Not just nerds or geniuses: Meet Kate Littler

Kate Cornwall photoDr Kate Littler is a Lecturer in Geology at the University of Exeter, based in Penryn, Cornwall. She specialises in reconstructing ancient climates and oceanography using sediment samples recovered from deep beneath the ocean floor. She is a STEM Ambassador and loves talking to people, young and old, in an effort to answer their burning geological questions. Come & Meet Kate in Exeter on June the 11th, where she wil be talking about How can mud and fossils from the bottom of the sea tell us about ancient climate change?”



SS: Kate, how did you get to your current position?

KL: I completed my MESci undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford in Earth Sciences (Geology), which laid a solid foundation for my future career and really inspired me to continue in academia. I then did a PhD at University College London, specialising in reconstructing the climate and carbon cycle of the enigmatic early Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. I then had an exciting 18 month position as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before returning to the UK to take up a lectureship at the University of Exeter. Now, in addition to teaching on various undergraduate courses, I also carry out research on a number of different topics using sedimentology, geochemistry and paleontology to answer geological conundrums.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

KL: I have always been interested in science from a young age, and was often to be found peering into rock pools to look at the inhabitants, or recording birds in my garden, or cataloging my fossil collection. My parents were very supportive of my curious hobbies, especially considering I was growing up in inner city London where nature was sometimes hard to come by. I loved watching science documentaries like Horizon, or Natural World, and dreamed of one day being able to work as a scientist visiting exotic places and finding out new things about our planet. I never really planned on becoming a geologist, or even knew it was a career you could have, but I soon realised that geology is the study of the whole solar system over the entirety of time, and you can’t get more all encompassing and challenging than that.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

KL: When onboard our giant drilling ship, I really enjoy looking at mud brought up from 500 m below the ocean floor, that is itself 2 km below the sea surface, and knowing that you’re one of the first humans to ever set eyes on it. The work that we then do to analyse this precious mud, to tease out its stories and find out what Earth’s climate was like millions of years ago, is truly fascinating.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

KL: I’m a big fan of science outreach, and enjoy talking to people from all walks of life who just want to ask a scientist “why?”, “how?”, or “what’s the point of that then?”. I hope I can be a positive role model for young people, especially young women who are often not encouraged enough to pursue science careers, and Soapbox Science is a great platform for that. Come armed with questions on the day, and I will do my best!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear?

Thrill? Anticipation?

KL: Eye-opening.


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

KL: To have more scientific figures, and particularly more women, visible in the media, just getting on with various scientific jobs and kicking a** at it! We don’t necessarily need more rock-star figures like Brian Cox, although he has certainly helped to engage lots of people in physics, but just a more accurate representation that science is for everyone, not just nerds or geniuses. A lack of positive roll models for young people is a major reason why many of them don’t think a scientific career is for them. This is a particular issue for girls, who may also not be getting the support at school or at home to pursue this kind of career.


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

KL: Exact same advice as for a male PhD student: work hard, take care of yourself and your own wellbeing, think big, and try and talk to everyone you can in your field, because you never know who’s going to be advertising a postdoc next year…


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