Role Models for Women in Science

hendry-soap-box-science.jpgDr Kate Hendry (KH) is Royal Society University Research Fellow and lecturer, in the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. She is interested in modern biogeochemical cycling and past ocean processes, with a particular focus on biogenic opal and silicon cycling in seawater. Here, she tells Soapbox Science(SS) about her career path. Kate will be speaking at our Soapbox Science Bristol event on 14th June, 2104. Her topic is: “Glassy creatures – a silicon life on the ocean waves!” Follow Kate on Twitter: @KRHendry


SS: Hi Kate. We are really excited about having you as one of our 2014 Soapbox Scientists. Can you start by telling us how you got to where you are today?

KH: Well, it’s a fairly long story!  My love of all things outdoors started at a very early age as I have a wonderful family who encouraged me to explore.  My mum, dad, and two big sisters would always be taking me to climb trees, or play in rock pools. I think I’ve wanted to study the earth – one way or another – since I was a teenager, if not before. I went through various ideas at school and even into university… did I want to be a volcanololgist, an earthquake scientist, an oceanographer or a palaeontologist? I decided, after some inspirational advice from geologist Professor James Jackson at an outreach event, to keep my education as broad as possible for as long as possible.  So, I decided to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge University. This degree meant that I could mix up a whole load of sciences, and get experience in a number of areas.  So, as well as studying geology, I studied a lot of biology, as well as some chemistry and maths. My final year project was with palaeontologist Dr Elizabeth Harper, who supported me fabulously and helped me get work experience both with the Natural History Museum and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). It was during a summer project with BAS that I fell for Antarctica and this cemented my thoughts that I wanted to carry on to do a PhD.

It was James Jackson again, as it happens, who sewed the seed of a thought in my mind that I should think about going to Oxford University for my postgraduate studies. I researched online, and found a fantastic project that involved fieldwork in Antarctica and just the sort of combination of earth sciences, biology and chemistry that I wanted: not surprisingly, this field is called biogeochemistry.  My supervisor was Professor Ros Rickaby, who has been an inspiration to me, especially now she’s a mum as well as a stellar scientist.

Near the end of my PhD, I went to an international conference in Shanghai, where I first met Dr Laura Robinson, who has since become advisor, colleague and friend. She invited me to take part in a research expedition, sailing from South America to the West Antarctic Peninsula in the following southern hemisphere winter. I jumped at this opportunity, and the research into glassy sponges that came from that cruise really shaped my future. After a few months as a postdoctoral researcher in Oxford, I applied for a postdoctoral scholarship to go and work with Laura at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the States (WHOI, which is lovingly pronounced “who-eee”). I was there for about two-and-a-half years, before returning to the UK.  During my last position, I applied for a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, which I got, and took to Bristol University, where I am currently.  And very happy!


SS: That is an impressive story. You’ve clearly had some great role models during your career.  Were these the people that inspired you to be where you are now?

KH: Yes, I’ve had some very strong academic role models – both men and women.  But, the real inspiration for me deciding to follow a career in science has been my two sisters, Helen and Ruth. When I was growing up, I watched both Ruth then Helen do astonishingly well at university, and then watched them both carrying on to do PhDs in science subjects. Being around highly successful women scientists was normal to me!


SS: Enough of the people in your science life: tell us what the most fascinating aspect of your research is?  What gets you out of bed in the mornings?

KH: Being a marine scientist, I get to go to sea every few years.  Being away on a research ship is a fascinating experience. Firstly, as well as exciting science, you get to see amazing places, and wildlife. I’ve been on research trips (misleadingly called “cruises”!) to the Southern Ocean, where I’ve seen icebergs and penguins, humpbacks and southern right whales.  I’ve also sailed across the tropical Atlantic, and seen flying fish.  Of course, being someone who studies glassy sponges, I’ve also seen some incredible – and often very weird – deep-sea creatures too. Secondly, you get to share a few weeks working with a really rather small set of people. It’s great to be able to work as a team and, although it can be difficult at times, you really do make some very strong friendships.


SS: And what attracted you to apply to be a Soapbox Scientist?

KH: I get very excited about my research, and wanted to find new ways of telling people why!  When I read more about Soapbox Science, I was really attracted by the idea that it was specifically aimed to enthuse girls and women about a career in science.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

KH: The postdoctoral system, by which I mean the period usually lasing two to five years or so during an academic career post PhD and before a permanent job, is often challenging for women. These short term contracts not only offer little security and (sometimes) little flexibility, but also it is expected that a scientist should move institution for a wider experience. This, clearly, doesn’t fit very well with starting a family and “settling down”. There are schemes out there to help early career scientists who need a career break – for whatever reason – such as the Royal Society Dorothy-Hodgkins Fellowship, and funding councils are becoming more flexible.  However, there should be a louder conversation about whether this system could be improved further.  I would like to say that when I was a postdoc in the States, I fortunately had a very supportive boyfriend – now husband of three years – whose understanding and patience made the trans-Atlantic relationship seem much easier than it was.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

KH: Look to female role models in whom you believe.


SS: Your students and colleagues have a great role model in you. Thanks so much for talking to Soapbox Science today. We are really looking forward to your Soapbox debut on June 14th! Can you tell us in one word your expectations for the day?

KH: Enthusiasm!


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