Dominique Tanner is a postdoctoral researcher at Cardiff University. She is an Australian geologist and seeks to understand how magmas and fluids concentrate valuable metals within the Earth’s surface. Dominique is currently part of a team of UK researchers funded by the National Environment Research Council who are working to understand how the elements tellurium and selenium move and concentrate within the Earth’s crust. Tellurium and selenium are essential in the production of photovoltaic solar panels, so understanding the cycling and supply of these elements is important for the development of sustainable environmental technologies. Here, Dom talks to Soapbox Science about precious metals and explains how choosing to continue a career in academia put her between a rock and a hard place.
SS: Dom, how did you get to your current position?
DT: By writing papers and making a really difficult decision. In the final year of my PhD at the Australian National University, my partner Lloyd (also a geologist) got offered his dream job at a university just outside of London. I moved to London with Lloyd and worked from home, publishing the results of my research in scientific publications. After finishing my PhD thesis, I was fortunate to find a postdoctoral position at the same university as Lloyd. I thought that I could pursue a career in research there, but I was paid to do technical and administrative work instead. After some time, I realised that my life wasn’t complete without teaching and research. Because post-doctoral positions are very competitive, I made the very difficult decision to move away from Lloyd and my home and look for jobs outside of London. When I was offered this position at Cardiff University, I couldn’t believe my luck! Now Lloyd and I both get to do our dream jobs. During the week I live in Wales so that I can use the high-tech laboratories at Cardiff University, and each weekend I commute back home to London.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
DT: My family. Since childhood I have always loved asking questions and been fascinated by rocks, minerals and the natural world. For many years my family indulged my passion for geology by letting me take them to important mines and rock formations around Australia during the school holidays. Old habits die hard, and at university I could indulge my passion for geology by scaling this up and taking undergraduate students on field trips to see mines and important rock formations in New Zealand, Peru, South Africa & Namibia!
Equally important are the people who encouraged me to stay in a scientific career. During my PhD and first postdoctoral position, there were a couple of times when I had serious doubts about pursuing a career as a scientist. I am really fortunate to have been surrounded by supportive colleagues (both men and women) who reassured me that self-doubt is rife in the academic community and that there is no easy way through this career – but at the end of the day sticking with it can be incredibly rewarding. I hope that one day I can return the favour by encouraging more women to pursue and stay in scientific careers.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
DT: I love being able see patterns in rocks and minerals really close up, as I never know what I am going to find! For instance, yesterday I was using the scanning electron microscope to zoom in on the surface of polished rocks to take photographs of tiny minerals made of platinum and tellurium that are less than the width of a human hair! From an academic perspective, analysing such tiny minerals can help us understand how both of these metals are concentrated by the magmas they formed from, but there is also a practical side, because the chemistry of minerals that host precious metals can make or break a mining company!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
DT: If I asked you to picture what a stereotypical geologist looks like, you might imagine a wild-looking bearded man wielding a hammer on a mountaintop. While it is true that all geologists get to wield a rock hammer at least some point in their career and nearly all of us conduct fieldwork in exceptional landscapes (on the land or at sea), I want to participate in Soapbox Science to help change people’s perception of what a geologist looks like and show that female geologists are increasingly common. For instance, in my undergraduate geology degree, more than half my class were female. At my graduation ceremony at the Australian National University, I was one of six PhD graduates from the Research School of Earth Sciences – and all of us were female! While these statistics are not common for my discipline, it seems to me that we are shifting towards achieving a more even gender balance in geological sciences.
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?
DT: It would be harnessing talent from less privileged countries by providing equal access to education and promoting high standards in scientific education around the world. The scientific community relies on creative and intelligent people around the world to create new ideas and hypotheses. In the UK, we often take our access to education for granted, but many countries are not as privileged as us and their citizens do not benefit have the same access to high-quality education. Imagine the scientific and engineering problems that could be solved if the world could harness this extra talent!
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
DT: GO FOR IT!! And once you start, make sure you publish the results of your hard work as soon as you can. It is really important for scientists to communicate their ideas with the wider community through events like Soapbox Science and media releases, but it is equally important for scientists to communicate their work with each other. During my PhD, I was really lucky to have excellent supervisors and work with really supportive post-doctoral researchers who constantly reminded me how important it is to write papers. By publishing the findings of your research in respected peer-reviewed journals as soon as possible, you will boost the range of career options available to you when you finish your PhD.