What is your scientific background?
At school, I studied all three sciences to Scottish Higher, before taking up a place at the University of St Andrews to study for a Masters in theoretical physics. In my undergraduate course, I took classes from quantum mechanics to general relativity, and linear mathematics to calculus. My favourite courses though were fluid mechanics and solar theory, which lead me to pick a Masters project working in astronomy and stellar magnetic fields. I loved my Masters project so much that I stayed on to do a PhD!
What are your biggest achievements, and what are your biggest failures?
In my high school Higher exams, I was one of (if I remember correctly!) 54 people to get 5 As that year. I was always really proud of that because 5 subjects is a lot to balance, though of course there is always an element of luck involved. Graduating from my undergraduate with a 1st class degree is also a big one for me because I had to work so hard at it to manage that, 5 years worth of almost all work and little play. Non-academically, I have an 8-month-old son and he is in many ways my biggest achievement!
I did very poorly on one of the classes in my undergraduate degree and was told I couldn’t continue with the theoretical physics program at my University. I fought it, and it all worked out ok in the end, but it was a big knock to my already low self-confidence at the time. It did teach me some valuable lessons though; I’m more resilient than I thought, and there are multiple ways to achieve something – you don’t just have to follow one path.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? How do you think it will make a difference?
I’m currently researching stellar prominences (a bit like clouds that form on stars) on M-dwarfs (low mass stars). The plasma from the atmosphere of the star can form into cool, dense regions (that we call prominences) that are confined by the magnetic field of the star. These can be ejected from the star if and when they eventually become unstable. This makes them a way in which the star can lose a lot of mass (or angular momentum) over time and can influence the rate at which the star “spins down” (i.e. makes it start to rotate more slowly). It could also be important for those in the exoplanet or astrobiology fields, since these prominences can be ejected into the path of any orbiting planet! This can cause the planet to lose its atmosphere (or just bombard it with a lot of unpleasant radiation), neither of which would be good for the habitability of the planet!
My work has been on trying to predict where around the star these things might form. This way I can predict how common they are, how big they may be and it will also tell me something about the magnetic field structure of the star itself!
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How do you deal with these feelings?
Oh regularly! I think that’s normal to a certain extent! Everyone has a crisis of confidence sometimes, and scientists are trained to question everything. What a deadly combination! As you get older, more experienced or just talk to more people, you begin to realise its the norm! I recently was told by a very established and fantastic professor that he used to have really bad “imposter syndrome” and as a wise man once told me “you get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable”.
I find when dealing with people; talks, outreach events, conferences, meeting etc, that on a bad day the “fake it til you make it” method is invaluable. To this end, I own a lot of space-related outfits that I can hide behind…
Do you come from an academic family?
My parents weren’t university professors if that’s what you’re asking. They are highly intelligent people though, who taught me to question everything and encouraged my inner scientist. They both initially studied to become social workers and I’ve always been awe-inspired by how many people they must have helped in their time. The older I’ve got, the more I’ve realised how academic these things can be (I don’t understand half the phrases in some of the social science books they have on their bookshelves), though of course, they’re very practical. We went to lots of museums and things as a kid, and I think every third gift throughout my childhood was a book, so they were very academic in that sense, in the sense of “relating to education and scholarship.”
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
Recently I’ve spent quite a lot of time on my Instagram page (@astrophysicist_rose) where I share a few astrophysics snippets of information, alongside a diagram I’ve drawn on my iPad. I’ve also been working on my website, updating resources for kids/high school students and undergrads to try and help them pursue a degree or career in astrophysics. Public engagement is really important to me, places like this website that highlight that science is so diverse (though of course, it still needs improvement) and can be for anyone! Even though this is somewhat science-related, I don’t see it so much as hard science. I love making space-related art in general, and actually I hoping to have some up for sale very soon!
I love outreach in general, especially with kids. It’s so lovely to see all the enthusiasm they have and helps to nurture yours, which can lag in a PhD at times.
I love to read, especially fantasy. I’m a massive Terry Pratchett fan (in fact my son’s middle name is Havelock, any idea which character this is?) Currently, time for this is limited though, since I’m enjoying spending a lot of my free time with my wee boy.
I live in such a beautiful area and to be honest, just going out for a walk is one of my favourite ways to spend a couple of hours.
Is it hard to manage both career and personal life? How do you manage both?
Well, life with a young child is chaos, and I don’t think you can ever imagine how long it can take to leave the house some days. I’m lucky that my PhD supervisor is very supportive of me and my life and this was partly why I chose to do a PhD with her, because it was always on the cards for me that there may be a new addition during my PhD. I would always advise people to pick their PhD supervisor carefully, in some ways more carefully than the project! I’m technically back at work, though still breastfeeding as he’s only 8-months. Some days I get a lot of work done, and other days I get a lot of mothering done. So the balancing isn’t 50-50 each day. With every passing day though, he’s becoming less dependent on me and can go longer periods without fearing he’s starving to death (what can I say, he was born into a family that loves food). I know I can work really hard when I need to, (like the coming couple of weeks because I have a paper to finish!) so the balance for me works out overall.
Saying that, many people don’t manage it this way and are much happier doing a 9-5. I think it’s so important that both of these are options for people, different working habits are part of being different people and that diversity of ideas, structure, etc is so valuable in any workplace. I used to track every hour of my day and plan the entire week 9-5 so I’m very supportive of this too, but that is much more of a challenge with a young child…
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? Were you able to overcome these?
I found being one of a handful of women quite a challenge at times. At high school there were 3 of us in physics. I know this puts off a lot of girls, but I don’t think it bothered me much until university. At undergrad, the split was pretty 50-50 (by eye) on my course, the school is very supportive of such things, but the visible staff in theoretical physics were predominantly male. I found this more of a challenge than school, somehow the environment didn’t feel quite the same and I felt like I stood out (not nice for an introvert). This helped my shift towards the dark side and astrophysics, where in my school there was more gender balance.
The school I’m in is very good at trying to combat these things in general, and I’ve never experienced much prejudice there. Conferences can be more of a steep learning curve, especially large ones with older, established men in the field that can be slower to adjust to the changing tides…Standing up for your beliefs and calling things out is very important here, though really difficult when they feel senior in position to you.