Improving Women’s Urogenital Health: Meet Cat Czyrnyj

In June 2019, the organizing team for Soapbox Science Ottawa had the pleasure of visiting the McLean Lab where Soapbox Science speaker, Cat Czyrnyj works.

Upon arrival at the lab, we were welcomed by Cat, her supervising professor Dr. Linda McLean and a group of researchers who share a common goal – to improve women’s urogenital health.

Ms. Czyrnyj, a third-year Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering, explained the importance of conducting more research that pertains to women’s health, specifically speaking about pelvic floor muscles, urinary incontinence and uterine fibroids.

The latter being the subject of Cat’s current research, where she uses ultrasound elastography to generate vibrations in the uterine tissue to characterize and treat stiffness that occurs with uterine fibroids.

We also benefited from learning more about a fellow researcher’s work, Marie-Ève Bérubé, whose work focuses on urinary incontinence that occurs in women while exercising.  Thus, the need for treadmills in the lab!

To help these passionate researchers in their quest to improve women’s urogenital health, visit their website where you will learn more about their research and to sign up to participate in a study –

Thank you to the researchers in the McLean Lab for welcoming us!

If you’re interested in learning more about Cat’s research, join us on September 14, 2019, in the ByWard Market, Ottawa, Canada.

From left to right – Dr. Linda McLean, Soapbox Science Ottawa 2019 Speaker Cat Czyrnyj and Ph.D. Student Marie-Ève Bérubé
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It is important to have role models that can be humanised: Meet Cristina Alexandru

Cristina Alexandru is a PhD student in the engineering department at the University of Exeter where she carries out research on wireless power transfer technologies. Here she writes about how a talk at a conference attended by approximately 20,000 women technologists spurred her to reflect on how we handle success and failure and issues of confidence and competence in our work. Come and meet Cristina and hear her speak at Soapbox Science Exeter on the 29th of June 2019!


By Cristina Alexandru 

Be Confident

“Be confident” is one of the most common pieces of advice given to us, in situations where we have to “sell” ourselves and our work to a potential employer, committee or within our workplace. However, it seems that this remark is more often directed towards women than men.

As Tammy Hughes explained in her GHC2018 talk, it all comes down to “Attribution theory”. In a recent study conducted at the Heim Group, a big and diverse age group of both genders were interviewed and the results shed some light on how men and women perceive success. As Hughes explained, men attribute success to their inner skills. On the other hand, women associate their success to external factors such as luck, good organisation, completing key tasks, rather than their own skills. When unsuccessful, men put the blame on external factors, such as: not having enough time, difficult work environment, uncooperative team, but women link it to themselves by thinking they were not good enough and lacked the main skill set which could have helped achieve the goal.

When I first heard the Heim Group’s findings, I could not believe it… but then briefly, for a few seconds, I went down memory lane and to my amazement and shock, she was completely right! I have also been trapped in this circle by putting the blame solely on myself whenever something wouldn’t go as planned and associated success to a happy set of circumstances under which all was possible … and then I thought, why was I doing this to myself? The answer is more complex than what came through my mind in that spur of the moment, but I was determined that I could no longer let the self-sabotage continue.

What happens when others are showing lack of confidence in you?

The key element is that you have to keep your ground and restore the power level when someone else establishes from the beginning that you are not good enough. Find your own style, let the work speak for itself and make a plan on how to improve and gain more skills and knowledge. If you feel like something is not quite right, make subtle changes and notice which ones have the most impact. Be specific on what you want and can do! Write it down and visualise it.


Competence vs Confidence?

From a semantic perspective, competence and confidence are not related – meaning that competence refers to knowledge and ability to complete a task and confidence is linked to the belief that you can do it.

In reality, they depend on one another and a lack of confidence can affect your competence and vice-versa. Women tend to underestimate themselves which leads to a lack of confidence which in turn translates as a lack of competence to everyone around them.

