Getting hands-on and practical with engineering: Meet Eimear O’Hara

Eimear O’Hara (@Eimear_Ohara) is a PhD Student at NUI Galway, who is taking part in Soapbox Science Galway on 7th July with the talk: “Developing new materials for cleaner, greener and cheaper power generation” 

 

 

 

 

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

EO: My name is Eimear O’Hara and I am a PhD student in Mechanical Engineering at the National University of Ireland Galway. I did my undergraduate degree in the same field at NUI Galway. The mechanical engineering degree is one of the broadest courses you can choose and was closely linked with the biomedical course, as well as covering aspects of civil and computer programming. Some examples of the projects students do are shown in figures 1 – 3. The main focus is understanding how materials behave under different types of loads and the best way to design against failure. This meant that the areas you could work in are endless. After I finished my degree, I was offered the opportunity to do a research masters on characterising a new type of steel for power plants. I enjoyed this so much I applied for more funding so I could continue my research as a PhD student. (Figure 1. A bridge built out of pasta by first year engineering students. The better the design, the heavier the weight it can lift.)

 

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

EO: In secondary school, I took up Engineering for my Leaving Certificate and haven’t really looked back since. I loved the hands-on and practical aspects of it, while also learning why certain materials behaved the way they do. Having a great teacher also helped a lot!

 

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

EO: I am working on characterising a new type of steel to use in power plants that can operate at higher temperatures and loads – basically making electricity production cheaper, with less harmful emissions, and trying to make it easier to incorporate renewable energy sources. Because this is a new material, there are so many unexplored avenues so my work covers a broad range of things from testing the material at high temperature to looking at why it failed under a microscope to creating computer models of all those things. Although it can be challenging and sometimes not very clear why things are happening, it means everything I do adds to the knowledge base for this material and can help future designers improve even more. (Figure 2. First year engineering students are given a gearbox and asked to design and build a truck from household items that can carry the heaviest weight in the fastest time.)

 

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

EO: I have represented the mechanical engineering department at many open days and one of the most common questions I get is ‘what exactly is mechanical engineering?’ I saw this as a great opportunity to teach people of all ages and backgrounds that mechanical engineering is the broadest degree you can choose in the engineering field – ranging from aircraft design to biomedical applications even to computer coding.

 

SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the event.

EO: Exciting!

 

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

EO: The majority of schools don’t offer metalwork or engineering as a subject. The first time some students learn about engineering as a university degree can often be late into their secondary school education, so workshops within schools may be a great way to improve people’s understanding of the subject and the many options it provides for future careers.

 

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

EO: A PhD can be very isolating and generally there are few people, if any, that will be working in the same area as you, so having a good support network within your office, or outside of it, can help get through tough times. In terms of a future career, a PhD provides you with so many options that the hardest thing can be figuring out what to do next, but you definitely won’t be short of options! (Figure 3. The Galway Energy Efficient Car (GEEC) built and designed by engineering students and raced internationally.)

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Sharing the charm of science: Meet Sezsy Yusuf

Sezsy Yusuf is a PhD researcher in School of Aerospace, Transport, and Manufacturing, Cranfield University. She moves to Cranfield, UK  with her family  to start her PhD in September 2015, with the funding from the Indonesian Endowment Fund for Education. Her project is on system identification for the scaled vehicle in which she builds a small scale model of an aircraft, puts it inside a wind tunnel, turns on wind, measures the movement, and postulates a mathematical model based on the measurement.

Well, that sums up her talk on the Soapbox Science: “Wind tunnel testing before the flight – how to put an elephant inside a fridge”.

You can catch Sezsy on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June.

Follow Sezsy on Twitter: @sezsy

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

SY: After graduated from Aerospace Engineering in Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB), Indonesia, I joined the Indonesian Aerospace company. I was involved in several projects related to aircraft modification and development. Having worked there for several years, I wanted to know more. For example, I always wondered why dynamic wind tunnel testing is not a common practice in the industry? Also, I realised that there was a gap in knowledge between my country and some other parts of the world. At the same time, the Indonesian government were promoting post-graduate scholarship through their Endowment Fund for Education (LPDP). I thought it was an excellent opportunity for me to learn more about aerospace technology on the other side of the world, and then bring innovation back to my country. Since my work is related to flight dynamics, I want to do more research in this field. So I started to look for a university that has active research in the flight dynamics area. The research area and their relations with the industry are two of my top reason to choose Cranfield University. So, here I am now.

 

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

SY: It all started when I was four years old, my father showed me a rocket and told me that rocket is way faster than aircraft, plus it can take me outside the earth. I wanted to become a rocket scientist! I think it is exciting. This is the main reason I have a major in aerospace engineering.

I’m very thankful to my supervisor for my undergraduate thesis the late Prof. Said Jenie. He was impressive; he explained his work in a simple language that made us, as students, amazed and keen to learn more. He is my role model for an aerospace scientist. He is the one that inspired me to have a career in the aerospace field. He said ‘love your research and it will pay you back’.

 

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

SY: My research is about postulating a model based on observation. I chose dynamic wind tunnel tests as a method to gain the observation data. This means, rather than experimenting with the real aircraft I’m using a scaled aircraft model. Experiments using a scaled model are not as expensive or as risky as using the full-scale aircraft. In addition dynamic wind tunnel tests allow us to trial an extreme manoeuvre that would be too dangerous to perform in the full scaled piloted aircraft.

