Dr Natasha Stephen is a Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Natural History Museum & Imperial College London. She is a geologist, who has specialized in the study of extra-terrestrial rocks. Here, Natasha (NS) talks to Soapbox Science (SS) about her enthusiasm for geology, the importance of transparency in science, and why science communication should be part of all scientists’ job description.
SS: Natasha, tell us how you got to your current position?
NS: I stayed in education! I went straight from a-levels into university and straight from there into a PhD place. Since finishing that I have been really fortunate to stay in an academic environment where I have been able to thrive and direct my own research interests. I work closely with a huge group of people around the world and we all get excited about the same things; it makes it a lot easier to achieve “science” when everyone is as passionate about it as you!
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
NS: I think I have always wanted to be a scientist. I certainly grew up playing with rocks and fossils, trawling across beaches or around museums; I guess I just never grew out of it so it was perhaps inevitable that I would end up being a geologist! I had really great teachers at school too. They were always so encouraging and we got to attend lots of extra events and lectures as part of national initiatives (Science Year etc.), so I guess that helped. I’ve been really fortunate with the opportunities available to me over the years, so I am very grateful now to be in a position to help return the favour and hope that I can contribute in the same way!
SS: Tell us about your research, what makes it interesting to you?
NS: I think the most fascinating thing about my research is that my samples come from another world, literally! There are thousands of rocks for geologists to look at all over the Earth but to have specimens that have come from another planet entirely? It’s incredible! I still have moments of awe when I think about where these things have actually come from; my rocks, that I play with almost daily, were formed on a planet millions of miles away; Mars!
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
NS: I think all scientists should share in the responsibility that is making sure that science, in general, is both accessible and interesting to the general public. If it isn’t the responsibility of the scientists to make sure that our research is well-received and clearly understood, then we can hardly complain that the media is doing it wrong, can we? Soapbox Science is such a novel idea and one that I think can help get one step closer to achieving that. If just one person goes home on the day thinking “wow, I never knew we could do that to learn about other planets without having to spend billions getting there”, I will be happy.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
NS: Free public access to peer-reviewed publications; the current system is a barrier to sound scientific journalism and often fuels suspicion of the scientific community by the general public unnecessarily! Events like Soapbox Science are helping us break down these barriers but until there is true transparency in science, it is always going to be limited.
SS: And what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
NS: Go for it! I’d give the same advice to anyone embarking on an academic career; it isn’t easy but then the most rewarding things in life rarely are. Realistically it is going to be hard work; there will be long hours, the occasional lack of a weekend and often holidays become extended work trips instead of a separate entity, but if you enjoy your science, it won’t feel like work at all. If you are passionate about something, you should make the most of that; academia is a challenge and it won’t be for everyone, but for those that can thrive in a self-motivated and fast-paced environment, remaining enthusiastic at the same time, you will love it.