Another eye-opening example from Hughes’s talk, was that in both verbal and non-verbal communication men use affirmative statements such as: “I will”, “I am certain that” etc. On the other hand, women “go into the confessional” (as Hughes labelled it) and express their honest thoughts by saying things like “I would like to”, “I hope to” instead of using firm key-words. Even though men might have the same insecurities as women, they simply do not express them and that creates the image of a confident person. So for us women, it’s not necessarily a situation where confidence is lacking but rather our words might put us at a disadvantage.


Women in STEM

So where does this leaves us women in STEM, who happen to be at a disadvantage numerically speaking compared to our male colleagues?

From my point of view, I think it all comes down to learning about the psychology behind us, as human beings as well as developing our emotional intelligence and ultimately understanding how we, women are different from men.

As a young woman in STEM, I’ve often found myself questioning my competence. Unfortunately, looking back it was due to my lack of confidence rather than the knowledge itself. Over time, I have overcome this by constantly reminding myself of times when I have faced more difficult situations and was successful. What boosts my confidence the most currently, is knowing that I have all the skills needed to learn and expand my knowledge and the certainty that I will get there!

Whoever said that comparison is the thief of joy, was definitely right! Inevitably, from time to time I start comparing myself to everyone else and that can take a toll on me. In such situations, I try to take back control of my mindset and start by mentally putting things into context. So for example, I would ask myself: “For how long have they been researching this topic?”, “What is their prior experience?”, “Are they working alone or in a big research group?”, “What other opportunities did they have?”. By using this thought process, I clearly put everything into perspective and the lack of confidence can no longer control me. Depending on the situation, if this isn’t helping, I remind myself that everyone has their own rhythm of learning and progressing.

Lastly, this might be well-known advice but still, I’d like to emphasise it – there is no perfect moment to start something because life will always gets in the way, so if a good opportunity arises, take it. Otherwise you risk wasting time… and who knows, that opportunity may never come again in your path.

Why Soapbox?

I believe it is important to have role models that can be humanised because everyone has good qualities but also flaws and insecurities… and this is one of the main reasons why I believe Soapbox Science is an amazing event through which young girls can find relatable role models. As an undergraduate, I remember finding it difficult to carry on without having female role-models around me whom I could look up to and would support me in pursuing my goals. As time went by, I started getting involved in outreach activities as well as events promoting women in STEM. This offered me the chance to hear the motivational and challenging experiences of some incredible ladies who have been those role models I so much needed and it gave me that extra push to build my own confidence. Soapbox Science confirms the fact that even if we all come from different backgrounds, there is still a strong bond within our community of women in STEM who want to help and lift each other up.





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Why science outreach matters: Meet Cassie Sims

Cassie Sims  is a PhD student at Rothamsted Research and the University of Nottingham. Her research focuses on insect olfaction – how insects can smell – and specific proteins found in their olfactory systems.

You can catch Cassie on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will be talking about “Scents and smells: communicating with chemistry”.

Follow Cassie on Twitter: @SimsCassie


by Cassie Sims 

I remember the moment I realised the importance of science outreach. It was a Friday night, I was out on the town and having a chat to some ladies in the toilets of a bar.

“What do you do?” one of them asked me.

“I am studying for my PhD in chemistry – a scientist basically”, I told them the line I was so used to saying.

“I don’t believe you!”, they responded: “You don’t look like a scientist!”

I was taken aback. This was the first time someone had ever said something like this to me, and I started to unravel the options in my head. Was it because I was a young woman? Was it because I was dressed up, ready to hit the clubs with a face full of make-up and sparkly shoes? Was it because I had tattoos? Then it struck me – none of these things mattered. It didn’t matter what I looked like, this person had an image in their head of what a scientist looked like, and that was not me.

In reality, a scientist can look like anyone, any gender and race, any fashion choice or hair colour. Working in science means I know a whole bunch of scientists, and every single one of them looks different. But how is the general public supposed to know this, if the only scientists they ever see fit some kind of image or perception?

