Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology
University of Hull, UK
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Although as a young child, I was always collecting things I found when out and about, I don’t remember having a particular love for the natural world. My mother tells me that she wasn’t surprised by my career choice, because I was always interested in nature (just as she wasn’t surprised that my sister became an accountant, because she was always playing with money). Biology was my favourite subject at school, closely followed by Geography (physical geography rather than human geography), and it seemed natural to me to follow these interests through to A-level and then into my degree in Ecology. As far as I could tell, Ecology combined the best bits of my two favourite subjects.
When I finished my degree, I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to continue in science. I decided to take some time out, and investigate another option: conservation work. I volunteered with BTCV (British Trust for Conservation Volunteers) as a hedgerow campaign coordinator in Bristol for a while, running hedgelaying training events for volunteers. I then became involved in a European volunteering scheme, and went to Greece to help develop some environmental interpretation material for a river delta in the north-east of the country. At the same time, I devoured popular science books, and it became clear to me that I missed the intellectual stimulation of my degree course, and decided I wanted to return to academia and start studying for a PhD. I started my PhD in 2001, and it felt right.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I’ve been lucky in that my career so far has taken me to some cool places: watching fiddler crabs fight on the mudflats of the Northern Territory in Australia, catching guppies in the rivers of Trinidad and rainbowfish in Western Australia, and a 4-week safari in Kenya in the name of teaching. My PhD and postdoctoral supervisors both gave me more-or-less free reign to choose my own research projects, which means it’s hard to pick out a ‘cool’ project, because if I didn’t think a project was interesting, I wouldn’t do it…
I’m going to choose my fiddler crab work (supervised by Pat Backwell from the Australian National University) as the coolest project I worked on. Why? Because I spent 6 weeks sitting under a beach umbrella on an Australian mudflat, watching cute little crabs fighting over access to burrows where they mate and hide from predators and the incoming tide. It was my first experience of a field experiment, it was my first successful, hypothesis driven, piece of experimental work (my PhD was half theoretical and half experimental failure), I met some lovely people, and I learned a lot. One of the key things I learned was that even when you have a permanent job as a university lecturer, you should try to keep some time aside to continue doing your OWN research projects, rather than only having postdocs and PhD students to do them for you. I also learnt that I can wear flipflops.
Role models and heroes:
I think my first science role model was probably my GCSE biology-and-physics teacher, Nicola Wilberforce, who admitted one week that she was only 3 weeks ahead of us on the physics curriculum. I’ve never been one for set-on-a- pedestal type heroes, but saying that, Jane Goodall has always amazed me for her determination and dedication, and I was lucky enough to get to hear her speak in Uganda (while travelling in Africa as a pre-PhD treat to myself).
Advice for future STEMinists?
Do what you want to do. Try to make sure you have a strong support network of people who believe in you and can push you to be the best you can be and do the things that you want to do. Be positive about your own choices and don’t let talk of inequalities put you off trying. You will feel at times, that someone, somewhere has made a mistake and didn’t mean to give you this job, but ignore it. Everyone feels like that (read Athene Donald’s blog post on impostor syndrome).
Favorite website or app:
For Research: Dull, but I couldn’t be without Web of Science and Google Scholar.
For keeping up to date with the science world: I love Twitter for the range of websites and blogs that it leads me to. I always stop to read something by @thesiswhisperer, @researchwhisper, @AtheneDonald, @researchcounsel and @frootle. I’ve also learned a lot about science policy just from Twitter.
For keeping in touch: In addition to the friends and family that I rarely see, I have a good number of ‘virtual’ friends, who I met on a parenting forum when I was pregnant with my son. Facebook keeps me in touch with them all (Twitter too).