University for 4 years, then went on to start a PhD in Glasgow in October of 2019. We all know what happened next, the pandemic happened. And, you know, due to that and a few other decisions, I decided to stick out the master’s for 2 years, and I graduated then in June of 2021 with a master’s MPhil in chemistry. I’ve then gone on to become a graduate data analyst at Stantec, based in Glasgow, and yeah, that’s gonna hopefully be a prospering career going forward. And it’s just really good to kind of still have this as a kind of back door into the chemistry community and, you know, interview lots of amazing people, as we’ll get into later. But yeah, that’s me.

Medina Afandiyeva: I can continue, I guess. So my name is Medina. I am a second-year grad student at the University of Rochester. I’m officially a PhD candidate as of now, because I just finished, passed my exam. I did my undergrad at the University of Toronto, and now I’m working in a brand-new lab.

Kerri: And you’re in the lab right now, it looks like, so what are you working on today?

Medina Afandiyeva: So in my undergrad, I was more of an organic chemist, and then now I’m more on the organometallic side, designing new complexes and new ligands and hopefully testing them in the future and different transformations. So yeah, super excited. Brand-new project.

Kerri: So let’s talk a little bit about this show, ChemConvos. Something that I really appreciate about these conversations on your show is that we do get a lot of these personal stories alongside the science. And at the same time, we can really hear these people’s passion for what they do. Can you talk a little bit about what you love about making ChemConvos?

Henry Powell-Davies: I think from my side, I think it’s really about connecting with the variety of people that we have. And just kind of hearing all of their different stories and perspectives on life in general. And I’ve learned a lot, I think, from ways I can improve, you know, things I do in my life, day to day. Somebody mentioned, like, going on daily lunchtime walks, and that’s something I’ve now sought to integrate into my life that I probably wouldn’t have done had we not interviewed that person. And it’s really, you know, if we can inspire at least just one person from an episode, then that’s brilliant. But I think, like you’ve said, we’re reaching far more than just one person with the different guests we’ve had. So, yeah, it really is about the stories that each of our guests bring to their episodes.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah, I’m gonna definitely echo that.

Your science and what you do, it depends so much on your background, or on the challenges that you’ve been facing in life, or your personality. And I feel like, there are a lot of those aspects that are getting forgotten when you publish the paper. I mean, nobody asks, you know, who you are, or, like, what do you do outside of the work, you know, but we really wanted to kind of dig into that. And it’s very interesting to see the person behind the lab coat.

Henry Powell-Davies: You know, we’ve talked about what we do when we’re not working. And I think that’s just as important for people as scientists, or people in general, to be fair, to have kind of that work-and-life balance. So that kind of runs through, I think, all of our episodes.

Kerri: So that’s actually a great transition to my next question, which is . . . what can listeners expect coming up next on ChemConvos?

Henry Powell-Davies: I think one of the main things will be a real focus on encouraging the E, D, and I [equity, diversity, and inclusion] in STEM. Because obviously, it’s such a big issue at the moment around women in STEM, Black in STEM, and disabled in STEM as well, just to name a few kind of main ideas. And we really want to focus on promoting that in having a real good range of guests on the podcast. We’re focusing on that already on some of the ones we’ve got coming up. And yeah, just kind of enabling kind of everyone to have a voice. I mean, it’s really important.

Kerri: Yeah. And that fits in as well with this episode that we’re going to be hearing in just a moment, which you were generous enough to share with us, featuring Jess Wade, whom a lot of folks might know from her work to write Wikipedia articles for women in STEM. And we’re going to give listeners a preview of that in just a moment. But first, if folks want to connect with you and with ChemConvos, where can they do that?

Henry Powell-Davies: So you can connect with me on Twitter @hpowelldavies. That’s H-P-O-W-E-double-L D-A-V-I-E-S, all one word. And then the podcast itself is @ChemConvosPod. Again, all one word on Twitter. We also have an Anchor page, which is where the podcast is hosted, and it’s available on, like, all major podcast platforms like Apple, Spotify, and I think Google as well actually. Yeah, basically you can find it anywhere.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah, and if you would like to connect with me, my Twitter account is @afandiy2020. I should change it.

Kerri: Quick editor’s note—Medina did change her Twitter handle. It’s now @afandiy22. That’s A-F-A-N-D-I-Y-22.

Medina Afandiyeva: And yeah, we’ll be happy to answer any questions or requests or if you want to be a guest, please be our guest!

Henry Powell-Davies: Yeah, and if for whatever reason you don’t have Twitter and you may be listening to this on the C&EN website, you can also email us actually at I’ve not had many emails, but if people want to do it that way, I’m happy to answer those emails.

Kerri: OK, great. And we’ll definitely be linking to the show in our show notes as well for this episode. So let’s talk about this episode that we’re gonna hear next. You sat down with Jess Wade. Can you tell us a little bit about what we can expect to hear?

Henry Powell-Davies: So one of the main points, and you did touch on that, Kerri, about the Wikipedia pages that Jess has been, you know, a really big advocate for creating. And, you know, she’s essentially trying to—and she’ll probably correct me on this—but trying to kind of enable more women to kind of be shown for the great work they’re doing, regardless of race, disability, anything like that. And we all know kind of the issues around gender stereotypes and inequities when it comes to men and women in science. So I think the main aim of what she’s doing is to promote just how amazing all these great women in science are through those Wikipedia pages.

Medina Afandiyeva: We also talked about what she usually likes to do outside work and then what are the ways to release the stress. And then, in addition to that, we talked a lot about how people transition from, you know, being in high school to the university, and what are the opportunities in the US versus UK and Europe.

Henry Powell-Davies: We also discussed her research around Raman spectroscopy. And it’s quite detailed in terms of what her research is. I won’t go into too much; people can listen if they’re interested.

Kerri: Yeah, and I think not only do we hear about Jess’s research relating to Raman spectroscopy but also her just deep enthusiasm for Raman spectroscopy.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yes, that’s the best part.