Science outreach is so important to smash these misconceptions, and as a young female scientist I aim to do as much as possible. I had the opportunity this year to be part of a roller derby game – a full contact sport played on quad roller skates – played, organised and officiated entirely by women working in STEM. The game was played in front of young girls that were interested in pursuing a STEM career, and afterwards we networked with them, giving tips and advice and answering their questions. The girls got the chance to see that not only can anyone be a scientist, they can kick some ass while they do it!

Soapbox Science is an extremely important international event, which reaches out to a general public audience. We will be standing on boxes, and talking about our scientific work, which ranges from computer modelling to field work. It is just as important to show that not only are scientists as people diverse, but the range of science that we do is equally as widespread. Even as a classic lab coat scientist, I am a chemist who works with insects – not something I could have predicted when doing my A-Level in chemistry.

I am very excited to participate in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes, and be part of a diverse group of female scientists, who will be sharing our passion for our work, showing that every scientist is different, and anyone can be one!


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Just be yourself!: Meet Raheeg Alamin

Raheeg Alamin is a lecturer at Sudan University of Science and Technology and is currently doing a PhD degree in aerospace engineering at Cranfield University. After she finished her undergraduate studies in aeronautical engineering, she worked for a year in industry before joining academia in 2010. She was granted a PECK scholarship to complete her MSc in electrical engineering at the University of Nottingham.

You can catch Raheeg on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where her talk will be:“Let’s look closely at aircraft wings!”



SS: Raheeg, how did you get to your current position?

RA: To be honest, doing national service is a burden for fresh graduates. I joined the Engineering and Maintenance Sector of Sudan Airways for a year. As it was rotation-based training I was expecting to be able to decide which sector I really wanted to build a career in, and I was able to do that. By the end of the year, I had made my decision and joined academia. I believed that I have the ability to help students to prepare themselves for life after college. Those five years in college is not only about science, but are also about building a better self. It is a “full package” experience.

University is where academics can lecture, interact with students, share knowledge, and still stay connected with industry through research. I have been working in academia for ten years now, and I can truly say that academia has given me more than I have given. It has brought out the best in me!


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

RA: We are all people in our own right, but with all the bedtime stories, songs, hugs and caring, our parents’ dreams will find their way to us! I still remember how my father’s eyes sparkled when he found out that girls can study and work in aeronautical engineering. It was his dream to have a career in aviation, but he ended up going to medical school!


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

RA: The multidisciplinary nature of dynamics and control is what fascinates me. In my research I am using feedback control to minimise the adverse effects of the flexible wings that are increasingly used in modern transport aircraft. This should have a big positive impact if successful, as it will lead to both emissions reductions and fuel savings for aircraft operators.


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

RA: Albert Einstein once said: ”If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. This is what attracted me to Soapbox Science in the first place, more than representing women in science. I have been fortunate that Sezsy Yusuf (@sezsy) and Simone Weber are in the same research group as me. They both spoke at Soapbox Science last year, and I saw for myself the positive impact this had on their ability to communicate their science.

I always wondered if people were still questioning the role of women in science, and life in general. Why do we still need to talk about women’s rights? I used to believe that it is already obvious that we are an authentic and equal part of everything. Volunteering for Soapbox Science last year made me see things differently, and YES we do need to represent women in science!


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

RA: Excitement!


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

RA: My supervisor Dr James Whidborne said of my very first PhD proposal: ”Always remember, research is a dynamic process”. If I could change one thing, it would be to make everyone accept that research is a dynamic process. It is the key to creativity as long as you can set your goals.


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

RA: Academia needs passion, ambition and patience; my advice to you if you are a woman and considering pursuing a career in academia, is to just to be yourself – that’s all it takes!

