Laughed at when suggesting a career in science: Meet Rebecca Douglas

DSC_0384.JPGRebecca Douglas is a PhD student at the Institute for Gravitational Research, University of Glasgow. She is also the local organiser of Soapbox Science Glasgow, which will take place this Sunday, 11am-3pm, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Here she tells us how her careers adviser suggested that she might be more suited to something more feminine, and how she things people should get less afraid of science. Rebecca will be standing on one of our soapboxes tomorrow, talking about “Gravitational Wave Astronomy ­ Opening a new Window in the Universe”. 



SS: Becky, tell us how you got to your current position?

RD: I’m a PhD student working on materials for gravitational detectors. As an undergraduate at the University of Glasgow I was given opportunities to complete small research projects as part of my degree, as well as a few summer projects. I worked with some great researchers and found myself fascinated by gravitational wave astronomy, so when my degree was completed I applied for a PhD position with the group and was fortunate enough to be accepted.


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

RD: I remember a careers adviser laughing when I said I liked science and suggesting that I might be more suited to something more feminine. Even as a young girl I was furious and this response only made me more determined to pursue my interest. When the sciences were split into separate lessons for biology, chemistry and physics I decided that physics happened to involve all the coolest stuff and so I focussed on that. Fortunately my physics teacher was far more encouraging than the careers adviser had been and was able to recommend extra books and experiments that I might enjoy.


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

RD: Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime, caused by huge astronomical events like colliding black holes. We haven’t detected them yet, but when we do we’ll get to study these phenomena in a new way. At the moment they’re really hard to study because astronomers observe space with light – the light that comes from stars or reflects off planets or that is left over from the big bang – but light doesn’t shine off black holes so it isn’t easy to watch what’s happening. Gravitational waves would be a different way to watch. It’s often said that when we can observe the effects of gravitational waves we’ll open a new window on our Universe.


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

RD: I like the casual format, the opportunity to chat with people and share ideas, and that anyone can come along – it’s not just for scientists. I’m really looking forward to getting a discussion going about science and finding out what can come out of that.

SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?

RD: Exhilaration

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

RD: I’d like people to be less afraid of science. Too often I hear people say “oh, that’s far too difficult for me,” and it doesn’t have to be. For some reason it seems that many people have decided that science is difficult and complicated and inaccessible, and whilst there are certainly some challenging concepts, I’m sure anyone can understand a great deal of science and enjoy it. I hope that initiatives like Soapbox will help to change some perceptions.

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

RD: Go for it! There’s no good reason why you shouldn’t and science certainly needs you.

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