What is your scientific background?
I have a double-mod degree in physics with astrophysics from Trinity College Dublin, and a masters in space science from University College London. But my professional experience – as a scientist at the National Physical Laboratory – is in functional materials. These days, I am a science writer – I contribute to a number of publications, writing on everything from driverless cars to graphene membranes, and my first book, Science and the City, was published by Bloomsbury in late 2016.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
I didn’t really have a specific ‘role model’ – just an inherent curiosity and love of learning that was encouraged by lots of different people throughout my life. I am lucky, though, to come from a family that values education – and having that support was vital. I was determined to start school a year early, and rather than fight it, my parents thought, ‘ok, let’s see if she’s ready’ and enrolled me. I went in on the first day and I never looked back. I’ve loved science for as long as I can remember – as a kid, I devoured every book on dinosaurs or space that I could get my hands and having a dad who is an engineer definitely influenced how I saw the world/ solved problems at that age.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I think I just saw science as the best way for me to explore how the world works, and I felt that a job in science would be one that would continuously inspire me.
How did you choose your field of study?
I guess I leaned towards physics because I loved maths but was fascinated with astronomy/space exploration. I also felt that many of the ‘big’ questions I had about how the world worked could also be answered with physics. I loved my studies and the research I went on to do at the National Physical Lab, but if I could start all over again, I think I’d become an engineer.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
I’m working on my second book! Called Sticky, it will uncover a universe that’s largely hidden to us – that of the many, tiny forces that literally hold the modern world together. I’ve started interviewing scientists and engineers working in totally disparate areas – from volcanology to Formula1 racing – so it’s very exciting. I suspect my biggest challenge will be tying a compelling story around the fantastic science of surfaces/materials, but I’m up for the challenge! Sticky will be published by Bloomsbury in late 2018 / early 2019
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
Working for yourself can be a challenge. You’re constantly on the hunt for work, and you never really take time off! My partner and I moved from London to Wellington, NZ six months ago, so getting out and meeting people and companies is important…but can be tiring! I worried that I’d also find the book-writing process to be rather isolating, but I loved it – I made lots of wonderful friends through it. And although I’m a very sociable person, I enjoy having time on my own too!
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
From Gareth (the best manager I’ve ever had) and Lindsay (my friend and colleague who made me realise that it’s ok to stand out in science), to my partner Richard (who paid my rent when I quit my job to finish the book), I’ve had lots of mentors and countless supporters throughout my career. I owe them everything. I hope that one day I can do the same thing for others.
How does your family regard your career choice?
They tell me all the time how proud they are of me, and of what I’ve achieved so far. I think in many ways they don’t quite ‘get’ my life/ career choice, but they are 100% behind me, which makes me extremely lucky.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
My biggest (professional) achievements are being selected for a scholarship to the Kennedy Space Centre during my undergrad, setting up a new measurement facility at NPL for thermoelectric devices, and publishing my first book. There are probably too many failures to mention, but I tend to try to learn from them and move on. I guess the one regret I have is not sticking with my Ph.D. – it made me absolutely miserable for many reasons, and I know the decision to quit was the right one, but a tiny part of me wishes I’d just battled on.
What is a typical day like for you?
No two days are the same! At the moment, I’m working with a couple of clients – on those days, I usually go into their offices. There, I’ll interview scientists about their work, write stories for their websites, or the occasional press release, and produce content for their social accounts – always with a science lean. Other days, I’m trawling through scientific journals to look for interesting research to write about. But an ideal ‘book-writing’ day starts with a run or walk along the seafront – it’s my ‘commute’ when I work from home. Then I might have a report or a patent to read on a particular technology that I want to feature in the book, or I’ll have a phone interview to transcribe. I also refer to textbooks a lot – as a physicist, I know how much I don’t know about a topic – and writing science books means that I’m always learning something new! I am terrible at taking breaks when I write, but I always stop for dinner. Afterward, I’ll read a book, play a game, listen to the radio, or maybe do some sewing – anything to help my brain relax, before going to bed.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
All the time. ‘Impostor syndrome’ is highly prevalent amongst scientists. I used to try to ignore those feelings, but now I embrace them. Mainly because I’ve realized that some of the people I most admire in the world feel exactly the same way about themselves. So when I worry that I’m not ‘worthy’ to be somewhere, I try to say to myself “99% of the people in this room have had the same inner monolog at some point. And the other 1% are a*seholes. So, just be own, authentic self, and you’ll be fine”!
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
Friction on the nanoscale really fascinates me… I hope to go into lots more detail on this in Sticky!
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
Reading is probably the thing that gives me the greatest pleasure – it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. I also love to travel and explore new parts of the world. A few years ago, I started sewing and it immediately hooked me in. I used to be a keen dancer and singer too, but I’ve let those hobbies slide recently – I really need to get back into them. And I’ve recently joined a target shooting club, which is a lot of fun.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I’m self-employed, so if I’m honest, there’s very little division between my work and my life – the two overlap a lot. It doesn’t work for everyone, but I honestly don’t know how else to be! Let’s just say that my partner is extremely patient, as are my wonderful friends and family
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were a man?
I must admit that when sending emails to new people / senior colleagues, I’ve felt pretty grateful that my name uses the traditionally ‘male’ spelling. I’ve seen similar emails sent by female colleagues dismissed on too many occasions, and it’s utterly ridiculous.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
I’ve had relatively few negative experiences as a woman in science. But I’ve lost count of the number of times that people have been ‘surprised’ that I’m a scientist, based on how I behave or look, or on my other interests (dance, for example). This annoys me, especially because I feel that it’s highly gendered. None of my male friends have ever had someone say to them ‘You’re a scientist? REALLY?!’ It also harks back to outdated stereotypes on who can/could/should be scientists. It’s damaging to the whole sector, and insulting to all those who work in it. I occasionally receive sexist emails from readers of my Forbes column, or on my Twitter feed – unfortunately, it seems to be all too common for women with an online profile. I try to ignore them, but sometimes I bite back.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
There are two big problems: 1. attracting more women into STEM, and 2. retaining them. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to either. For aspiring scientists, I think they could benefit from more public role models, as well as a more inclusive education system that doesn’t make them choose between sciences and other subjects at too early an early age. More technician opportunities are needed for those keen to take the non-traditional route into the sciences. When it comes to keeping women in science, lots is talked about in relation to family life – and universities and other employers should do what they can to support high-performing women when they take time off. But that leaves out those women who, through choice or circumstance, don’t have children. There are LOTS of small things that would make a difference to a woman in the lab – labcoats that are curved to match our body shape, smaller latex gloves, access to portaloo when doing fieldwork, admission from senior staff that ‘unconscious bias’ is real, and efforts put in place to counter it… every organisation could do more, simply by asking female staff “What do you need”, rather than “What can I do?”
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Just keep going, don’t give up. Your path will twist in ways you’ll never expect, but don’t stress too much – you’ll find a destination than’s even better than the one you dreamed of. Surround yourself only with people that make your life more positive – drama is exhausting and distracts you from what matters. And don’t be so hard on yourself – you’re doing great.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?
I am a campaigner for Let Toys Be Toys, an organization that works to end meaningless gender-labelling and segregation of our children’s toys and books