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From Astronomy to Biology: Meet Vasthi Alonso

Dr Vasthi Alonso works at Rothamsted Research as a post-doctoral research scientist. Her main interests focus on the development of mathematical and epidemiological models for the monitoring, detection and control of diseases in plants, crops and trees. She has a BSc and MSc in physics and a PhD in applied mathematics. Her latest research focuses on developing strategies to optimise the deployment of often limited controls in the presence of a pest or disease. Follow Vasthi on Twitter @VasthiAlonso

You can catch Vashti on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will be talking about “When maths and plants come together to fight diseases”.


by Vasthi Alonso

Four year old me to my brother: “You are a papio hamadryas!”

My six year old brother replies: “….and you are an ateles geoffroyi!”

Some of my earliest memories are when my brother and I called each other the scientific names of animals.

You see? My dad is a vet, and he and my mum used to take us to the zoo almost every other week, and buy us books about animals. I used to spend hours turning the pages, looking at them, and trying to learn the names of the weirdest ones. My favourite was the echidna.

During my second year at high-school I chose to do physics for my undergraduate degree, as I had decided I wanted to be an astronomer. I wanted to see the stars, recognise the constellations….all that romantic stuff. The first year of uni was incredibly tough for me. I was used to getting full marks all the time, but that didn’t happen. However, I persevered and started enjoying my career choice more and more.

I took some astronomy courses. Some of the most beautiful places on earth I’ve ever seen are next to observatories, where nature abounds and the skies are clearer and cleaner than most places on Earth, where you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye and everything is calm and quiet. However, becoming an observational astronomer means not sleeping at night during observational periods and I realised I would struggle with that. On the other hand, theoretical astronomy did not attract me. It’s interesting but often very abstract, and I like to see how science applies to real life. This little detour into astronomy wasn’t wasted, as it was an amazing experience and helped me to become the scientist I am now.

That’s when my love for biology came back in to my life. I enrolled on an animal biology course and I simply I loved it. Some animals are so simple and yet so complex, beautiful and weird that I was constantly mesmerised. I had the chance to hold an octopus and tenderly deposit a sea cucumber on the sea floor, count sea urchins and well as fish parasites, and look at old nautilus shells. I knew then that I wanted to do something closely linked to biology, and so my journey as a mathematical modeller began. Both my MSc dissertation and my PhD were focused on ecological modelling. I enjoyed my studies, but it wasn’t easy.

After my PhD I joined Rothamsted Research, which is the oldest agricultural research centre in the world. I’ve been working there for about six years solving equations that shed some light on how complex biological systems work. Sometimes things flow very smoothly. Sometimes it feels like nothing will ever work out. You get stuck and it’s incredibly frustrating.

Being a scientist is really hard work, it doesn’t pay much, and needs a lot of perseverance, but it can be incredibly rewarding. When you see that your research can help solve current world challenges for real people that will make this Earth a better place for everyone to live in, that’s when science gives you back a little bit of what you put in.

Observing the Spruce bark beetle, a devastating pest in Eastern Europe







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STEM in Academia and Industry – navigating from one to another: Meet Rosti Readioff 

Dr Rosti Readioff (@Dr_Rosti), Postdoctoral research associate, Keele University, is taking part in Soapbox Science Stoke-on-Trent on 6th July with the talk: “From Silly Putty to Human Body





I am currently a postdoctoral research associate at Keele University, working on a research project in the biomedical engineering field. My project is focused on using assistive technologies to restore arm movement in paralysed people.


My STEM journey and how I started

I completed my secondary and high school education (GCSE and A-level equivalent) outside of the UK; needless to say that my STEM path started off very differently to most people studying in the UK. I studied all the science subjects including Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Maths, and three different languages. I really enjoyed science subjects, in particular Maths and Physics. To me, Maths was like playing numeric games, so I was always looking forward to my Maths classes. I liked Physics because it helped me understand the world around me.


