My Path into Science: The Masterplan
As a child I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up:
- Age 4-7: Woods-woman – Friend to foxes and owls, I would hunt for my food and live in an underground burrow, traveling only by horse. Farmer’s wife was a back-up option.
- Age 7-12: Famous author, illustrator and wildlife documentary filmmaker – I planned to travel the world, learning about animals and filming BBC documentaries. My travels would inspire my novels.
- Age 12-13: Prime minister – With climate change, war and inequality the world was clearly a mess. I felt called to form a new political party to sort things out.
So, where I am now (Research Fellow in Climate) was not what I imagined! Basically, I’ve just followed my strengths and interests. My childhood dreams were all strongly shaped by a love of the outdoors and a passion to do what I could to make the world a better place. In secondary school I found Maths and Physics challenged but engaged me, driving me to try harder and do better to crack problems. Even so, it wasn’t until a lab class late in my undergraduate degree that I realised Atmospheric Physics/Climate Science was a way to bring these two puzzle pieces together.
So, what helped and what didn’t?
Not knowing what being a scientist meant, in a practical sense
In outreach talks we’d hear: ’the next Einstein might be in this room right now’, ‘the person who solves this problem could be one of you’. This is well-meant, but for me was intimidating more than motivational. I was good at maths but I was fully aware I was not a genius!
Scientists seemed to be another species that could pull new ideas about the world out of the air through sheer brilliance. We’d do experiments in science classes, but these were retreading well-known ground. Being the first to learn something about the world was unimaginable.
Age appropriate outreach or TV showing how individual scientists actually ask questions and solve problems might have helped demystify this. We (rightly!) highlight the names like Einstein or Darwin, who made fantastic discoveries. But in reality most science is incremental, chipping away at small pieces of a bigger problem until an answer emerges.
Lack of confidence
I am in awe of friends who have chased their dreams, whether that’s in science, music, art or business. At some point in secondary school my ambition and confidence to dream big vanished. Sometimes teachers or friends try to be kind by managing expectations: “Science is difficult”, “Oxford is competitive”, “Lots of people want to be vets”, “You need to know the right people to go into politics”.
Those statements are all reasonable and might actually motivate some people. But when we focus too much on cushioning someone from failure there’s a risk of discouraging them from even trying. Whether you’re raising a child or supervising a post-doc, encourage them to just give the next step a go.
Fear of failure, of wasting time on a dead end, or of looking stupid and arrogant are still the biggest barriers I face day-to-day. Imposter syndrome limits my ambition and leaves me paralysed with indecision.
Things that have helped me progress in science
A good start: Family & education
My dad’s an engineer and my mum’s an accountant. STEM subjects were valued my family and our background was financially comfortable.
I went to an all-girls secondary school with a mix of male and female science teachers. I’m not a fan of single-sex schooling, I think it made men and boys seem very ‘other’. But a positive side-effect was that Physics was never a gendered subject for me at school.
University-level Physics was a shock to the system! I could laugh off banter about what I’d done to get my place, but it did make me realise women weren’t the norm here. This was the first time imposter syndrome hit; had I got a place to fill some quota?
Supportive friends and colleagues
I’ve worked alongside hard-working, creative, kind and approachable people. From undergrad on I have been surrounded by friends to bounce ideas off and I’ve not felt in direct/hostile competition with my colleagues, even when we apply for the same grants or jobs.
Good mentorship: Freedom with nudges
I’ve been given support and space through my PhD and post-doc to develop my own ideas, explore side-projects, publish solo, practice writing grants, travel and build a network. I’ve also been nudged to think through how to manage my career and encouraged to apply for jobs or fellowships even if the odds are tough.
Luck – Roadblocks I didn’t hit
I feel very lucky I’ve had all of the above!
A good working environment is something that should be a baseline expectation for everyone. We should all feel safe and accepted at work. Subconscious bias is tough to beat, but it would be nice to think of it as the ‘final boss’ on the road to diversity and inclusion in science, and to pretend we’re all hard at work on that goal. So it’s uncomfortable to say how grateful I am that I’ve had good luck with my mentorship and research groups, compared to female friends who have been mismanaged out of science at ‘best’ and harassed or assaulted at worst.
Also, I’m white, middle-class, cis and in a straight relationship. I have been able to live in the country I grew up in throughout my career to date, but I’ve had the choice to work abroad easily available. I don’t think gender has not played any role in the opportunities I’ve had, but it would be wrong to ignore the privilege I do have.
I’m still taking my career step by step. The next goal is to work towards a permanent research position, but I’m still intimidated by how competitive science is. So for now I’ll work hard and try to be ambitious, and think big, and dare to dream… but we’ll see. Most of all, I want a career where I can use the strengths I have to do work I feel is worthwhile.
…But I could paint my whole science story in a more intentional light. One daydreamed novel from my ‘famous author’ years was a post-apocalyptic romance set in a world ruined by climate change and nuclear war. In my scribbled plans is a note: ‘Gulf stream may shut down? Learn more about climate change’. …8 years and counting!