STEMinist Profile: Suzie Sheehy, Research Fellow

Dr. Suzie Sheehy

Research Fellow

I work in the Intense Beams Group of the Accelerator Science and Technology Centre (ASTeC) based at STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory where I am supported by a Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I find it hard to narrow it down to one particular moment. Lots of people say “it was my teacher” or “I looked through a telescope for the first time and just knew!” but it isn’t like that for me. I don’t remember the point when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in STEM, I had a lot of interests when I was younger and I was as interested in musical theatre as I was in science! My careers advisors in high school told me I could do anything I wanted for a career—in a way, that was quite empowering.

My choice of subjects at university (where I started out doing a double degree in both Engineering and Science) was based on what I was good at and what I thought would leave as many doors open as possible. Only in second year Physics did I realise that I might be able to pursue a career in research—I still remember when one day I asked a lecturer a question about what he’d shown us and he said “we don’t know, actually—that’s my research, I’m trying to figure it out.” I had some great lecturers who encouraged me to pursue that curiosity. So I guess it was when I realised that physics doesn’t have all the answers that I finally got interested!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project I’ve worked on is called ‘EMMA’, which stands for the Electron Machine for Many Applications. It’s a new type of particle accelerator which I refer to as a ‘rock-star accelerator’ because the way it is designed breaks a couple of really important rules that accelerator experts like to stick to. I think it’s a cool project because it’s the first of this kind in the world and many people in the field doubted it would work. During my PhD I got to control the machine hands-on during experimental shifts (not many people can say they’ve run a particle accelerator, even a small one!) Oh, and it really does work!

Role models/heroes:
Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell is definitely a role model for me, she is one of the most respected physicists of our time and meeting and getting to know her a bit during my PhD in Oxford was really inspiring. I also have to say that a number of the London 2012 athletes are also my role models, Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, and loads of others who have proven that if you put in the hard work and have the right support you will see results. I’m a runner too and training for my first half marathon earlier this year taught me a lot about hard work and dedication, which is now crossing back over into my life as a scientist. If I’m stuck with a problem I now tell myself “if you can run for over 20km you can do this too!”, it’s very motivating!

Why do you love working in STEM?
There are so many things to love about it! One of my old high school friends recently summed it up nicely for me when she said “While the rest of us sell people things they don’t need or spend our lives doing something which will be easily forgotten, you spend your days pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge. In my job I might make a difference to a few people’s lives but imagine the difference you can make—it’s practically limitless. You have the most amazing job.” I was totally humbled.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Do what inspires you and play to your strengths. If you’re anything like me you probably have lots of different interests – so don’t forget you can combine them in surprising ways! For example, I’d always had an interest in theatre and as a scientist I use my stage presence and vocal techniques all the time when giving public lectures and science shows for schools. Also, don’t be afraid of doing things differently. I approach my research in a slightly different way to the rest of my research group and it took me ages to realise that it’s OK, in fact, it’s really valuable to have members of a team with different approaches!

Favorite website/app:
I’m a little bit obsessed with Pinterest at the moment—I’ve been using it to put together ideas for decorating my new house, finding yummy things to cook and even, occasionally, ideas for science demonstrations or interesting bits and pieces. I’m also loving RunKeeper—it’s where I store all my running data so I can check out the statistics like my pace and heart rate and see my improvement, it keeps me motivated.

Twitter: @suziesheehy

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