Unlike most stories you might hear, I did not know what exactly I wanted to do for a career. However, I knew I enjoyed Maths and Physics more than others, hence I decided to study for a degree that involved both subjects. And this degree was Engineering. I studied for a Civil and Structural Engineering degree at the University of Liverpool, and the degree was four challenging years. In University, I was in a minority group and I felt responsible to be one of the best academically amongst my peers, hence I spent most of the time studying. If I were to do my undergraduate degree again, I would probably try to enjoy the experience a little more than feeling obliged to be one of the best.


At the end of my undergraduate degree, I was involved in a short research project which changed my perception towards engineering. The project exposed me to a new field of engineering, Biomedical and Biomechanics Engineering, which at the time I did not know much about. I found this newly discovered engineering field very exciting and full of opportunities for research. My passion to explore led me to study for a doctorate degree in this engineering field.


Why did you leave academia and come back to it?

Despite so many challenges, I believe the experience that came with studying for my doctorate degree has helped me grow as a scientist and an engineer. However, as a curious person I always wondered what work outside an academic environment was like. I, then, decided to leave the academic world after finishing my doctorate degree.


My first job outside academia was in a Civil Engineering company. My daily tasks were not directly relevant to my previous research, but it was relevant to my undergraduate degree. In this role, I enjoyed the new experiences and the real-life challenges that came with it. However, I felt I was not utilising the skills I gained during my doctorate degree and that was a big deal to me.

Here, I am in my first post-doctorate industry role and inspecting a train station subway!


Next, I decided to look for opportunities in industry that would better use my expertise. Subsequently, I got my second job at a research organisation where I was working as a research engineer. It was here where I learned so much about diverse and inclusive working environments and the importance of having well-thought core values to increase productivity. I decided to adopt their core values and implement them wherever I ended up working. Although the working environment was the best I had encountered, none of the work I was doing was directly relevant to biomedical and biomechanics engineering research. The organisation was research intensive but there were few opportunities to build upon my biomedical and biomechanics research background. Ultimately, I concluded that the best way for me to grow and establish as a researcher in this rapidly evolving engineering field was through an academic path.


Now, I am back in an academic environment where I focus on what I love doing, research in science and engineering. I believe studying STEM subjects greatly improved my career prospects and it helped me to move between industry and academia.


My recommendation for young people out there is to pick STEM subjects early on, however this does not mean you cannot change careers later. Or, you can mix STEM subjects with humanities to widen up your career prospects. Whatever you choose, remember to enjoy the experience!



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I never knew science was for me, for everyone: Meet Kelly Jowett


Kelly Jowett is a PhD student at the University of Reading and based at Rothamsted Research. Her work investigates the distribution of beneficial beetles in farm landscapes and how they can help us move towards efficient natural pest control in crops.

You can catch Kelly on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will be asking: “How do beetles help farmers to feed us?”

Follow Kelly on Twitter: @kelly_jowett


I’m quite an introverted person. I like people, and working in a team, but I’m hardly a chatty breezy open type of girl. At a party, I’m the one in the kitchen, fussing the cat and/or dog. So why am I going to stand on a soapbox in the middle of a shopping centre blathering on about beetles? Because I love it! And here’s why…

As a little girl growing up I loved the natural world, romping about the fields, diving through the hedges, and getting my hands dirty. I was pretty good academically, but I never even considered that the two might interconnect, and I never dreamed I’d be a scientist

When I got to the world of work, I fell into a career of gardening and later trained as a tree surgeon. Unfortunately/fortunately I developed muscular-neurological problems which meant I had to give up my practical career. Still I never considered higher academia – I just went to university to get the qualification I needed to become an ecological surveyor.

However, when I got into my Foundation Degree Sciences undergraduate course, a new world opened up to me. I learned about the problems humans have created for themselves by altering natural systems, and the myriad of ways that I, as a researcher, could contribute and help to mitigate this. I soon fast-tracked onto a BSc Environmental Conservation course and received the school award for best dissertation project for my work on beneficial beetles. I still never considered I might become a doctor though!

