Nia Blackwell (NB) is currently a PhD student at Aberystwyth University. Her research investigates the geomicrobiology of coal mine drainage, more specifically the oxidation of the ochreous precipitate found in iron-bearing waters associated with historic and present day mining. Here, she tells Soapbox Science (SS) about her love for water & mud, how she enjoys talking about biogeochemistry to students of all age, and how she hopes the idea that in order to stay in academia you must sacrifice another part of your life is simply a misconception. Nia will be standing on her soapbox this Saturday in Swansea Bay – come and meet her there! You can also follow her on twitter: @ffynnonddu
SS: Nia, welcome to Soapbox Science Swansea! It’s great to have you onboard for our first welsh event. As is now traditional, we’d like to know a bit more about you – starting with your carrer path. How did you end up as a PhD student in Aberystwyth?
NB: Since 2006 I have lived in Aberystwyth and have been a student at the University. After completing my Joint Honours degree in Welsh and Geography I decided that I wanted to study geochemistry in more detail and applied for a place on the Environmental Masters course in the Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth. This was a really tough year with lots of new theories and concepts to learn but I absolutely loved it! I especially enjoyed the work on abandoned mines and pollution. From there it was a natural progression to study the biogeochemistry of abandoned mines which not only looks at the pollution aspect but also the microbes that live there. All of my field work has been done in the South Wales Coalfield, a (fairly long, admittedly) stone’s throw away from the event, and so I feel that Swansea is the perfect place for me to talk about my research!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
NB: I first became interested in earth science in school during geography lessons and at the time I was really interested in the formation of different soils. During the final year of my degree I chose a module on soil, geochemistry and the environment, and it was at that moment that I really knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to study the natural environment! What I really enjoyed about this module was the idea that in nature everything is connected, for example, soils are affected by the rocks and minerals below. In turn plants and vegetation that grow in contaminated soils might accumulate elements and therefore we humans at the end of the food chain may also be affected.
If I’m completely honest though, I’ve always loved water and mud. I remember when I was little I was forever being told off for getting my wellies full of water and mud after playing in the small pond on the mountain common by our house. And as a toddler I had a particular fondness for a puddle just outside our garden gate, so much so that I would sometimes sit in it… These days, I can’t believe that this is my job! Turns out that all those skills learnt as a curious child have helped to shape my career, even sitting in puddles of water – falling ungraciously into streams is one of the perils of water sampling!
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
NB: The most fascinating aspect of my research is that it is multidisciplinary because I get to look at the geochemistry of waters and waste sludge (the concentration of chemical elements), the microbiology of the sludge (the bacteria that live there), and the mineralogy of the sludge (looking at the minerals the sludge is made of). I like the variation of the topic and, as I’ve said before, I enjoy how everything is connected. The environment selects the type of bacteria that can live there, however, once established, these bacteria can have a big impact on the natural environment and can affect the behaviour of various metals in water and sludge. And so microbes, particularly bacteria, are an important factor to consider when studying metal-rich environments like abandoned mines.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science?
NB: During my PhD I’ve taken the opportunity to do lots of teaching and I’ve always enjoyed explaining theories that may, at first, seem complicated. So I’m used to talking about science and varying the ways in which it’s explained so that everyone can understand. My friend is a school teacher and one day mentioned how she was trying to develop a STEM Network at her school. At the time I hadn’t heard of this but after some homework (I am a researcher after all!) I decided to join as a STEM Ambassador. I then heard about the Swansea SoapBox Science event and knew I had to apply! What a fantastic opportunity! The topic of biogeochemistry may sound a little complicated but once broken down and explained it really is an interesting subject and also relevant to our everyday lives. Bacteria are all around us, even in the most extreme environments, and generally they tend to have a bad reputation. I want to show people how bacteria can actually help us. If we need a job doing then there is probably a bacterium out there that can do it for us! All they require is a little love and affection, mainly in the form of food and warmth.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
NB: This is something that is playing on my mind at the moment – the idea of a work-life balance. As an early career researcher considering whether or not to pursue an academic career I’ve been trying to listen to and learn from recently appointed lecturing staff and postdoctoral researchers to gauge whether this is a suitable career for me. All too often it seems that the stresses and pressures placed on academics are so great that sacrifices have to be made in other aspects of their lives. One thing I would to change about the culture is the idea that in order to stay in academia you must sacrifice another part of your life. At the moment I’m trying to figure out whether this true for all early career researchers or if it’s a misconception. I’m hoping the event in Swansea will allow me to ask some questions myself to some of the inspirational women on competing soapboxes.
SS: And finally, what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student like yourself, considering pursuing a career in academia?
NB: As an early career researcher myself I think that I’m probably lacking in academic experience to be able to give advice to a peer at the same stage regarding career choices. One piece of advice I will give, however, is to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way – no matter how scary or intimidating it may seem. For example, I’m currently writing these answers from China after an opportunity to lecture for one month at Hohai University, Nanjing, presented itself. The thought of travelling to China alone (it’s so far!) and then the added responsibility of teaching a whole module’s worth of lectures were completely daunting. However, this is turning out to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, both personally, and academically. In academia, although it can be very hard work, there are lots of opportunities to travel and learn new skills. Not all skills necessary to complete a PhD and continue in academia can be learnt in the laboratory!