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Women in Science 2019: Dr Jena Meinecke

Written by Eleanor Sanger, posted on Friday, February 8, 2019

February 11th is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, declared by the UN with the aim of promoting full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

To mark the day, we’re taking the opportunity to celebrate some of our own brilliant women in science, by finding out more about the amazing things they do and how they got to where they are today.

Dr Jena Meinecke is a Junior Research Fellow in Physics at Christ Church. Her research interests centre on laboratory astrophysics and plasma physics. She is currently a laboratory astrophysicist studying the origins of magnetic fields. Using high-energy lasers such as the National Ignition Facility (NIF) laser, she recreates astrophysical objects in the laboratory such as supernovas.

During her time in Oxford, she has been involved in a number of schemes working with Oxford's female physicists. She is the founder and former President of the Oxford Women in Physics Society (2013-2015), and the founder of the Oxford Women in Physics mentoring Programme (2014). She was involved in the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) (2014), and is also the co-founder of the ScienceGrrl Oxford Chapter (2014).

Jena MeineckeSummarise your research area

Using the largest laser on Earth, I recreate scaled astrophysical conditions in the laboratory to understand the origins of magnetic fields in our universe. In the past, I’ve created a scaled version of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A in the laboratory that is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. By creating miniature versions of powerful astrophysical events here on Earth, I can generate small seed magnetic fields and amplify them with turbulence to explain the strong fields we observe in our universe today.

What were your favourite subjects at school, and why?

Maths. Definitely. It's the unifying language of the universe. Physics is then just using that language to describe the world around us. 

When and why did you decide to study science at university? 

On accident when I was 20 years old. I was going to be an artist but needed to complete some basic courses first. I started with some higher-level mathematics and found them really stimulating. One term, the maths course I wanted was full, so I randomly took a physics course. That was a game changer. Physics allowed me to see the world in a new way using the language of mathematics by applying it to my everyday life.

What aspect of your work do you most enjoy? 

The analysis step. Most researchers (1) develop an idea, (2) apply for lab time, (3) do the experiment, (4) analyse the data, and (5) write up the results. I really enjoy step 4 because I feel a bit like a detective. The rules of physics are absolute—it’s up to us to understand how they work. We often do experiments, hoping for a specific result, but get something cryptic instead. I like working through the pieces of evidence to figure out the universe’s secret.

What's the most fascinating thing you've learnt as part of your study of science?

Sonolumniescence. Using sound waves to pop bubbles, releasing light. Unbelievable! 

What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given? 

Work hard. Sounds trite but it’s true. In physics, I think people assume you need to be a genius. In reality, working hard gets you much (much!) further than you’d imagine. I’m probably close to average intelligence but I work relentlessly towards my goals. To put it into perspective, I started at a community college in the USA and set the goal to get a PhD in physics. Now, here I am; a junior research fellow of physics at Oxford. If I can do it, you can!

What are you most proud of? 

Starting the Oxford Women in Physics Society. It was extremely difficult to set up in the beginning, but now functions really well with wonderful women who care about the society’s ethos. I hope it will always be around to provide a safe place for minorities in physics to seek solace in a community of supporting women.

Who is your most inspirational female scientist? 

I draw inspiration from my peers because I know them really well. I also admire them in different ways, so I have a few. One of my best friends Ines (who is now a computer scientist at McKinsey), my college friend Maia (who is now a doctor), and one of my best friends Jessie (who is a physicist at LLE).

Dr Jena Meinecke in the labWhat do you hope to achieve in the future? 

I’d like to develop a more creative outlet for myself within science. I have this whole other side that no one ever sees and research tasks have highly dictated my time and life. I’d like to find the best intersection of science and creativity that can be incorporated into my daily routine and career.

If you could give one piece of advice to girls considering studying science, what would it be? 

Put yourself out there. By which I mean, ask for help! Ask your mentors for advice and seek out conversations with guest speakers as much as possible. As a student, I was ALWAYS in my teacher’s office with a list of material questions. If we ever had a guest scientist, I’d grab them afterwards to talk. When I needed help deciding on graduate school, I talked to my mentor and then emailed tons of people (I didn’t know) who worked for my prospective graduate advisors. To put another way, if you want to win the lottery, start by buying a ticket.