What do you do?
Until eight months ago I was a lecturer in Materials Chemistry, researching materials that can capture sunlight energy to split water to make hydrogen for use as a clean fuel. I have also been a science communicator for over a decade, sharing my passion for science to all ages and groups of people in live lectures, on the radio, as a TV presenter and as a science writer for Forbes and other outlets. My new and wonderful day job is within engagement with Digital Science, a technology company that is disrupting research for the better by creating a range of tools that support researchers, funders, publishers, and librarians, leaving researchers to get on with making the world a better place. We support a more open, inclusive and collaborative research culture. My job is to share ways in which we are leading and supporting that cultural shift, and also sharing some of the awesome facets of research that we uncover on the way.
Why did you choose this field?
As an academic, I was getting frustrated with the somewhat archaic systems that researchers played up to. The way research is done, acknowledged, and rewarded seemed quite old fashioned and narrow-minded, and certainly did not reflect the broad range of skills that early career researchers in particular were developing to a high standard, not just in research but also in teaching and engagement with their work. Having worked within faculties of engineering for six years, I grew tired of the overworking, the long hours, and the lack of progress, as well as the culture of bullying and harassment. Having started working at Digital Science, I feel like my work can have a greater impact on the professional culture of research. I work with a huge team of amazing people and together we carry out research on research itself, and work with other experts to make recommendations. For the first time, I feel like I work within a really incredible team, where each person has a complementary area of expertise that gets the job done. We produce so much as a team, and I wish that academia had a similar culture, as I can only imagine how much more productive it would be!
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
First off, I’m an inventor. Me! I’ve got a patent on some of my work, which means I’m officially an inventor, named on the patent. I always imagined inventors to be more like Belle’s Dad Maurice in Beauty and the Beast, but I’m really glad that, aside from just the usual papers, I’ve contributed something deemed useful enough for people to say, “yes, this is applicable in many different ways, and as such is a commercially viable output”. Secondly, I wish even me from two-years-ago knew how much happiness and productivity comes from working within a really talented team. I wish I had told the same past-me over the last seven years or so that research doesn’t just take place in a lab, and that you can in fact have a much greater impact within research by working outside of it, and creating evidence to advise on ways that it can be even better.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love that no two days of my job are ever the same. I love that things we work on are useful. I love seeing them being used. I love making a tiny contribution to the work that Digital Science do. I love working with my team and with the wider Digital Science family.
Best advice for next generation?
STEM can be a tricky field to work in, because women are still vastly outnumbered by men. That doesn’t mean to say that it isn’t becoming a more welcoming, supportive and equal environment, not just for women but for all underrepresented groups in STEM. So, while it may not yet be perfect, it is working towards equity for all, and if it isn’t there yet, you could support current efforts, because getting to research new and awesome things really can be worth it. There is so much that you can do within it, so don’t feel pressured into one area or another; just follow your heart, and you’ll find the field of research for you, whether it is alloyed materials for space craft, or zoology.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
My absolute hero is Stephanie Kwolek, inventor of Kevlar. She was a chemist that pushed her team to take a chance on a weird gloopy material, and made a polymer fibre with such high tensile strength that it was spun into fibres, woven into Kevlar and went on to save at least a million lives through its use in bulletproof armour. I’ve written about Stephanie and her work in the Ada Lovelace Day anthology, A Passion for Science, and even got to speak about Kwolek and Kevlar on BBC Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity. She passed away in 2014, having spent years campaigning for greater diversity in STEM, and I only wish I had added to her pile of fanmail by letting her know the influence she has had on me before she passed away.