Henry Powell-Davies: Yeah, I think she has a real, like, passion for, you know, the work she does. And I think that’s important, you know, regardless of whether you’re a scientist or not, to have that kind of innate interest in what you’re doing day to day, and yeah, it really shows through in the episode.

Kerri: Yeah, definitely. And I think our listeners, listeners of Stereo Chemistry, are really going to enjoy it. So thanks, both of you, for helping introduce the episode.

Medina Afandiyeva: Of course!

Henry Powell-Davies: Oh, you’re welcome.

Kerri (in studio): And now, without further ado, ChemConvos.

Henry Powell-Davies: Hi everyone, welcome to this episode of the ChemConvos podcast.

Medina Afandiyeva: Today we’re joined by Dr. Jess Wade. Jess, would you like to introduce yourself?

Jess Wade: Hello everyone! My name is Jess and I’m an Imperial College Research Fellow in the Department of Materials at Imperial College London, where I study chiral materials and their application in electronic and spintronic devices.

Medina Afandiyeva: That’s very cool.

Jess Wade: It’s super cool. But I feel like, I’m so terrified about this because I’m not actually a chemist. I’m like an undercover physicist, working so closely with chemists. I often forget that I’m not a chemist, and I’ve not had the, like, extraordinary organic synthesis training and all of this stuff that you’ve all had. So I kind of jump in at the end, grab the molecules and run. And so I feel like a fraud. [laughter]

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah, kind of like a thief, stealing molecules.

Jess Wade: Right!

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah, I guess one of the things . . . like it kind of flows with a question that we had, because you said that in one of the descriptions on Twitter was you’re a “Raman spectroscopy enthusiast” and we, I mean, I don’t know as much about Raman. So I was wondering whether you could explain it?


Jess Wade: Oh, so you want to know more about Raman.

Medina Afandiyeva: Sure, and your passion for it.

Jess Wade: So it’s my favorite characterization technique. It’s a vibrational spectroscopy based on the inelastic scattering of light. So you basically shine a laser of a particular wavelength, obviously, onto your thin film or your molecule in a particular configuration, and you excite the molecule to a virtual excited state. So it doesn’t go fully up to that electronically excited state, but it kind of hovers in a virtual excited state. And when it starts doing this, the atoms in your molecule start to vibrate. And for everyone who’s not watching the recording, I’m vibrating my atom-like arms. And when the atoms start to vibrate, at particular energies, depending on what that bond is inside your molecule, you see the scatter of light that comes back. So you see that inelastic scatter of light. And thanks to the development of kind of amazing spectrometers to be able to measure it, we end up as scientists with a spectrum, which has kind of Raman shifts. So the energy of that light, and then different peaks, and the peaks correspond to different chemical bonds. So it’s kind of this really beautiful technique to really get a fingerprint of what’s happening inside your molecule, or your polymer. And you can use the spectrum to understand how it’s changed in molecular order, or how something’s happened to it. Potentially it’s degraded, if you’re making something like a solar cell, and you’ve left it out in the light, you might want to know which bonds are breaking. If you’re making a LED, and you’re driving it for a while, you might want to know what’s changed in the structure and how you can make that better for next time. So it’s a really extraordinary kind of tool for understanding, well, lots of materials, but I’m particularly interested in how we can use it for conjugated organic materials.

Henry Powell-Davies: That’s fascinating. I mean, that’s a lot for, you know, anyone that didn’t know what Ramen was, there you go as a bite-sized kind of description, I guess.

Medina Afandiyeva: We need some science in our podcast too.

Jess Wade: It’s so cool. And there starting to use it in things like airports, because you can do screening of kind of transparent liquids. So if you’re taking water and there’s always that silly part, although none of us have experienced it for the last 18 months, but that time when you get to the check-in, and they’re like, oh, you’ve got to throw away your brand new bottle of water, or you’ve got to pour all of the precious, precious drink out of your drinking vessel. And if we could do something like a handheld Raman spectrometer, you’d be able to instantly know exactly what was in that liquid. So you could say of course, you can go through it’s not vodka or whatever other thing you’re trying to pass. So it’s a really beautiful non-destructive technique for characterizing lots and lots of different materials. And I love seeing it used in so many different sciences. I met a cool researcher—I know this isn’t the point of the podcast, sorry—but I met a fantastic researcher from the natural history museum, who was using Raman to look at the pigments in mollusks, like colorful mollusks, so shells, so beautiful, beautiful shells, and we can put them under our Raman spectrometer and tell you exactly what the pigment is and how it evolved from another pigment. So I’m just like having the best time ever on the 10th floor of the labs in South Kensington, kind of just running around putting whatever under the Raman and seeing what happens.

Henry Powell-Davies: That’s pretty cool. And for anyone who doesn’t understand Raman, it’s not the not the Japanese cuisine, right?


Jess Wade: I mean, most people I’ve met who do Raman also enjoy ramen. But, like, when I started my master’s project, which was when I first dabbled in this beautiful technique, I was trained by a fantastic guy called David James, who was finishing his PhD. And when it was his birthday, and I was a master’s student, I was so determined to impress him, and he’d taught me how to do Raman. And so I got him a voucher for a ramen bar in South Kensington as his birthday present. And I honestly thought it was the funniest thing. I was like, I am a comedy genius! But now obviously, everyone just confuses them all the time. It’s Raman with two A’s in spectroscopy. Whereas it’s A-E when it’s the noodles?

Medina Afandiyeva: Now everyone is gonna go and eat ramen after.

Jess Wade: I know I’m definitely ordering ramen tonight.

Henry Powell-Davies: Amazing. So I guess like touching on . . . you touched on your research briefly there, could you kind of say maybe in a sentence or two kind of what it is that your research you enjoy most?

