Discussion, collaboration and making mistakes results in the most interesting discoveries: Meet Katherine Holt

Dr Katherine B. Holt is Reader in Physical Chemistry at UCL. She carries out multidisciplinary research in electrochemistry and studies of the solid-solution interface. You can catch Katherine on her soapbox on the 27th of May in London, with a talk called: “Diamond – more than a girl’s best friend?”




SS: How did you get to your current position? 


KH: Midway through my postdoc position I came across an advert for the Ramsay Fellowship that offered the opportunity for two years funding for independent research in chemistry. The advert said they would particularly encourage applicants who wished to hold the fellowship at UCL. Although I’d never considered working in London, this was a strong hint that I should get in touch with UCL Chemistry to see if they would host me! They agreed and I was awarded the fellowship and pitched up at UCL in 2004. As a two year position goes in a flash, almost immediately I started to apply for longer fellowships and was awarded a five year EPSRC Advanced Research Fellowship in 2006. This morphed into a permanent lectureship at UCL where I’ve been ever since and where I’m now a Reader.



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


KH: My parents both did chemistry degrees and were chemistry teachers so it’s obviously in the genes. Having said that, neither my brother or sister are scientists. I just liked science subjects at school and it’s what I’m good at. I can’t admit to any driving passion to get to where I am, it’s been more luck and chance if I’m honest (although a lot of luck does result from planning and hard work!).



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


KH: I find it interesting to compare the topics we’re researching in my group at the moment to what I planned to do when I started. I find most of the interesting things you discover come about through a chance discussion with someone, a new collaboration or an experiment you originally planned not working. It’s quite fascinating to look back and try to figure out how you got from there to here!



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


KH: I do quite a lot of outreach – talks to school, science clubs, general public – but have always relied on a tried and tested set of power point slides. The idea of presenting without images and props and to an audience who haven’t deliberately come to see some science is a bit scary. I like doing scary things sometimes.  



SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day


KH: Winging it!



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


KH: There are too many papers on tiny iterations of the same thing and we don’t spend enough time reading the already existing literature. It’s difficult because of course PhD students and postdocs need publications to progress in their careers, but I think quantity gets in the way of quality.



SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?


KH:  I would say start planning sooner than you think you need to. Start scouting out postdoc positions before you write your thesis and try to publish your work throughout the PhD rather than after you’ve finished. When you get a postdoc position you need to have your eye on what you’re going to do next – check out the eligibility criteria and application deadlines for relevant fellowships early on and make sure you contact potential hosting departments early too.

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