Dr Lynne Thomas (@lynnehthomas) defines herself on Twitter as a crystallographer, structural chemist and science communicator based at the University of Bath. Here, she tells us about her passion for research; the inspiration she got from her mom, Rosalind Franklin, Kathleen Lonsdale & Dorothy Hodgkin; and how great scientific results often come from the most unexpected places. Lynne will be standing on one of our soapboxes in Bristol this WE, where she’ll be talking about “Why does Chocolate go off? Adventures with crystals”
SS: Lynne, tell us how you got to your current position?
LT: I really enjoyed science at school and couldn’t decide between Chemistry and Physics to study at University. Then I stumbled on a course called Chemical Physics which I took at the University of Edinburgh which allowed me to study a bit of both but focussing on where the two subjects overlap – it is this foundation that has allowed me to work in the area I work in now. As part of this course, I was able to do a placement year. Most people went into an industrial company, but I went and spent a year working at the ISIS neutron facility in Oxfordshire. This is an international research centre which is funded by the UK research councils with world-leading equipment and I got to experience what research was like and meet and work with other scientists coming to use the facility from all over the world. That is where I got the bug for science research and decided a PhD was for me, and also for something involving crystallography which is the key technique I use in my research today! When I finished my degree, I did a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Cambridge but spending large amounts of time back at the ISIS neutron facility. After that, I did some postdoctoral work at the University of Glasgow before moving to the University of Bath where I hold my current position.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
LT: This is a very difficult question as it’s hard to pin-point one event or one person. My earliest scientific memories are of going hunting in the woods behind my home looking for things we called potato stones – these are reddish stones that look a bit like potatoes (hence the name!) and when you smash them open, there are crystals inside. I think I must have been about 7 at the time. I find it really strange that I’ve ended up in a career looking at crystals! I was really lucky to grow up in a family where my parents let me find my own path and just follow my interests. My mother was an engineer and so she had a strong interest in science and this probably stimulated my interest at a young age. When she studied at University, there weren’t many women around but she never found this to be a barrier. This meant that I was brought up in an environment where being female didn’t come into it and where I could freely follow my interests and I never felt any boundaries to that – I guess that is quite inspirational! Having said that, as a teenager I was pretty determined to do something different to my Mum so that’s why I went into science and not engineering! I had a really good Physics teacher in school who was incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging and that helped a lot. I remember going to an event aimed at trying to get girls interested in Physics at Bristol University and being wowed by some liquid nitrogen ice cream! I think it was then that I realised that I could do it if I wanted to and that there were other people like me out there. I don’t think the inspiration ever stops though. I’m constantly inspired by my colleagues who show endless amounts of enthusiasm for the science that they do. And I’m lucky to work in an area with a strong history of female scientists who were real trailblazers in their time. They include Dorothy Hodgkin (who is my academic great-grandmother) and who is still the only female British scientist to have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. But I’m also incredibly inspired by Rosalind Franklin (whose key measurements allowed the structure of DNA to be worked out) and Kathleen Lonsdale (who proved that benzene was flat). All of these women succeeded in a time which was incredibly male-dominated and had to fight far harder than I ever will.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
LT: I think I am incredibly lucky to work in the area that I work in as I can use a technique called crystallography – by shining X-rays on crystals, we can generate 3D images of the arrangement of atoms and molecules inside. It’s the only method of doing this and there is nothing more amazing than seeing the image appear before your eyes! It’s an incredibly pretty and visually stimulating area to work in and I’m still amazed every time I see it happening. Atoms and molecules are so small that you can’t see them with even the most powerful microscope in the world which is why we have to use X-rays. Sometimes I go and use technologically advanced facilities like the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire. These are really inspiring places to work and the sheer scale of them makes you feel like you are walking into a film set or something! And we are very lucky that we have places within the UK that we can make use of and ensure our research is world-leading. Of course, getting a picture isn’t the end of the story – we have to work out how the picture that we see relates to how the material works and then try and understand how it works and find ways to make it even better!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
LT: I’m really passionate about talking to the public about science and trying to help people see the science in their everyday lives. A lot of the scientists that people are aware of are male and so anything which highlights the amazing women who are out there doing science too has to be a good thing to be involved with. I’m always looking for a new challenge too and this is certainly one of those! And I’m looking forward to talking to people who just happen upon us and didn’t realise that they were going to learn a bit of science that day!
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?
LT: Funding for scientific research has become more and more focussed on how an individual project is going to solve one of the world’s big problems. The need to sell your project in these terms is becoming more and more necessary and self-promotion like this is something that, in general comes harder for women. I think we would make more scientific advances if we funded the correct people doing research in whatever interests them, but with the skills that can be exploited when the next big accidental discovery comes along to be developed. Great results often come from the most unexpected places. A lot of the softer skills that people have are undervalued when funding applications are being considered (like being able to work in a team, provide a supportive environment for PhD students) and it would be great if these could be taken into account in the future.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
LT: Go for it! I found it important to establish a good support network around me – I’ve been lucky enough to find a couple of “academic big sisters” who have been through it all before and who I can go to for support and advice when I’ve needed it. I’ve also tried to find supportive people to work with and friendly departments as you have to pick yourself up from set-backs along the way. So make sure you find the right environment to thrive in.