Jess Wade: Oh, what is it about my research that I enjoy most? I think I enjoy everything so much. So I work really closely with all of these different chemists and materials scientists. And I really love that idea, especially, you know, for all the chemists listening, that you can go from drawing out a molecule on, you know, whatever computational software you use, or just drawing a molecule out, and then go through that arduous process of synthesizing it, for most of which I’m backstage for and don’t have to get involved with, and then and then translate that into a thin film or into some kind of solid state that you can then apply in a device. And I just love that kind of sequence that it can be, we’re going to make this material, or we’ve made this material, we’re pretty sure we’ve made it, we’ve done all these checks to make sure that we’ve made what we think we’ve made. Let’s try it out in a thin film, let’s understand how the molecules are arranged, Let’s optimize how the molecule’s arranged and then let’s put it into device. And I just think it’s such a kind of beautiful sequence of events when that happens. It’s always exciting. So I love that. But more it’s just kind of, you know, that constant every day waking up with curiosity and with questions like, huh, I might want to investigate that, or that might be arranged in that way, or maybe we could do this experiment. Or I just read this fantastic review from someone who I’ve never met in a part of the world I’ve never been to that might offer some insight on what we’re working on. And I feel this kind of . . . yeah, I feel so phenomenally lucky to have found a job where I feel that excited every day to do it.

Henry Powell-Davies: Yeah.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah, I think that should be the goal for every person, to find a job that makes you so passionate and enthusiastic. Like I just love hearing you talk about it. It’s just . . . you can tell how enthusiastic you are and how much you love your job. And I think that that’s like totally the one of the things that everyone should keep in mind.

Jess Wade: Yeah, I think we’re really privileged as scientists, right? Like, to have that kind of curiosity be your job,to be able to kind of wake up and go to sleep with all these questions in your head, to be able to work with people who are so phenomenally kind of creative and bright and switched on. And I think kind of, you know, I’ve managed somehow to work with incredibly encouraging, supportive, magical, collaborative, kind of super-focused-on-teamwork people. And I think that that’s made it such an easy transition from being a student into being a scientist, that you’re working with people who so want you and the project to succeed that every day you feel like it’s great to be here.

Henry Powell-Davies: Amazing.

Medina Afandiyeva: 100%. I think one of the, I guess, trade-offs for being so enthusiastic and passionate about your work is the burnout. And sometimes you don’t actually feel that you have that burnout, because you’re so excited to do your work every single day like 24/7. Like, at some point, there’s that missed correlation between your brain and like your excitement. And like, you don’t know, you don’t feel that your brain is actually tired, and you need a break. So we were wondering whether you’ve ever experienced something like a burnout, and how do you manage it in your life to, you know, balance that.


Jess Wade: For sure. I think . . . I mean, I take on so many projects, and there’s so many cool collaborations, and there’s so many “can you just check this?” and “why don’t we try doing this?” and then you read something and you’re like, “oh, I’ve got this great idea for the next thing!” that obviously, at the end of the week, or sometimes midweek, or sometimes on the weekend, you’re like, oh, I can’t take it! Like, I don’t know who I’m supposed to email. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be replying to. And I think that I managed to moderate it or like, keep myself afloat by doing different things as well. So obviously, I think that taking time out of the lab and taking time away from your desk is super, super important. I think sports has been a really good way for me to be able to just separate myself, you know, no one can ask you to go and check a Raman spectrum if you’re out running, you know, 20 km from where your lab is. No one can even email you if you’re swimming. You can’t get any of those messages when you’re in the pool. So I feel like I use a sport as a way to really clear my head. And it’s been so useful during the pandemic, you know, if I’m getting nervous about a response to reviews, or if I’m kind of trying to work out the shape of a paper, or if I’m getting anxious about giving a presentation, taking my mind entirely off science and entirely away from my desk, and going out somewhere where you can really kind of free your thoughts and think creatively. And then kind of, I always keep a little to-do list on my phone of things to correct when I get back. So I’m like, maybe I’ll move slide 4 to slide 8, or something like that. You know, you keep thinking about things, but your head is free to clear it. But also having friends who aren’t scientists or aren’t in academia really, really helps. I think it kind of contextualizes all the stresses and the big issues that we’re having. And luckily, my kind of friends from high school and growing up, working in such cool and interesting job areas, every time I feel like something is massively important, and this is so terrible, and you go and talk to them. And you’re like, actually, this is super minor. Like, this is something, you know, this is affecting such a small, you know, this is such a tiny thing. And I think that that that has been really useful. And you know, I have a fantastic brother and mum and dad who are just super supportive of anything. So if I go to them to moan about, you know, a really mean peer-review interaction, or some professor who said something terrible again, on Twitter, they’re just like, “Calm down. Let’s talk about something else. Let’s focus on something else.” So I think, definitely family, separating yourself by having hobbies, and that could be cooking or sport or writing Wikipedia pages, which is another big one of mine. But also having friends who aren’t scientists really helps. Other than when it was kind of early days in the pandemic, I was so enthusiastic and keen to have gone back into the lab. And I was like, oh yeah, I’ve done all these amazing measurements. And I was on the phone to my friend who’s an actor. And I was like, “I finally got to go to Surrey to play with a massive magnet!’ And he was like, “Oh, cool. I’m going to the Dominican Republic next week to film this film with like, Brad Pitt.” So you’re kind of like, okay, different worlds. But, but yeah, I definitely, you know, having life outside the lab is what gets you out of being burnt out.

Henry Powell-Davies: Yeah, I mean, I completely agree. I think for me, it was, you know, a big part of the past year, as well, finding things to do outside the lab. For me, it’s like cooking. And, you know, like you said, having someone outside of that bubble of academia. So my partner, she’s an optometrist, soon to be a primary school teacher. And like, it’s nice to just chat about stuff, you know, not, like, worrying about, like, judgment and stuff that you could have in academia from some people.

Jess Wade: For sure.

Henry Powell-Davies: So that’s definitely good.

Jess Wade: Her primary teaching will include a lot of science, I’m guessing, Henry.

Henry Powell-Davies: Yeah. That’ll be my job to kind of help with that, I think.

Jess Wade: Yeah!

