Meet Dr Francesca Chadha-Day, Theoretical Particle Physicist, the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology, Durham University

Fran Chadha Day

Dr Francesca Chadha-Day is a theoretical particle physicist at the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology at Durham University, and a recipient of the Hawking Fellowship. Her research focuses on discovering new fundamental physics through astrophysical observations.

Fran is also a science comedian. Her stand-up takes an irreverent and occasionally surreal look at what theoretical physicists do all day.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I am an assistant professor in physics at the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology (IPPP) at Durham University. The IPPP was founded in 1999 as the UK’s national centre for particle phenomenology, researching the properties and behaviour of the most fundamental building blocks of nature. Since then, we have grown to become one of the largest particle phenomenology groups in the world.

My research focuses on discovering new fundamental physics through astrophysical observations. I’m working on the problem of Dark Matter – the 85% of matter in the universe whose identity is, so far, unknown. We know that Dark Matter exists because we can see its gravitational pull on stars and galaxies, but we don’t know anything else about it! My research explores these unknowns, and strives to bring greater understanding to how the universe works. I’m working towards learning more about Dark Matter and more about the laws of physics. I’m lucky to have a Stephen Hawking Fellowship at the moment, which means I have plenty of time to focus on both research and science communication.

A key part of the IPPP’s mission is to promote and improve the public’s understanding of fundamental physics, which we do through outreach to schools and teachers as well as the wider community. Introducing topics like particle physics at a younger age can be a crucial step in introducing more women into the field, as well as breaking down the barriers that often exist between academia and society.

To that end I am also a stand-up comedian, and have been performing science themed comedy for eight years. Most recently I performed my new solo show – “Are Dreams Made of Atoms?” at the Durham Fringe Festival. My comedy showcases the absurd side of life as a theoretical physicist!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not really! Academia is quite competitive so it can be hard to make firm plans. I think my work in comedy has been very helpful to my career as a scientist and I was lucky that my PhD research was on a topic that has become quite popular.

I did have a broad plan for my career in that I wanted to be a physicist from a very young age. In fact, I don’t really remember a time during my childhood when I didn’t want to be a physicist. I always found the idea of studying the smallest building blocks of the universe very appealing.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

I used to be quite anxious around public speaking and speaking up in meetings. At the start of my PhD in 2013, I decided to make a real effort to get better at this. Being a confident speaker is useful for careers in science as well as many other career paths. I decided to take up any and all public speaking opportunities that came my way so that I would get better through practice. This was actually how I started stand-up comedy! Doing stand-up comedy and science communication has helped me become much better at giving research seminars too.

I can’t say for sure, but I think having this extra confidence in public speaking and giving presentations helped me in the interview process for both the Stephen Hawking fellowship and my position at the IPPP. Dealing with nerves before a comedy show has been great preparation for coping with pre-interview nerves too!

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What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I am very pleased with the research I’ve done since coming to the IPPP. I work on developing the theory behind hypothetical particles called axions, which could possibly make up the Dark Matter we currently know so little about. Axions are also predicted by string theory, one of the most popular theories that unifies quantum mechanics and gravity. Axions are becoming quite popular within the particle physics community, but so much is still unknown. Since joining the IPPP, I’ve sought to shed a little light into this area and have published some papers which look at different ways of detecting axions and consider how axions would behave in space. I’ve also published a paper on axions which introduces the topic to a more general scientific audience, which I hope will become a key tool in enabling more scientists to understand and take interest in such a fascinating subject.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Firstly, I’ve had help and support from many fantastic colleagues. Most of my research has been done in collaboration with other scientists, so it’s really a team effort. More broadly, having a supportive academic community has been incredibly valuable, especially during times when my research wasn’t going so well. As a women in a very male-dominated area, I also found it helpful to speak with other women in theoretical physics – and I have met some amazing friends and collaborators this way.

I have also tried to focus on quality rather than quantity throughout my career in terms of publications and other projects.

You’re also a stand-up comedian – tell us more about this

I started performing stand-up in 2014, and I absolutely love it. My comedy focuses on my research and on the typical absurdities of day-to-day life as a theoretical physicist and the questions people in my field have to consider for our work. For example, I spend most of my time studying things we can’t see and working on the behaviour of particles that might not even exist! (On a more serious note – working through different ideas is actually central to progress in scientific research, even when some of the ideas turn out to be wrong.) I hope my comedy gives people an opportunity to learn about physics in a way that is also entertaining.

Since then, I have performed across the UK (and once in Grenoble, in French, although I’m not sure how well this went!). I find the process of writing comedy hard work, but very rewarding. Whilst many would not immediately recognise the similarities between Physics and comedy, I think both are, in essence, very creative processes, and I think they go well together.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in STEM?

One important tip is to really value your own time and attention. You do not need to say yes to every project, or to spend all your time working. I think we all produce better work when we have time to think and time to rest.

I now make an effort to be selective in what I do and try to find the right balance between being a team player and setting aside time for my own research. Of course, ensuring a fair division of workload is the responsibility of the whole community, and I do think this is something that many in academia are actively addressing.

So my advice would be to try to focus on quality over quantity!

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in STEM, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

During my PhD in particular, I found it difficult being one of such a small number of women, so this was a barrier for me. But there was support to be found – I joined a Women In Physics mentoring scheme, both as a mentor and as a mentee, and found this incredibly helpful. It can be very powerful to have the opportunity to talk in depth with another woman in a similar position.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in STEM?

There are lots of strategies that can be helpful for women and for the company as a whole. For example, I found the mentoring scheme really useful. I also think it’s important for companies to foster an environment where no-one is expected to regularly work more than their contracted hours, and to have generous parental leave policies.

What resources do you recommend for women working in STEM?

I have found “The Academic Imperfectionist” podcast by Rebecca Roache very useful. I would recommend this to anyone working in academia. It looks at how we can overcome perfectionism and our inner critics, which I think is something many of us face in our careers.