Dr Pamela Walsh is a Lecturer in Chemical Engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her research addresses fundamental questions of biomineral physiology, supporting the development of new marine bioprospecting systems for bone repair strategies. Here she tells us about how Robert Swan proved to be an inspiration, her passion for engineering and the responsibility towards the next generation of scientists. For her Soapbox Science challenge this June in Belfast, she will be talking about “Bone repair from algae: Unlocking the potential of marine algae in bone repair strategies”
SS: Tell us how you got to your current position
PW: I studied Mechanical Engineering because I loved maths. I hadn’t really thought about my long term career plan. I had to pick something to study at university, so why not engineering. If I hated it, I’d change course but I loved it. I was the only female on the course for the first two years, but that didn’t put me off. I really enjoyed the subject, plus I had a great network of female friends who I lived and socialised with, so my life was pretty balanced. After my degree, I took a gap year, selling houses to fund a 4-month round-the-world trip with friends, and then I went on to study for a Masters in Manufacture Systems Engineering. It was during my masters that my career path diverged towards research. My dissertation was on dental composites with Prof Fraser Buchanan, who mentored me into a PhD in Bone Tissue Engineering in his group. After finishing my PhD, I was thrilled to secure a lectureship.
However, I left mid-way through my second year in order to pursue more independent opportunities. I decided to take up a post-doctoral research position with my old PhD supervisor which gave me the opportunity to start writing fellowship applications in order to pursue my own research pathway. In 2012, I successfully secured a Marie Curie Fellowship where I had the opportunity to work in Prof Phillip Messersmith group at Northwestern, and permanent lectureship at the same time. I have just finished my fellowship, and have been lecturing in the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Queen’s University, Belfast since then.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
PW: I would have to say it was Robert Swan, although I’ve never personally met him. When I was in my final year of primary school he gave a talk on his is polar expedition at a convention centre. At that age I could not comprehend how someone could live and survive in such difficult and dangerous conditions. His talk really inspired me to believe the impossible was possible and I wrote an essay about it which was then published in a newsletter by the Swan expedition. I’m not sure who was shocked more, my teacher or me. It was the first article I ever got printed and really inspired me to lean and write about science.
Recently, I completed an 18-month Marie Curie Fellowship at Northwestern, Chicago. It was during their coldest winter in 70 years and I got to experience living in these conditions. A polar vortex caused temperatures in the city to plunge lower than those at the Arctic. I still continued to be inspired by Robert Swan through his website and blog (http://2041.com) and hope one day, I’ll get the opportunity to participate in his “Leadership on the Edge” program that involves an International Antarctic Expedition. I have also been lucky enough to meet and work with some really inspirational people in sciences. People like Prof Phillip Messersmith or Prof Fraser Buchanan, who not only have a passion for their science, but are also true advocates in the career and professional developmental of the next generation of scientists and engineers.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
PW: My research takes a biomimetic approach to address fundamental questions of biomineral physiology, and to develop new marine bioprospecting systems for bone repair strategies. The diversity of marine materials to study, and scope that they offer is endless. I love walking along the beach getting inspiration for my next research project and sometimes my inspiration comes walking towards me, like on a recent research trip to New Zealand! I am continuously fascinated by how marine organisms and plants grow and adapt to changes in their environment, often caused by us. I guess my research is taking me full circle to my first printed piece of work. I’m hoping to diversify slightly over the next few years, whether or not, I’m successful we’ll see!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
PW: I love challenges, it’s one of the reasons I’m an engineer. Frankly the thought of standing up in public telling people about my research petrifies me. I know it’s slightly ironic given my chosen career. I love science, and I’d happily beaver away in the lab and office studying and writing about it. Speaking at scientific conferences and public engagement is part and parcel of my job. It is something that I hope I am getting better at, but still try to avoid. However if I can jump out of a moving plane at 12,000ft, I can do this!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
PW: Anticipation! I’ll use this as I really don’t know what to expect. I couldhave used ‘fear’, ‘excitement’, ‘curious’ and a whole range of other words.
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
PW: Science isn’t just about the here and now, as academics we have a responsibility to train the next generation. I would like to see more being done to inspire leadership amongst the younger generation.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
PW: A career in academia can be very rewarding but has many bumps and hurdles along the road. You can have a great idea and spend months developing what you believe it a perfect grant application or paper, only for it to be knocked down at the first hurdle. It can be really disheartening, but the rewards are equally great. I get to spend my days doing the things I love. I get to discuss my research with intelligent people and work with students who go on successful careers. I can also see my ideas moving towards real products that will have important benefits to society. My advice is quite simple and would be to believe in yourself and make sure you get back up again if you are knocked down by failure and rejection. The rewards will come.