Henry Powell-Davies: So something you touched on there actually, was the Wikipedia work you’ve done, and kind of . . . we were wondering what got you first interested in writing and editing those, and then obviously doing the 500 Women Scientists project as well alongside that. Just wondering if you could talk about that a bit?

Jess Wade: Yeah. I mean, I should start by saying 500 Women Scientists is an international network of women, but also people from other historically marginalized groups who kind of come together to honor and champion the work of women scientists. And as much as I’d love to take full credit for it, because I think it’s absolutely phenomenal. I had nothing to do with its inception. So it was a bunch of really extraordinary researchers in the states who after the results of a certain presidential election, got pretty bummed out and frightened about the kind of future, particularly of those who’ve been kind of overlooked, and came together and have since developed an incredible platform for connecting women scientists, really extraordinary resources. They have funding, they have fellowships they have, you know, they’re a nonprofit now. And I think that my interactions with them have just been to kind of amplify and to serve. So I don’t want to take any credit for that. But Wikipedia was . . . I guess I stumbled on Wikipedia. You know, I’ve used it my entire, well, not my entire life; it’s only 20 years old this year. But I’ve used it since the early days of Wikipedia. I think I probably remember it coming online when I was at high school, or becoming a bigger thing when I was at high school. And then you know, throughout my undergrad and then, well, ever since then, I’ve used it as this go-to place to get information. And I’ve just kind of always naively trusted that everything important is on there. And that everything on there is is written in this kind of neutral and impartial way and probably by people who know a lot better than I. And I’ve kind of simultaneously been working on projects to kind of try and improve the representation and recognition of women and minorities in science for a really long time. You know, I finished actually . . . I went to art school after high school. And then I got into the physics department at Imperial. And it was overwhelmingly male-dominated, overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly privileged. And I kind of hadn’t been anywhere near ready for that to happen. And so I kind of got on with it, because, you know, it’s actually quite hard when you’ve had a little bit of time in art school, a little time in Italy doing Renaissance art, and you go into a physics department, and everyone’s brilliant, and everyone remembers all of the maths, and everyone remembers, and you’re just like, okay, I’ve got to remember differentiation. So in the beginning I was not dedicating a huge amount of time to outreach and equity. But progressively throughout my kind of training, it became something that was really important to me to get right. And so I’ve been doing all of these kind of outreach events and public engagement activities. And then I thought, like, the stories that I now have amassed about extraordinary scientists and the people I’ve learned about, you know, both of you will have experienced that every time people say, oh, we just don’t have enough role models. There aren’t enough role models. And I think that there absolutely are enough role models. There are so many exemplary Black scientists, LGBTQ+ scientists, scientists from the Global South, that we just don’t talk and celebrate enough. And so I was kind of thinking about all these people that I used and I spoke about when I went out into these high schools, or when I worked with teachers and parents. And then I found out about Wikipedia, and not being this, you know, extraordinarily comprehensive encyclopedia, as I once thought, that actually it was created by people, it was created by a pretty homogeneous group of people, the majority of which are white men in North America, and had massive content gaps. So kind of hand-in-hand, I was thinking, we need to do more online outreach, we need to do more storytelling on platforms that people are consuming. It’s all well and good, me going and giving a lecture in front of, you know, 30 kids during lunchtime, but they’re probably not going to remember me at any time that’s significant in their education decisions. And it’s only 30 kids, whereas Wikipedia gets about 15 billion views a month. So I started at the beginning of 2018. And frankly, I’ve surprised myself by how I haven’t given up. So I’ve been writing a 1 Wikipedia page every single day about women and people of color and LGBTQ+ scientists and engineers. And yeah, it’s been really extraordinary. I’ve just surpassed 1400, which is so cool.

Medina Afandiyeva: Wow.


Jess Wade: Yeah, I know! I keep saying to my mum, come on, like buy me a cake or something, such a time to celebrate. [laughter]

But yeah. But I guess the phenomenal thing is (a) that these people weren’t written about in the first place. You know, they’re so extraordinary and so accomplished. But also that every single day you learn something new. And that’s kind of what I love about being a scientist. And then I have that in the lab in the day, I have that, you know, speaking to my colleagues in the day, and then in the evening, when I write these Wikipedia pages, I get that kind of . . . whoa, like, neuroscience is amazing. Psychology is fantastic. And I love that. So I’m really privileged to do it.

Henry Powell-Davies: That’s amazing. I mean, is there anybody who you haven’t yet been able to write a Wikipedia page on that you kind of want to? Who’s kind of your next person you’d like to do?

Jess Wade: That’s such a good question. Actually, I’ve just been going through—and this is chemistry-related everyone. So Angewandte, if you remember last summer, there was that whole scandal when Angewandte published that ridiculous article about organic synthesis, that was very . . . well, it was just absurd. And in the past couple of weeks, they’ve appointed an entirely new international advisory board, who are all just really cool. Like, they’ve obviously worked really hard to make sure that they’ve identified like, super cool chemists all over the world. So I’ve been making my way systematically through that list to make sure that they’re all on Wikipedia. Because I think that kind of service role in academia is usually really overlooked. You know, being on those advisory boards and panels is a lot of work. And also, they’re just super cool people, as mentioned. So that’s what I’ve been working on lately. But there are so many people, Henry, who I want to write about, but Wikipedia has kind of notability criteria for who you can and can’t write about. It’s a general-interest encyclopedia after all. And those notability criteria are things like number of grants won, number of papers published, number of big awards brought in. And we know, as scientists, that those are biased towards particular types of scientists. Like, we know that white men from Western speaking countries are more likely to be successful in those areas. So that’s why there’s this huge bias on Wikipedia, coupled with the lack of diversity in the editors. But it makes it so that every time I kind of sit down, I’m like, oh, this person is awesome, or like their research is awesome. But they haven’t won enough awards yet. Like, they haven’t gotten enough big papers out yet, because the system is broken. So there’s so many people who I’d like to write about who I just feel like, you know, I have a ton of bookmarks of people whose pages I need to make. And then also, you know, people whose pages I’m going to need to make in 5years. When we’ve got so many brilliant people working in an area, we need to shout about them. Like we really need to tell these stories, because what’s on Wikipedia gets into textbooks, like, it gets into high school textbooks. What’s on Wikipedia is what high school science teachers use when they’re putting together, you know, those kinds of poster walls they have in their classroom, or what kids use when they’re doing science projects. And, remarkably, I had no idea about this kind of, you know, huge international interaction Wikipedia with our lives. But journalists use it when they’re gonna go on air to talk about something or if they’re trying to book an expert to come on. Like, it secretly, silently intersects with so many aspects of our society, that having those stories there is really, really crucial. You know, when you’re watching the news, and they’re like, oh, we’ve got this other vaccine, or like, this terrible thing is happening, and no one’s wearing face masks. When you look up the expert who’s come on air, and you see they have a Wikipedia page, you’re like, oh, yeah, that’s like, they’ve got credentials. Like, I trust that now. And I think it’s been really important for me to make sure all of those people, all of those experts have Wikipedia pages. So it’s kind of like, you want to put the experts on a platform so that other people can find it and use it for their resources, but also so that when we, the general public is sitting down watching something and you do that kind of cheeky search on your favorite search engine, you can find out exactly who that person is, and feel reassured that they were, you know, they have the creds that they say they did.