When I wanted to take my work further I undertook an MRes course in Global Agriculture and Food Security. This equipped me with the knowledge to make a difference to the area where human concerns meet with the environment most keenly – agricultural and food production systems. Though it pains me to know all the things that have gone wrong, globally, with our food systems, it’s so inspiring to know that I, as small and inconsequential as I often feel, might make a difference to the world.

After getting top marks for my statistics module, and winning the prize for top MRes student, I was told I should really take research as a career, and pursue a doctorate. So I did! I’m studying at Reading Uni, and based at Rothamsted Research, in my project on beetles as pest control agents. I love my work. Tramping through the fields and getting my hands dirty (though I do a lot of computer work too).

I never dreamed I could have this career, doing what I love, and helping others too. I never thought being a scientist involved this.

I never knew science was for me, for everyone. And I want to let everyone know that it is. So I’m going to get up there and tell them! Maybe I will be able to inspire the next future generation of budding scientists and demonstrate that anyone with a passion for something can make a difference.

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Be like water: Meet Natalia Jawiarczy

Natalia obtained an MSc in Biotechnology from Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland, majoring in environmental biotechnology. She did her second Master’s in Industrial and Agrifood Biotechnology at Almeria University in Spain, where she majored in industrial biotechnology and bioprocessing, focusing on marine biotechnology.

Natalia’s EngD project at Cranfield University is part of the STREAM IDC (the Industrial Doctorate Centre for the water industry). She aims to establish how FOG (fats, oils and greases) deposits form in the sewer network, and how they can be rehabilitated and inhibited effectively using bio-additives. She is working on understanding the factors which contribute to deposition to enable more accurate targeting of bio-additive strategies. Her work is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Severn Trent Water.

You can catch Natalia on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June where she will be talking about “Fatberg science”.


SS: Natalia, how did you get to your current position?

NJ: I strongly believe that the key to success is to take every opportunity life gives you. Before I got to Cranfield I changed my research topic several times. Throughout my studies in Poland, I was a trainee in the Laboratory of Medical Microbiology at the Polish Academy of Sciences, where I worked on the biochemical analysis of bacterial lipid markers and wrote my master’s thesis. After graduating I went to Spain where I undertook vocational and educational training (thanks to a Leonardo da Vinci partnership) at the University of Almeria. Here I learnt the basics of microalgal biotechnology and was encouraged to follow this research pathway. I stayed for another two years working in the marine biotechnology group where I gained first-hand experience in microalgal biofuel production.


When I started my PhD at Cranfield, I was in the Energy theme, and my work was focused on the reuse of microalgal biomass. This was a natural continuation of my work in Spain. However, a change of supervisor meant I was able to change my research topic. I moved from Energy to Agrifood and researched insects grown on waste based protein production. However, my topic changed again. I joined the Water theme where I am currently pursuing my EngD as one of the STREAMers working on FOG bioremediation.


I underwent two changes of main academic supervisor, and completely changed my research topic four times, and yet I am completely satisfied with the way things have worked out for me. Sometimes you have to be like water by moving and adapting to fit changing situations.


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

NJ: The idea to get involved was all mine, but the people I have been privileged to work with have kept me going. My clear vision when I was doing my first master’s in Poland, was that the only place I would ever want to be is at a university pursuing my PhD and career in academia. I was lured by the vision of independency I believed it would come with.


I have been very fortunate to have the support of my family, academic supervisors, co-workers and fellow students. They have inspired me, encouraged me, and never doubted me, always pushing me to do more. There has always been at least one person who’s had something nice to say.


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

NJ: Working with the ‘beasts from beneath’ (FOGs from the sewer). As part of my research I have had the opportunity to analyse pieces of the famous Whitechapel fatberg (which is now displayed at the Museum of London) and the Whitehall fatberg, which was the subject of the Channel 4 documentary ‘Fatberg autopsy: secrets of the sewers’.


