Remember daily what it is that you love doing: Meet Dr Joy Sumner

joy_sumnerDr Joy Sumner gained her Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD degrees in Natural Sciences (focusing on materials science) from the University of Cambridge, but tried to break this up by spending a year at MIT in the USA.  Returning to the UK after spending a year teaching in Japan, she became a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Bath before heading to Cranfield University.  At Cranfield, she works towards understanding the corrosion performances of a range of materials vital for generating energy. Catch Joy on her Soapbox, Saturday, 9th July 2-5pm in Milton Keynes, where she will be talking about materials for energy supply and the problems of creating systems to survive conflicting requirements.  This might better be summarized as “Of course I can engineer it to perfection, but there’s just one pesky materials problem I’ve got to sort out first!”. You can follow Joy on twitter @materialsjoy


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

JS:  I’m lucky, in that having a background in materials science gives me a fairly broad base to work with.  In my undergraduate I worked with a whole raft of materials:  metals, polymers, ceramics, and semiconductors.  Then, in my PhD, I used a variety of different analytical techniques.  When I was looking for my next position after the University of Bath, it was helpful to know that I had the tools to work on a number of different problems.  This was especially important when applying for the position at Cranfield, because here, unlike many other institutes, researchers tend to run a number of different projects in parallel.  (That’s one of the aspects that I really enjoy!)


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

JS:  I’m from quite a practical, hands-on, DIY family.  It feels like there were always people willing to explain things.  Sometimes the answers were quite vague and unresolved, like when I asked what was outside the universe.  More often I got clear replies to my question of the moment:  Why are dinosaur bones still around and not dust?  Why do we need to get special metal to weld the swing’s frame back together?  Why do I float when I swim

Whether it was listening to my Dad joke about an engineering error in old James Bond films, or my Mum talking about why the constellations changed as she crossed the Equator, it feels like my life was filled with trying to understand just a little bit more about everyday events.  Enjoying understanding how things worked or why they were impossible grew naturally out of that.

However it was when I went off to university that I really fell in love with science.  I’d intended to study physics, but within the first fortnight, I came across this fascinating new subject:  Materials Science and Engineering.  “Materials” is heavily rooted in real-world problems.  If you want to know why you can only bend a paperclip so many times before it breaks; or why steel isn’t the best thing to make a hip replacement out of; or why it took so long to make blue LED lights:  materials explained it all.  Better yet, it made use of that understanding.  It felt just like being a child again!


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

JS:  I think it’s the moment when something you already know collides with a problem you’ve never encountered before.  There’s that instant when, suddenly, you begin to have a glimmer of new understanding.  The fantastic thing is that, the longer you work in science and engineering, the more pieces of information you pick up and yet there are always more problems to apply that knowledge to.


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

JS:  I’ve been a material scientist for what feels like a long time, and what fascinates me most about the subject is how it helps us understand the world around us, in particular, its opportunities and limitations.  I’d like the opportunity to talk to people about an energy supply and its related materials issues.

However, what’s special about Soapbox Science over other programmes is the emphasis put on female scientists.  I think that it’s really important for people (not just young girls, but also those who may influence their thoughts about their futures such as parents/grandparents) to see that women are not just good scientists (which we obviously are!) but that we feel passionate about our work and enjoy the world science has opened up for us.

Hopefully our conversation will encourage people to think not just about the materials around them, or energy supply, but also the opportunities available through science and engineering.


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

JS:  Excitement.  Or maybe curiosity – I want to talk to people make them curious about scientific research, but I’m also curious myself.  I want to know what everyone else thinks about the work that’s so important to me.  Have I cheated by explaining too much? 🙂


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

JS:  I would love for more people to understand how creative and fascinating science is.  It’s easy to be so busy as a scientist, trying to be taken seriously by our peers, that we can forget how to drop the jargon and just talk to everyone else about why we’re passionate about our work in the first place.  I think this can give the wrong idea about the type of person who can thrive in sciences:  people see the ‘performance’, which is meant for other scientists, and think that it’s 100% real.

That’s a shame, because you really don’t have to be Einstein to do well in science; but what you do need is to want to understand how things work, to just understand one little part of the whole wide universe, and then to try and understand that better.  Plus, people shouldn’t worry so much about being trapped away in a cold, dark cellar working on crazy experiments!  You can do that if you want, but science these days is incredibly social.  The potential for collaboration and team work are the absolute heart-blood of scientific advancement, and yet this always seems to get downplayed and forgotten by people outside of the field.


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

JS:  Enjoy yourself.  Sounds simple maybe, and unfortunately no job (including academia!) is all fun.  There will always be areas that you just have to grit your teeth and trudge through, but there’s such possibility for branching out in science and meeting your interests.  So take some time in your PhD to decide what really matters to you.  That could be building experimental kit; developing wild hypotheses; nurturing collaborations; writing articles; or winning funding.  Knowing what you love can help keep things in focus.  Sometimes you just have to take a moment out in a busy day (that day where all your data seems backwards, the kit’s broken for no obvious reason, and you’ve got another urgent email) and remember what it is that you love doing.


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