Making the international scientist ticket work in your favour

Zoe.jpgZoe Schnepp is a Lecturer in the School of Chemistry at the University of Birmingham. She is from the UK but has worked in the US, Germany and Japan. She is passionate about Green Chemistry and designs new materials for water treatment and solar energy capture using simple resources such as seaweed or sawdust. Zoe’s story is an inspiration to young scientists who may be worrying about the challenges and value of working abroad.


Seirian Sumner (SS), Soapbox Science co-founder and co-organiser: Hi Zoe, you are at an early stage in your science career, and you’re certainly on an upward trajectory! What have been the main stumbling blocks for you along the way, and how did you overcome them?

ZS: One of the challenging things about science is the culture of ‘big name professors’. It is really tough to get your work recognized as a young scientist, both male and female. One of the biggest problems I think is in publishing. When you submit a paper for publishing it has your name on it and I think it’s difficult for journal editors and referees to be completely objective about the quality of the science if they recognize the name of the author. I’ve certainly found it a lot harder to publish in the big journals since starting out on my own. My PhD and first postdoc positions were both with really famous professors and publishing seemed relatively easy back then!

I think we do quite well in the UK. It may be harder to publish but I think that it is easier here to build a distinct identity than in some other countries. I really like the culture in many UK Chemistry departments where you have multiple small groups. So as a junior lecturer you can take on a PhD student and really build your independence from quite an early stage. It’s hard, definitely really hard, but much better in the long term than being part of a large group run by a big name. When I joined the Max Planck Institute in Germany I was initially really envious of the people who’d got group leadership positions there. But now I much prefer my UK lectureship. The danger with the Max Planck system is separating your ideas from those of the director. Some of my friends who have had questions on grant panels about ‘which of these ideas are yours and which are the director’s?’

More generally, I’d like to see a general shift in attitudes to what a scientist is. There seems to be an expectation that people are either artists or scientists. But to be a good scientist you have to be creative and artistic! To be a good academic researcher you also have to be an enthusiastic teacher, you have to be able to write well and you also have to be really good at selling yourself and your research! It’s a shame that we have such strong stereotypes about scientists.


SS: Your CV is very international, having worked in 4 different countries. Tell us why you chose to work abroad, the challenges you faced. How important was postdoc-ing abroad in securing your lectureship at Birmingham?

I actually think that the chance to work abroad is one of the best things about an academic career. There aren’t many careers where you can do a 1 or 2 year project anywhere you want in the world!  So for me, going overseas was a really positive thing. Rather strangely, it was also a much easier way for my husband and I to stay together since he is also a researcher! When we both finished our PhDs at Bristol, it was much easier for us to find postdoc positions in the same place if we had the whole world to choose from. Many countries welcome foreign scientists and there are lots of fellowships for international postdoc positions. Japan for example is really keen to build links with Western countries. So we had no problems getting positions in the same institute first in Germany and then in Japan.

So the foreign work was really easy, the problem was in coming home! While I really like the UK academic system it is just so hard to get your foot in the door. My husband and I had 8 months living on opposite sides of the world. The most difficult thing was the uncertainty; not knowing how long it would continue. Since I already had a position it meant that my husband was really restricted in the places he could apply to. I think actually we’ve been really lucky. My husband now has a lectureship in Keele and while it’s a long commute it does mean we can live together. I know many academic couples who have lived apart for much longer, or who have settled with only seeing each other at weekends. It certainly doesn’t make it easy if you want to have a family.

Having said that though, I think again we are fairly lucky in the UK since people here tend to finish their PhDs earlier than in other countries. I do think you have to be really focused though. The best advice I can think of to give people who were considering going overseas for postdoc is to always think about the next step. Even when you just start a postdoc make sure you are planning where you want to go next. It’s hard work, especially when you are trying to focus on the postdoc research. But a lot of fellowships only run annually, so you have to be really organized about getting applications in, otherwise you might find yourself having to wait another year.

I just want to say finally though that working abroad, first as an intern in the US and then for my postdoc positions, has been the most incredible experience. It was initially quite scary, and I thought I’d only go to Germany for 6 months, then come home and settle down. But in the end, the years have flown by and I wouldn’t change it for the world. You learn so much from working in a different culture and if you go to a big institute you work in a truly international environment. This means that when you do eventually come home, you have a network of friends and colleagues all over the world. As well as being so much fun and enjoyable, it’s wonderful for your career to have this global network of scientists that you can call on if you are looking for help with something.


SS: Health and safety (yawn!) aside, we are itching to see how you take a creative approach to bringing chemistry to the public, from your Soapbox! But tell us what attracted you to be a Soapbox Scientist?

ZS: I love talking about science.  That might seem fairly obvious, but compared to all the different ways you can communicate science and research, directly interacting with people is my favourite. It’s so rewarding since you are getting continuous feedback from facial expressions and you can change the way you approach things based on how people are responding.  It’s brilliant to get the ‘wow’ expression on someone’s face when you are describing something! The idea I really like about soapbox science is getting talking to completely random strangers, rather than people who have made a choice to come to a science outreach event. Soapbox Science sounded like a lot of fun, and really different to any outreach event I’ve been involved in before.

Actually, on the health and safety side, one thing I am really passionate about is public perception of chemicals. Say the word ‘chemical’ and most people instantly conjure up images of toxic waste, or insidious and harmful materials. But the reality is that everything around us is made of chemicals. Our bodies make some of the most advanced and complex chemicals on the planet in the form of enzymes or proteins! Another thing that worries me is the concept of ‘natural being better’. A lot of products you can buy, things like foods or cosmetics, have labels saying ‘free-from’ or ‘contains 100% natural ingredients’. Just because something has been made in the chemical industry doesn’t make it bad! Chemists have spent years creating really innovative materials to help prevent our foods going bad and stop shampoos from going slimy. ‘Chemicals’ are normally made to solve a consumer problem, not to cause harm.  And on the other side of the coin, some of the most potent toxins known to man come from plants and animals!

Having said all that, there are some genuine problems in the chemical industry. The tradition in the past was to focus entirely on making a chemical to solve a consumer problem. People didn’t really consider that some of these new chemicals might have unwanted side-effects. Even if they did, the thought that anything man-made could really affect the whole planet seemed unthinkable. Of course, now we know differently. We know that chlorofluorocarbons affect the ozone layer and we know that some chemicals do bioaccumulate (build up gradually in certain species). We are even starting to discover that some compounds can affect biological systems even if they are present in vanishingly small amounts. To address this, there is now a really big movement in both research and industry towards ‘Green Chemistry’. The aim is to make products and processes safer and more sustainable. For industry, it has been shown many times now to make processes cheaper, so there is a real incentive and it’s something that has really taken off.

For my research (and something I want to really get across from my Soapbox!) we are really focusing on making high performance materials using some really simple chemistry. It’s all based on water and some really abundant precursors. Of course this has the added bonus that it’s easy for people to join in and have a go at some of the chemistry themselves!


Come for some explosive fun with DR Zoe Schnepp on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London, where she will be talking about: Superconducting seaweed (an adventure in green nanotechnology)”. Zoe’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship from L’Oreal For Women in Science and the Zoological Society of London. 

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