Henry Powell-Davies: That’s amazing. I think, you know what you do if you can’t get someone on Wikipedia, because of their notability or not, you can just make your own Wikipedia, I think, you know. Wade-opedia maybe? I don’t know.

Jess Wade: Wade-opedia? [laughter]

Henry Powell-Davies: Throwing the idea out there. You heard it here first, you know.

Jess Wade: I think my dad would like that very much. He’s currently quite upset, because some very kind person a while ago made me a Wikipedia page, even though it was unnecessary. I did not ask for it. But they’ve put my mum’s name on there and not my dad. So it says who my mum is. And I think if we made a new encyclopedia called Wade-opedia of all awesome graduate students and early career researchers, then yeah. He’d be proud. Everything I’ve achieved in my, in my short time here on the world, he’s just thought, “That’s all right.” But Wade-opedia would make him smile. [laughter]

Henry Powell-Davies: So let’s transition slightly. So every episode, if you’ve listened to one, Jess, we have a random question. And our random question for you today is kind of what was your favorite school subject?

Jess Wade: That’s such a good random question! My favorite school subject was definitely art, I think, you know, throughout. When I was at primary school, we had this strange, but now in retrospect, perfect situation, where we’d have art one week, and then science the next week, and they’d be kind of oscillating between the two. I can’t remember if we had the same teacher for both. But it really showed you even from the age of 5, how intermixed art and science were, how that kind of creativity that you’re taught so much and celebrated so much for in art is essential for succeeding as a scientist. You know, we don’t get told what to do. We don’t know what’s going to happen in our experiments. You know, we can’t predict what the applications of something will be. But the training you get in art to think creatively and to start having that imagination is so important for that. And so yeah, definitely through primary school it was art. And then when I was in secondary school, I think it was just because all the really cool kids were doing art, and I’d see them coming into assembly, and they’d have like their sketchbooks or something really cool drawn on their school shirt. And I was like, I’ve got to be like that one day. And obviously, I’ve never become that cool in my entire life. But I really enjoy doing art. I’m not sure, Medina, where you did your high school training, but in the UK, we have real restrictions on what we can study when we go through high school. So when you kind of . . . in your final 2 years of high school, when you’re making all of those really big decisions about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life, we’re only allowed to study four subjects, which is completely absurd, right? So if you want to do medicine, then you have to have chemistry, you pretty much have to have biology and maths. So that means that three out of the four subjects that are the only things you’ll do for 2 years are already decided. For physics, you have to have physics, you have to have maths, you probably have to have an advanced maths. So art during that time, and also chemistry, was what kind of kept me just super happy. When everything felt like it was, you know, so specific and targeted to what you thought you wanted to do at university, art was that kind of creative outlet, and yeah, I think it was definitely . . . it still is important for me, art.


Medina Afandiyeva: It’s really weird how you said, like, they expect you to figure out your entire future career at like 15 years old.

Jess Wade: At 15 years old!

Medina Afandiyeva: That’s really crazy.

Henry Powell-Davies: Pretty much. Pretty much, yeah.

Jess Wade: And it means that it kind of embeds privilege, right? Because if your parents are scientists or doctors or engineers, then you’re much more likely to know about it by the age of 15. Or if you live near a university, or if you go to science museums on the weekend, or if you like, watch David Attenborough documentaries, you will be thinking in a really different way when you’re 15, to people who’ve never had those experiences, even though you could both go on to become kind of formidable scientists. So I do think, you know, for so many reasons, the UK education system is really limiting, but making people decide before they’ve even really worked out who they are, seems incredibly backwards to me.

Henry Powell-Davies: I agree. And I do think in . . . especially when it gets to university as well, that the US system, the liberal arts system, I think, where you’re able to choose quite a few different subjects. It’s a lot better than . . .

Jess Wade: Yeah, but you have to be a millionaire, Henry. To have any idea about going to university.

Henry Powell-Davies: Ah, true.

Jess Wade: You have to be like, have an endowment. I don’t understand how anyone does it. Sorry, Medina, you might be able to tell us, how does anyone afford American university?

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah, I would say for undergrad, it’s almost impossible unless you’re very, very rich. Or, like, extremely genius and have, like, crazy scores and 1000 different exams that you took. But so I did my undergrad in Canada, and I got just extremely lucky with the governmental scholarship from back home, because the scholarship ended in 2015, like after my year. So if I waited for another year, it’s a crazy story. Like everything happened in like five days. And everyone’s like, why did you choose that university? I’m like, I think it’s the university that just chose me because it’s just like, it was a very random experience. In the grad school, they pay you. So it’s great.

