Universiteit Leiden

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Super women on superconductivity: International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Since 2015 the United Nations have declared 11 February the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Leiden University organized a public event for over a hundred visitors. In between a lecture on alien life and a talkshow on the impact of science on society, high school students presented their profielwerkstukken. Among them were Zoya Polschykova and Fleur Walravens.

Levitating trains

The young scientists started their presentation with a movie of a ‘floating’ train. Although it almost looked like magic, it had a perfectly rational explanation: superconductivity. ‘Superconductivity is a process in which metals exhibit special, magnetic properties at low temperatures,’ Fleur explains. By putting a metal inside the train and cooling it down to a very low temperature, the train became superconducting. This caused the train to levitate above the magnetic track. Fleur and Zoya’s research focusses specifically on superconductivity at high temperatures. ‘Although, we did conduct the research at minus 240 degrees,’ Zoya laughs. ‘But that is relatively speaking high-temperature superconductivity.’

From Twente to Leiden

How did Zoya and Fleur manage to get a handle on this difficult subject as high-school students? ‘We followed a few classes from professor Jan Aarts. Superconductivity is pretty much his specialty. In the end, we conducted the experiment in his lab,’ says Zoya. ‘The sample that we used was specially made and cut by the Technical University of Twente and brought to Leiden,’ the girls explain. Fleur: ‘We conducted experiments at nine Tesla!’. Whoever is unfamiliar with this unit, can infer from the students’ enthusiasm that this is a big deal. For comparison: the earth-magnetic field is over a hundred thousand times weaker.

Female examples

After Zoya and Fleur’s presentation, a discussion panel started with (mostly) female scientists. For the two students, who both want to start a physics education next year, this served as an inspiration. ‘I think it’s great that a day like today is organized,’ Zoya says. ‘These women belong to the first generation that has had the opportunity to obtain high positions in science. I find it exciting and inspiring to hear about their experiences.’ Fleur agrees. ‘I think an event like this can definitely lead to more interest in science among girls.’