Currently the big unknown is around the reactions leading to fatberg formation, and this is where my research will have impact for the public, the environment and the water companies. The processes are much more complex than the simple solidification of fat in sewers caused by temperature drop and hydraulic pressure. Tackling the science behind deposit formation will enable much more effective and targeted sewer FOG management.


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

NJ: The opportunity to engage and interact with the public and the buzz it brings, as well as getting insights into my research from the outside world. It is easy to develop a closed-mind when working on a project for so long, and sometimes-random comments from unrelated people bring the breakthrough moments. In addition, I also love the idea of promoting women in science, and creating a ‘safe space’ for them to step forward and embrace their inner scientist.


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

NJ: Engagement


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

NJ: We need to work more collaboratively, and be more supportive of each other. We should be less competitive and success-driven and reflect more. Let us become more open in conversations about our research, share negative results, and let the scientific knowledge flow freely. Collaborations always bring more to the table than individual achievements.


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

NJ: Surround yourself with supportive, likeminded people. It’s possible to have successful work and family lives, but accept you will not be 100% at everything. Most importantly, give everything you do your best shot, but remember that good enough is good enough! Never shy away from opportunities.

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Network and support each other: Meet Barbara Kunz

Dr Barbara Kunz is a research project officer working in the geochemistry lab of the School of Environment, Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at the Open University (OU). Her work focuses on analysing samples with a machine called a Laser Ablation Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer. This machine analyses solid materials for their trace element composition.

Currently she is working on a large Natural Environment Research Council project. The aim of the project is to understand why some volcanoes form metal deposits and others do not. This is important to ensure future supplies of the critical metals needed in modern technology for things like batteries, mobile phones and computers.

You can catch Barbara on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will be talking about “How to read rocks; from tiny observations to big conclusions”.


Follow Barbara on Twitter: @KunzBE



SS: Barbara, how did you get to your current position?

BK: After I finished my PhD I was looking for jobs in academia and saw the job ad on Twitter. A mentor and friend of mine who works at the OU encouraged me to apply, even though my skills didn’t exactly match the advertisement. The application deadline was shortly after a scientific conference I was attending. So, after a full day of conference talks and posters, I sat down that night to work on my CV and covering letter. The hard work paid off as I got the job!


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

BK: My parents, who both studied physics, and other relatives played a large role in inspiring me to get into science. I have numerous childhood memories where I developed my scientific skills – observing and describing things, connecting my observations, and drawing conclusions. Many everyday activities were flavoured with activities like these.


However, when I needed to decide what I wanted to do at uni, I was torn between my love for science, and a passion for art and creativity. When the time came to make a decision I went with geology, which allowed me to combine science and being outdoors. I’ve never regretted my decision, and during my undergrad degree I realised that I wanted to pursue a career in science.


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

BK: Looking back millions and millions of years into the past, as well as investigating places deep within the earth via samples brought to the surface by volcanoes or mountain-building processes. This allows us to access areas usually inaccessible to human beings. I also think that the hidden worlds revealed under a microscope are fascinating.


Something that really grew on me with time are the technical aspects of the instruments geologists use to measure their samples. In addition to using the instruments, these days it’s part of my job to maintain and troubleshoot them.


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

BK: I saw two PhD students from my department talking at a Soapbox Science event last year. It looked like a fun challenge. I think public engagement is important, especially in this day and age of fake news and climate change deniers. However scientists are often not specifically trained in this. As if by magic we are expected to do great research, deliver brilliant lectures, write publications and grant applications, be a whizz at administrative work, and do public engagement. Our formal education covers only some of these skills. So for me, Soapbox Science is a great training opportunity. I will learn how to present my research to a general audience, and thereby help them understand why my job is important, and why it is important to be financed by taxpayers’ money.