Jess Wade: We get paid for grad school, but you can’t get to grad school until you’ve done an undergrad.

Medina Afandiyeva: But I think there are a lot of good options in in Germany and Europe.

Jess Wade: But you shouldn’t have to like, of course, there are good options. But I think some kind of rate limiting step to us having more diversity in the sciences is that not everyone can travel. Not everyone wants to leave their family. Some people have caring responsibilities, some people can’t just drop it all because you get a sword when you finish your PhD in Sweden or whatever. I think, you know, that’s something I’ve always found really bizarre about science as a career, that it’s very much built on this idea that you have to be able to drop everything immediately and take a short-term contract somewhere. And not everyone is okay doing that. And that’s okay, that they’re not okay doing that. And I think it’s, yeah, it’s another really backwards thing. Because it I guess it comes from a time when you couldn’t easily connect on Zoom to someone instantly in another part of the world, you know, when I’ve done kind of remote beam time sessions, and you’re connecting to California or to Oxford, or wherever you are, that was a completely different time in science when you couldn’t do that. And you had to travel physically to those places. And I think so much of kind of science and education is built on this really old-school idea that we can just hop online now. And as a result, you see people who don’t want to make that jump or don’t want to stop their life leaving because they go into professions where they don’t have to.

Medina Afandiyeva: Mhmm, 100%. No I think that like this topic, I can talk about this topic, like for hours because like, I used to get so frustrated, like in my application that like everything is not free and like the way how they like, quote, “treat” international students and how, you know, like, you need to be extremely, extremely successful and just like . . . to be at the level of like . . . not even at the level of an American, but like at the level of an average American you have to be like extremely . . . but it’s still not the same. Like it’s just so different and frustrating. And the fact that you need to pay for your education as an undergraduate. It’s very . . . yeah.

Jess Wade: Maybe not. Maybe now America has a new president. He seems to be more . . . . but it won’t change for international students, you’re right. Because that’s how universities make money.

Henry Powell-Davies: I was gonna say, same here in the UK now with, you know, Brexit. You know, that’s a major issue for students who want to come over to study at UK universities.

Jess Wade: Yeah, I don’t know if you know, Medina, about the ins and outs of our terrible government, but in this kind of terrible political decision to leave the European Union, we’ve now made it mandatory for European students to pay international student fees, which are kind of four times what UK students and EU students used to pay, which means that overnight, you’ve gone from paying, you know, equivalent to what UK student’s fees that students pay, which is, you know, $8000, $9000 a year to $30,000, 30-whatever-plus thousand. And, obviously, it completely changes the demographics of who thinks they can come to the UK to study or to live or to work. And I think it’s going to be absolutely terrible for science in this country, or for all of university subjects in this country, actually. But really, science benefits so much from kind of international cooperation and diversity of ideas, to have done this to students just seems so short-sighted.

Medina Afandiyeva: Not only not only to students, but to themselves, right? I guess you mentioned, like, the science is gonna suffer from this.

Jess Wade: So much. I can’t think of a single interesting collaboration I’ve been on where the team of people doing it weren’t international, like weren’t international and diverse. Like, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a team that hasn’t had people from different parts of the world, and especially working at universities like Imperial, everyone is international, every single class, every single conversation you have is with people who didn’t grow up in the UK. And I can’t imagine science without that. So to make people pay a prohibitively large amount of money, whether that’s just to apply or to attend, feels like science will suffer pretty quickly as a result of it.

Henry Powell-Davies: Sure. For sure. Any government listening, just yeah, try and change it. [laughter]

Jess Wade: Yeah, change your ways! You’ve ruined the country!

Medina Afandiyeva: Don’t run science in the UK, please.

Henry Powell-Davies: So I think that was a really interesting discussion around like, obviously, lack of opportunities for some people and kind of lack of diversity as well. And I guess, obviously, you were awarded back in 2019 with the British Empire Medal. I mean, that’s a massive accolade. And congratulations on that. We just want to know kind of how it made you feel? Obviously, it’s a big thing to be kind of celebrated for your work in diversity. And just wondered kind of how you reacted when you received that news.

Jess Wade: Yeah. It comes as a letter. I mean, I had no idea that these kinds of awards or honors even existed, and I’m obviously part of the part of the population who thinks that we should get rid of words like imperial and empire and things like that, because that’s such a horrible part of British history. But I also think that getting recognition for something that’s so important is quite a cool thing to have. It comes as a kind of letter in the mail. And it said Dr. J. Wade on the front, and Dr. J. Wade is also my dad, who’s John Wade, for all the listeners out there who care a lot about neurology. So he opened it and started reading it. And I think the pronouns were like she/her or you know, something about . . . it was something that made it quite obvious it wasn’t it for him. So it’s like, oh, your mother must have had an honor. So it was like, oh, Dad’s had an honor for his longtime service to the NHS. Oh, mum must have had it for her service, to the NHS. And it really only dawned on us after about 5 min that it was actually for me. So, at first, it just made me feel very surprised, and also embarrassed for Dad, for thinking it was him by default. But actually, you know, it was . . . it’s fun. I mean, it’s a really great thing to have happen. But literally anything that I’ve achieved or been awarded, I feel like my responsibility is to make that up and get that for someone else. So a lot of the time I spend when I’m not writing Wikipedia pages is writing awards and nominations and honors things for other people. And because I really want other people to be recognized for the work that they do. So I actually get really embarrassed about things like that. I hate talking about it. I hate that moment when people are introducing you at conferences, and they read out your like terribly embarrassing biography. I’m like, aaaaaagh. And so my favorite thing in life is actually seeing other people get recognition. So, you know, it goes very quickly from being like, “oh, this is nice” to “oh, gosh, why did they choose me?” to “I think I need to sit down and write someone else’s citation now.”


Medina Afandiyeva: Because it makes me so much happier.

