Communicating a commitment

24.06.2016
Popular science blogger Sunniva Rose originally want­ed to be a ballet dancer, but became hooked on nuclear physics instead. She admits that her path to this career has not been trouble-free.

| Bente Bergøy and Sverre Christian Jarild (photos )

Sunniva Rose.

Cactus
“This is the detector system for the cyclotron,” explains Sunniva Rose.
The lab is a mini-mini-version of Cern in Switzerland.

 

I’ve been at the University of Oslo [UiS] for about 13 years,” Rose reflects. “If I’d followed the schedule, I should have completed my PhD ages ago.”

She guides me from the physics building at a brisk pace in high heels. We are heading for the cyclotron laboratory, which contains Norway’s only accelerator for research on ionised atoms.

Known as Cactus because of its long spines, the cyclotron’s detector system lies in a bunker-like room with strip lighting and past a timeless control panel.

“This lab is a mini-mini-mini version of the set-up at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva,” Rose explains.

She is intimately acquainted with the facility after devoting hours and days and weeks to preparing and running experiments on it.

Her research focuses on how thorium could be used to fuel a nuclear power station and thereby possibly reduce radioactive waste. She is hoping to complete her thesis this summer.

Attractions

Rose talks rapidly about the attractions of nuclear physics, about isotopes and uranium, and about how she was mesmerised as a little girl by pictures from Hiroshima in World War II.

Many people associate her subject with atom bombs and dubious power stations, but she stresses that it is far, far more than that.

“It’s nuclear fusion, for example, which gives us sunlight,” Rose points out. But much about the atomic nucleus remains unknown, more than a century after its discovery.

She is actually far too busy to devote a morning to me. And she probably also has too much to do to talk at conferences, schools and exhibitions, and to be a blogger.

But she has something to convey. “Roughly speaking, universities are supposed to do three things – teach, research and communicate,” she notes.

“Unfortunately, too little weight is given to the last of these. Academics feel that communication steals valuable time which should be devoted to research.”

Popular

Her own attitude is the opposite, and finds expression in blogging and in serving as a popular speaker. She is happy to talk science – her own project, nuclear power, research and prejudices.

But she is often invited to share her experience, because her journey to a physics doctorate has not followed the line of least resistance.

“I wanted to be a ballet dancer,” Rose recalls. “In my second year at upper secondary school, however, I decided I’d rather study physics. That meant I had to repeat the year to get properly to grips with maths, physics and chemistry.”

She joined the physics, astronomy and meteorology programme at the UiS in 2003, and found it a big disappointment – to put it mildly.

“The course didn’t meet my expectations, and I failed to settle in at the university. The subjects were more difficult than I’d thought, and I wasn’t used to feeling so stupid.”

Matters were not helped by failing courses and having terms where she only just managed to get through an exam. “I wondered for a long time what I thought I was doing,” she admits.

Her progress in maths was not particularly good, and she disliked experimenting. “I really doubted whether there was room for somebody like me, who had a handbag full of pink lip gloss, wore high heels and taught dance part-time.”

Then things started to look up. She took a couple of courses which broke the logjam. One dealt with energy challenges and realistic solutions, and Rose discovered that nuclear power is currently an important part of the answer.

 

Applied

“I’m not a theoretician or a classic experimenter, but somewhere between or possibly outside them,” she says. “I wanted to do applied physics, and to learn a lot more about nuclear energy.”

Put briefly, much went better thereafter. Rose took up subjects and secured her BSc (“by the skin of my teeth, and taking a year longer than I should have”).

She started work on an MSc, and thrived on long days in the lab and on the in-depth study of a topic she found exciting. Enjoyment, involvement and commitment paid off in top marks.

In the autumn of 2010, Rose became a doctoral research fellow in nuclear physics at the UiS.

The obvious question is why a women who is well launched on a dance education should decide to transfer to science studies and nuclear physics.

“I was good at science and liked it,” Rose explains. “And I did well at these subjects in upper secondary school. But good results and learning naturally don’t just happen.”

 

Sunniva Rose

Reading room.
“Nothing just happens,” affirms doctoral research fellow Sunniva Rose. “If you’re going to be good at something, you must work – and work hard.”

 

Hard

She makes the point that to be good at something, you have to work for it, and hard. And the only way to overcome the widespread aversion to maths is to stop saying the subject is so difficult.

Pointing to Norwegian chess champion Magnus Carlsen and cross-country skier Petter Nordtug, she says they have only achieved success by combining talent with a lot of training.

Rose is good at driving herself. After all, she has a background in ballet and is used to discipline. That has been no disadvantage in her academic career.

She struggled through the adversity and unhappiness of her first years at university before landing in the right place and finding that she and others believed in her project.

This is something the young scientist both talks and blogs about: “I’m not afraid to be honest and to share experiences and feelings,” she says.

“I’m a human being – I get unhappy when I fail to achieve something. That’s probably the same for everyone. If my story can motivate somebody, that’s great.”

It probably does, too, to judge by the good feedback she gets from both blog and talks. “People recognise themselves in me. Many struggle to find the right track when they start studying. I also get told I’ve inspired people to make a commitment to science.”

Opportunity

The question is why young Norwegians should opt for science studies when the oil industry seems to be in decline and many engineers are having trouble finding a job.

Rose’s answer is that these subjects provide the opportunity to work with everything from people to medicine, oil, space travel or the environment – and to help develop society.

“But I genuinely believe that knowledge of science should form part of a general education,” she affirms. “It helps you to think critically. Nothing is black-and-white, and not everything you read in the papers is true.”

Rose experienced that herself when the Fukushima I nuclear power station in Japan was wrecked by an earthquake and tsunami five years ago, and the tabloid press went bananas.

“A lot of what appeared in print was completely hair-raising,” she says. “These reports played on people’s fears, and fear sells.”

The more you know, the better you are equipped to see the nuances. Nothing is completely fine or entirely bad. Nuclear power has advantages and disadvantages – just like oil.

“But it’s important that you believe in yourself and in what you do, and that you’re proud of it,” adds Rose.

 

Sunniva Rose

Communication.
“I had a tough time at university to start with, just like many others,” says Sunniva Rose, who shares her experiences through blogging and giving talks.

 

 

"If my story can motivate somebody,
that’s great."