Q&A: Better Pixels for TVs and More Women in Physics

Physics 11, 24
LED researcher Jess Wade devotes her time outside the lab to educating young women about the joys of a physics career.
J. Wade/Imperial College London

Jess Wade is a physicist on a dual mission. As a postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London, she experiments with different materials to make more efficient organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) for displays. Outside of the lab, Wade encourages young women to study physics and engineering, engaging with students, teachers, and parents to open their eyes to the world of opportunities that a physics education offers. Physics spoke to Wade to find out more about the competitive world of OLED research, why it’s important to invite parents and teachers to outreach talks, and why she has taken up writing and editing Wikipedia pages.

–Katherine Wright

Where does your passion for physics come from?

I had a great teacher at high school who showed me that I could use physics to explain all the weird and wonderful things in the world around me. I think it’s amazing that one subject can describe everything from the colors in a sunrise to the interaction of a molecule on a surface to the motion of a rocket.

You are working on LEDs with unconventional properties. Could you tell me about that?

I make LEDs from a blend of organic semiconducting polymers and small chiral molecules that have a spring-like structure. (Chiral molecules come in two forms that have the same molecular formula but are mirror images of each other, like your left and right hand.) On its own, the polymer emits unpolarized light, but adding the chiral molecules makes this light circularly polarized.

What uses are there for LEDs that produce circularly polarized light?

They can be used in display technologies. The OLED displays in TVs contain a circularly polarized filter to enhance contrast and remove ambient light. But that means that half of the randomly polarized light coming from an OLED pixel is thrown away. With an OLED that emits circularly polarized light, we could get rid of the filter and have brighter pixels without requiring more power. We could double the efficiency of OLED displays.

You’ve said that LED research is very secretive. How so?

OLEDs are potentially very lucrative. Many researchers working on organic electronics can’t talk about their materials at all because of pending patents, intellectual property rights, or nondisclosure agreements with companies. The secrecy is a challenge: it limits what you can say about your research at conferences or even within your own group meetings. But knowing that what you’re working on is potentially close to commercialization is exciting too.

Changing topic—you frequently visit high schools to talk about science. What motivates you to give these talks?

Short answer: people don’t know where subjects like physics and math can take them career-wise. And I want to help change that and get more girls into physics.

The numbers of girls studying physics, computing, and advanced math at high school in the UK are really low. Girls make up only about 20% of all physics students, and half of all public schools don’t have any girls studying A-level physics (the UK’s course for 16- to 18-year-olds). It’s frustrating because when girls choose to study these subjects, they outperform boys at every age. And a physics education can lead to really exciting careers. So, during my Ph.D., I started working with the education team at the Institute of Physics (IOP), which is tasked with increasing the public’s interest in physics.

And do you think giving talks in schools helps to get girls into physics?

Yes and no.

The IOP recently published a study called “Opening Doors” about their work with UK schools to identify and address gender imbalance within physics. They found that to have a real and sustained impact on the number of girls taking physics, you need to talk to the whole school and, crucially, to kids’ parents. Parents and teachers need to be able to answer kids when they ask “Why should I study physics, what can it do for me?”

I also think that we need a context-based curriculum for kids born after the millennium that explains the physics behind cell phones, Bitcoin, and Space X.

You are also involved in creating Wikipedia pages for women scientists. Can you tell me about this effort?

Less than 13% of Wikipedia’s editors are women and only 17% of Wikipedia’s biographical entries are about women. I’ve been working with Dr Alice White, Wikimedian in residence at the Wellcome Library in the UK, and Dr Claire Murray, a physicist at the Diamond Light Source to change that. We want to celebrate women in science and make sure that their stories are not lost to history.

Who have you added?

So far I’ve made 90 pages, including Sabine Hossenfelder, a theoretical physicist who studies quantum gravity; Kim Cobb, a climate scientist whose research has taken her on caving expeditions to Borneo; and Jo Dunkley, an astrophysicist who helped develop the current standard model of cosmology. Actually, it’s an activity I like to do with young people because in writing and creating these pages they realize how ridiculous it is that they don’t know about these women. And then they want to change that.

Know a physicist with a knack for explaining their research to others? Write to physics@aps.org. All interviews are edited for brevity and clarity.

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