Jess Wade: So happy! Like I honestly can’t believe it. So one of the . . . well, actually, by far and remove the best Wikipedia page I ever wrote to us about a woman called Gladys West. And she’s an African American mathematician. And she was born in 1930, so she’s like 90 years old now. And she studied maths at a historically Black college and university and ended up working for the US government on the development of GPS. And when I wrote her Wikipedia page in 2018, there was so little about her online, you could really find nothing. And then the BBC made her their top 100 women a few months later and I was like, this is the coolest thing ever. So that was like May 2018. And then later that year, the US Air Force inducted her to their Hall of Fame. So she’s like 88-89, then and then all these incredible pictures of her, like, appeared online because governmental owned bodies take lots of photos that they put online. And so you kind of slowly are learning more and more about her. And then, just two months ago now, the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK gave her the Prince Philip Medal. She’s the first woman ever to win the Princeville medal for her contributions to GPS technology. And honestly, that whole day, I was like, everyone I met, I was like, “Did you know Gladys West has just won the Prince Philip Medal?” I was like buzzing around the room. And I just can’t, like . . . infinitely more happy than anything that happens to me to see her get that recognition, especially at the age of 90, like during a pandemic, to receive a medal where the royal family in the UK tweet about it. I was just like, this is the coolest thing! So yeah, it’s so much more satisfying when you see other people succeed.

Henry Powell-Davies: Definitely.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah. Especially if they’re people in your circle.

Jess Wade: Yeah!

Medina Afandiyeva: They complain to you, you know what they suffered through and, like, they went through, and then at the end, you’re like, “oh, my god!”

Jess Wade: Yes! It’s like every time a graduate student gets their PhD, I’m like, I am just, you’re just so overwhelmingly thrilled, like, obviously, you think it’s gonna work out when they go into the defense or viva, you don’t think they’re going to come out crying, because no good supervisor would put them in a situation where they might. But you see them coming out, and you’re just like, you know, whether it’s their master’s degree or their PhD, you’re just so genuinely thrilled. And yeah, I love that. I love watching that happen.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah, no, for sure. So I guess one of the philosophical questions that we had for today, you can approach it from different angles. But if you approach this question from the philosophical point of view, so what is the meaning of a great labmate or colleague for you?

Jess Wade: The meaning of a great labmate or colleague? Someone who is, like . . . first thought immediately into my head is someone who’s non-judgmental, so I can go to them with all my really stupid questions, and they can . . . no questions are stupid, Jess, you shouldn’t say stupid questions . . . I can go to them with all of my naive questions, or like, you know, nitpicking things to try and understand something. And they’ll just sit down and kind of calmly take the time to explain it to you. You know, they don’t get frustrated, because you’ve not seen something quick enough, or, you know, I always send, especially my chemistry colleagues, particularly Joch, a guy called Jochen, all of the chemical structures, and I’m like, how do you name this? Or like, how can you imagine this will be named, because I’ve never learned that. And I think that some people would be judgmental that you don’t have that kind of background knowledge. People who take the time to properly train you on something, I think is so important. So during my PhD, I had an amazing kind of internal group mentor called Seb. And he really taught me, like, so many different things and took time out of what he was doing to make sure I understood things. So definitely kind of non-judgmental, really keen to train you on things. But also just, I guess, the most important thing is that they’re collaborative. And they recognize the work is done by a team and not just by an individual. And I think, you know, everyone listening, and certainly you both will know, people who really don’t think like that. And you kind of go through your scientific life, seeing people who put themselves first and who put themselves first on author lists and in lab meetings and speak the loudest. And you think like, huh, I never want to be like that. And I guess my ideal lab mate is the opposite of that, is someone who kind of will obviously advocate for their own ideas and speak up when necessary, but doesn’t have to be the only one all the time, like, recognizes that really good science is done by teams of people and not by individuals.

Wow, when you asked that question, I was like, “What am I going to say?” but now I have so many thoughts about . . . oh, I guess another really important one, like, keeps things tidy, like doesn’t leave all their stuff out in the lab all the time, or take things from your box or your drawer and not put them back, or like be . . . you know, those kinds of people. I just think, like, you are not made to work in a team. And that’s really, really hard to do. And I work in a bunch of shared labs. So if someone’s moved, like … someone’s left the oxygen on and the oxygen has run out, or someone’s left the nitrogen on and the nitrogen has run out, or someone’s taken the substrates that you left and you’d prepared and you’d cleaned . . . I just think, aaaahhh. So yeah. I think I’ve learned a lot from looking at bad lab practice to know what I’d really want. But I guess also, ultimately, people who recognize that we’re human and that you can have a day when you’re not completely on it. When you’ve had massive challenges to your mental health, when something’s gone wrong at home, and you may not be good to present in a group meeting, you may not be happy to go out and have to, you know, put together the figures for a paper. And I think people who recognize that you need to take time to be you, are such extraordinary things to come across in science, you’ve got to hold on to them.


Henry Powell-Davies: For sure, I think, you know, that comes down not to just individual people, colleagues, but you know, a culture of supportive, collaborative workmanship, which, you know, some research groups will have, others won’t. So, just trying to navigate towards those that do and kind of stick with them like you say.

Jess Wade: I saw a really good presentation by someone who was saying that, you know, your supervisor may not have everything you want in a supervisor, your supervisor may not have all the attributes you want, your kind of trainee, postdoc, whoever is helping you when you join the lab may not be the perfect person. But what you can do as a scientist, when you’re kind of starting out, is kind of take the best parts of the people you see, like take that kind of, . . . you know, maybe you open up someone’s comments on your first draft of a paper, and you’re just kind of like terrified and overwhelmed by how many comments they’ve made or questions they’ve made. But that shows they care. And that shows they’ve put the time in to try and correct it to get it better. That really is like a sign of academic love, I think. And when you start to look at the good points that you could find in people, and just kind of collect those, and oh, gosh, it sounds so kind of silly and sentimental, but collect all of the good things that you see in the senior people around you. And then take that. And whether that’s just being, you know, attention to detail, or their naming convention for the data that they generate, like collect all those little examples of good things. Because we won’t all land in a lab which has a really supportive PI, there’s no physical way because unsupportive PI’s get given a lot of money. So you might be doing a PhD in a group where the people aren’t very nice, but you can go out when you can, you know, during the pandemic, and even this podcast has shown that you can network with people way beyond your immediate circle and just pick those things that that you want to emulate yourself as a grown-up scientist. And I feel that I feel that very strongly.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah. And as I always like to say like you’re a human first, right, so small things like, you know, leaving a cookie on your lab mate’s table when they have a bad day or something like . . . I don’t know.