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

BK: Challenge. I think it takes courage to talk in front of an audience. It might seem contradictory, but explaining the often complex or abstract work I am doing to a non-expert audience is even more difficult and challenging than talking at a scientific conference.


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

BK: I think equality and diversity in science are definitely issues that need confronting. No matter what their race, gender, sexuality or economic background, the more diverse the people working in science, the more diverse the ideas and approaches to solve the challenges we face in the modern world will be.


Another big topic in academia is the need to address stress levels and mental health issues. This is a huge issue which often gets glossed over, or seen as a badge of honour. Currently, the discussion focuses mostly on what the individual can do (work-life balance, personal stress reduction/resilience, meditation, yoga, etc.). However I think that can only be one side of the equation. The other side is the need for structural changes within university systems to reduce stress and create a more healthy work culture.


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

BK: Networking and supporting each other. Academia is often lonely enough without the added isolation created by rivalry and/or mistrust. Additionally, I would encourage women to apply for jobs, awards, grants etc. even if they feel they are not totally qualified. There are scientific studies that show that women only apply when they are 100% qualified, but that men apply when they are 60% qualified ( If we women want to be equally as successful as men I think we need to be more confident in our skills and abilities, or simply dare to be bolder.

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Ripples become waves: Meet Andrea Momblanch

Andrea is a post-doctoral researcher in the Cranfield Water Science Institute at Cranfield University. She graduated as a civil engineer from the Universitat Politècnica de València in Spain, and specialised in water resources engineering during her MSc and PhD, also in València. Her research at Cranfield involves modelling water resources systems to find new ways of managing river basins for a balanced, efficient and sustainable use of water.

You can catch Andrea on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 29th June, where she will be asking: “Can you guess the value of water?”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @AndreaMomblanch

I didn’t think that I was doing anything special when I decided to study a civil engineering degree. Even when I specialised in water and environmental engineering when I was doing my MSc, and again when I started my research career by completing a PhD, it didn’t feel unusual. As a child, I wasn’t aware of any limitations because I was a girl. I grew up without any idea of stereotyped gender differences in career choices, or in who did the housework tasks around me. My parents always encouraged me to follow my dreams whatever they were. That’s why I felt I could be an engineer; I loved maths and physics and I was good at them. Simple and easy!

And I did it! Together with many other classmates – who were mostly men – and with the number of women academics teaching on the course who could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Apparently I had chosen a male-dominated profession. However, against all gender stereotype odds, I enjoyed what I learnt and found the civil engineering profession very fulfilling. Civil engineers help improve people’s lives, especially in developing countries, by ensuring that their basic needs, such as water supply or transport, are met. I also learnt I was good at teaching, as I love understanding things and in turn making them easier for whoever needs my help. At that point, what I wanted to do in the future became clear to me: I would be an academic so I could teach and research about water and environmental science to help create sustainable ways of managing catchments and using water around the world. On the way, I would help increase the number of women academics in STEMM; hat trick!

In my short experience of academia, I have observed that gender segregation exists in all the different career stages. There are many women early career researchers like me, but women professors are almost nonexistent. This happens in the UK, Spain, India, Perú… and I suspect almost everywhere. Basic social gender assumptions such as family roles or power ambitions are still the main hurdle to overcome in many countries. However, unconscious gender bias is a much more subtle mechanism that holds women back when we are choosing our careers or seeking promotion.

I believe that what you learn as a child really makes a difference in defining the barriers that we sometimes impose upon ourselves. That’s why Soapbox Science is such a great way to change mind-sets and, by extension, society. That’s why I wanted to be part of it two years ago when I volunteered, and this year I am a speaker. It helps children, and especially girls, to see real examples that show them that they can be engineers and scientists if that’s what they want. It may sow an idea in their mind that gives them the self-assurance to follow their will, regardless of gender stereotypes or (in)equality around them. Societal change will follow as those ripples become waves.

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