#WomenonWednesdays: Abigail Levison

This week for #WomenonWednesdays we spoke to Abigail, a third year physics undergraduate, currently on her year abroad in Switzerland!

Describe your path into physics, what kickstarted it?

My path into physics is slightly unusual: I had planned for all of sixth form to study maths at university since that was always my favourite subject at school. I even applied to do maths at some universities. It took sitting the STEP papers (an admissions test used by some universities for maths) for me to realise I loved applied maths much much more than pure maths. Every time I read about pure maths I thought, “that’s cool, but what can I use this for?”

I discovered that the problem-solving I loved from maths and further maths A level was in fact closer to the maths in a physics degree than in a maths degree. And when I came to Imperial and started my physics degree, I knew immediately that physics was exactly the subject I wanted.

During your journey, what has your experience been being a woman in Physics? 

I’ve been lucky, since I’ve always been supported by past teachers, male and female, when applying to maths and physics at university. Of course, I’ve had some guys talk to me in a very condescending way because they think I don’t have what it takes to study physics at a high level. But at university, I’ve been inspired by some AMAZING female lecturers and fellow students. Talking about being a woman in physics with my peers has definitely helped me feel like I’m not alone. Also, most of the other Imperial students who are on exchange with me are girls, so I’ve always felt like there are a lot of women in physics around. At Imperial the WNBiP society is very empowering because they put so much work into making everyone feel included. For example, the Girls who ML workshops were brilliant and got me really into machine learning. They inspired me to take the “Machine Learning for Physicists” course on exchange, also with a brilliant female lecturer! And now I’m doing machine learning in my master’s thesis too. I’m lucky to have all these women in physics to look up to, and I aspire to be as knowledgeable and talented as they are. And it’s great that Imperial values applications from women and non-binary individuals (and other under-represented groups of people).

Where are you spending your year abroad? What has been your experience of your year abroad so far?

I am on exchange at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. It has been very overwhelming to be suddenly uprooted from Imperial and placed into a very different campus and city. Lausanne is a smaller city than London, but I can really appreciate being in a quieter city and always having a view of snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance. It’s been really interesting to see how the EPFL physics degree is laid out, and how much lecturers here value rigorous maths. This has certainly been a rough change coming from the UK, where maths was never very rigorous for me!

Here at EPFL, about half of my courses are in French. Before going on exchange, I’d always dreamed of studying in another language, and it’s happening now! There’s no better way to improve your French than straining your ears trying to catch every French word in lectures and discussing problem sheet questions in French. It’s actually REALLY HARD to study, think, and express your thoughts in a new language that’s not your native language. It makes me admire the strength of the international students I’ve met at Imperial who have to study EVERYTHING in English when it might not be their native language.

Being on exchange is so great because you get to try things in a new place that you’ve never done in your home country (fondue, hiking in the mountains), and you also learn to appreciate things that you took for granted at home (shops being open on Sundays). Academically, as well, there are so many opportunities at EPFL that I never would have had if I’d stayed in the UK. For example, I have recently accepted a project in accelerator physics at CERN for my master’s thesis. Being at EPFL has exposed me to so many new fields of physics that I am now considering for research. At EPFL there is a very warm atmosphere, and everyone is really into their research, especially those working at CERN. In fact, I love it at EPFL, and I can’t recommend it enough to any year abroad students at Imperial doing French. It is all so exciting, and I still have trouble believing that I will be working at CERN for my master’s thesis!

Looking back, what advice would you have for your younger self when applying for a physics degree?

My advice to my younger self is to remember that physics is brilliant! Physics is a very hard degree, and gets very competitive, but DO NOT let the unhealthy competition distract you from your love for physics! It’s very hard, but if you love it, then you absolutely do belong on the degree! Believe in yourself and remember, breaks are actually for smart people!