Jess Wade: Not an optical table, though not a cookie in the lab? [laughter]

Medina Afandiyeva: Oh, no, no, no. Like their study desk, or I don’t know, just taking care of the reaction while they have to leave earlier. So like small things, they just can make your entire day.

Jess Wade: Yeah, and noticing when people aren’t speaking in group meetings. I think, you know, when you feel . . . and I felt this so much during my PhD and even now in the group, like, I’ve got a question to say, but it’s a bit silly. And everyone will think I’m silly if I ask it. Or, you know, people who notice that you’ve been quiet for a really long time or people who notice that when you’ve said an idea, and someone else has initially dismissed it, but then go on to claim it their own, and someone who stepped in and said, “Hey, no, Medina said that already.” Or someone else like, you know, “Henry proposed this.” I think they’re the kind of people that you’ve got to keep around in the lab. And actually, I think we we can all do better to be that person. And we need more of them in science.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yeah. 100%. Like, I might confess that I’m always the one who like speaks a lot in the group meetings . . .

Jess Wade: That does surprise me. [laughter]

Medina Afandiyeva: Stop. [laughter] No, like, I would, and I was really not happy with it, because I was like, maybe I’m not letting someone to speak, because I just can’t stop talking. And then I would . . . so one of the things that I learned was a 10-second rule. So Rose, my PI, I talked to her about it. And she really helped me to . . . suggested this as an alternative. So I would always count in my head 10 s before I speak, because I hate awkward silences. But then I would go through that 10 s and I was like, just ok, I can ask my question. So it really helps.

Jess Wade: I think I’m gonna have to start doing this. I’m always the person who like butts in, and I’m like, you know, way more airtime than other people because I can’t shut up. So yeah, I’m gonna take this.

Medina Afandiyeva: Yup. 10-second rule.

Henry Powell-Davies: Quite funny, I’m the complete opposite. I’ve never . . . I’ve not heard a 10-second rule, but I’m the last person to kind of say an idea.

Jess Wade: We’ve got to give Henry the 10-picosecond rule. [laughter]

Henry Powell-Davies: Yeah, there you go. [laughter] Definitely. Yeah, I mean, that’s really good. I guess the finish . . . well, I did have one little bit that I wanted to let you kind of plug, if you wanted to—your book Nano that I think is supposed to come out later this year? Just wondered if you want to talk to the audience about that just briefly.

Jess Wade: Yeah. So thank you for bringing that up, Henry. I’m a really bad self-publicist. But me and an incredible illustrator called Melissa Castrillón have written a children’s book about nanoscience and materials and chemistry. And it’s kind of introducing young people to science and the extraordinary worlds that we all work in. And I think the thing that I really wanted to try and do with it, and I hope I have done, is that it’s much more focused on kind of the scientific method and getting things wrong, and that we make mistakes and have discoveries. It’s not a kind of list of facts about graphene and carbon nanotubes. So yeah, it’s a children’s book, it’s probably for people . . . I mean, I have no gauge of what kids can read, which I should do, right? As a children’s book author. [laughter] I think over 6, technically, it’s like, kind of 6-8, that kind of age. But anyone who’s young, and who’s enthusiastic—my brother’s girlfriend, who’s definitely not that young, learned a huge amount reading it. She read it for about an hour and a half, and then said, “Jess, I really understand what you do now.” It’s out in the UK. So it came out in April. It’s out in the states in September. It’s also coming out in Italian, it’s in French and—crucial language—it’s coming out in Estonian. Cool!

Median Afandiyeva: Wow, that is really cool.

Henry Powell-Davies: That’s awesome.

Jess Wade: So, yeah, and you know, I think it’s great. I think it’s great because introducing young people to science in picture books is such a cool way to show them and their parents and their teachers how much fun we’re having in science and how kind of diverse and interdisciplinary the areas that we’re working in are, without us having to go in and speak to them ourselves. You know, you can tell those stories and kind of ignite their imagination through that. So I felt super lucky to have been able to write it. I luckily managed to find this extraordinary illustrator whose just you know . . . her illustrations are so beautiful. So even if you buy it for the illustrations alone, do that.

Henry Powell-Davies: I think I’m gonna pop on Amazon after this and grab a couple because I don’t know much about nanoscience.

Jess Wade: No, go to an independent book shop! Independent book shop, OK?

Henry Powell-Davies: Alright, well, Waterstones is just down the road so I’ll pop down there.

Jess Wade: Okay, that’s better, but it’s still not independent. So find the small . . .

Henry Powell-Davies: [laughter] Will do. It might become the new Hungry Caterpillar, you know, bedtime reading.


Jess Wade: [laughter] I mean, that’s what they’re saying. That’s what they’re saying. It’s gonna become the next Very Hungry Caterpillar. [laughter]

Henry Powell-Davies: Amazing, so yeah, I guess. Let’s finish up here. I guess, Jess, if people want to contact you, what’s the best way they can get in touch?

Jess Wade: Probably on Twitter. I’m just @jesswade. J-E-S-S-W-A-D-E.

Henry Powell-Davies: Just want to say thank you again for joining us today and thank you to everyone for listening. If you want to follow us on Twitter, you can, @ChemConvosPod. Yeah, have a great day.

Medina Afandiyeva: See ya.

Henry Powell-Davies: Bye.

Kerri: You’ve been listening to an episode of ChemConvos, presented by Stereo Chemistry. Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News. C&EN is an independent news outlet published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.


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