These extreme manoeuvres are vital for the robustness of the postulated mathematical model. It is fascinating to understand more about the dynamic behaviour of the aircraft, especially in situations that is uncommon for a pilot to fly.

 

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

SY: I love the concept of sharing the knowledge with the general public, especially with the young children. Soapbox is not only a perfect opportunity to share the charm of science to the young people, but also requires me to understand the core of my work, as I need to explain it in a fun and straightforward way. Furthermore, sometimes I wonder what geologists or biologists are doing, and I think many people have the same curiosity about science and scientists. But it was not easy to meet one and started asking about their work (especially in a shopping mall), so to bring scientists to the public is an excellent way to understand what they do.

Last but not least, working in a field that is dominated by men, I think this is a rare occasion to show that women can also be rocket scientists and through this encourage more women working in the aerospace sector.

 

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

SY: WOW!

 

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

SY: Openness. I understand that the value of transparency, openness, and reproducibility is already appreciated in science, but in practice sometimes this is not the case. In my opinion, openness will allow more innovation.

 

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

SY: Just do it! And let me copy what my lecturer once told me ‘love your research, and it will pay you back.’

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A wanderlust for the mountains: Meet Eleni Wood

Eleni is a geologist and PhD researcher at the Open University studying how mountain ranges recycle rocks during continental collision. She’s currently investigating how a suite of rocks that were buried at more than 50 km depth beneath the Himalaya were transported rapidly (in the geological sense) back to the surface! You can normally find her peering down the microscope at the beautiful mineral textures found inside her metamorphic rocks from Bhutan, or behind the mic hosting the Fieldwork Diaries podcast.

You can see Eleni on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June where she will talk about: ‘where on Earth?!’ – how seemingly ordinary rocks can tell extraordinary stories about past Earth environments and events. She’ll reveal the top tips and tricks for playing detective and sussing out the clues to our planet’s past!

 

Follow Eleni on Twitter: @EleniWood

 

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

EW: I was drawn to Earth Sciences not only due to a wanderlust for the mountains, but it also combined my interests in understanding of the natural world with puzzles and problem solving. When I started my masters course I didn’t give too much thought to the opportunities it could open up to me. I was busy enjoying undergraduate life, in particular the amazing fieldwork opportunities that brought the broad course material to life and provided us with many a tale to recount at our midweek pub trips.

The summer before my final year opened my eyes to possible options to carry on working in such a diverse field; I undertook an internship in the geosciences industry and also spent 3 weeks in the NW Highlands of Scotland carrying out fieldwork for my masters research project. I was hooked by the research bug and the thrill of being the first person to set eyes on the secrets hidden inside an individual rock. Fast forward past finishing a degree, a few interviews, a couple of trips to the Himalaya and a lot of time spent in the lab and I’m now in my final year of my PhD at the Open University studying the inner-workings of the Himalayan crust. I’m thrilled to have not only visited my dream destination, but to also have worked there.

 

 

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

EW: Growing up surrounded by the mountains in the Lake District (albeit smaller mountains than the Himalaya) definitely made its mark. I loved being in the outdoors. And, even though my childhood ambition was to be an author, I think I was always subconsciously heading towards science and in particular geosciences. My dinosaur collection was my pride and joy, my most memorable birthday was a surprise trip to the Natural History Museum in London and my favourite subject at school was geography (since there was no geology sadly!).

Later on, it was the pioneering stories of discovery, big and small, helping develop our understanding of how our planet works, that inspired me to follow this career. The fact that fieldwork, labwork, chemistry and physics allows us to unravel billions of years of geological history and can help us answer questions like ‘why do volcanoes explode?’ makes geoscience a really exciting field to be in. I love the idea of, no matter what the scale of the finding is, you’re always able to discover something new.

 

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

EW: The fact that the teeny tiny minerals within rocks not only look beautiful down the microscope, but they can also reveal the secrets of millions of years of geological evolution. It still blows my mind a little bit that we can tell the age of a mountain range by analysing grains that are smaller than the thickness of a human hair.

 

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

EW: I think Soapbox Science is genuinely genius. In my experience, you have to work quite hard or be in the right place at the right time to share your research with people outside of the echo chamber of the scientific community. While its lovely and worthwhile to talking to people with shared interests, I believe that if we want to truly widen interest and participation we have to cast the net wider. Setting up in Milton Keynes shopping centre, hopefully surprising some passers-by and answering questions from curious shoppers is a great way to do this.

 

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

EW: Fun!

 

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

EW: We need to fix academia’s close relationship with stress and burn out. From personal and anecdotal experience, academia can be a minefield for mental health. I’ve such admiration for the people that have shared their stories and spoken out on these issues. As a community, we need to finding a way to break the pattern.

 

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

EW: Since I’m currently in this position myself, I think a reminder that many people have walked this path before you. There will be good days and some not so good days. Celebrate the small victories. Support your peers and don’t be afraid to seek their help. Most of all be proud of your work, you own it and your science is awesome!

 

 

 

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From identifying satellites through a telescope as a child to using the data they collect to measure spinning stars: Meet Heidi Thiemann

 

Heidi Thiemann is finishing the first year of her PhD at The Open University. Her research focuses on creating a cross-match between observations of stars that vary in brightness in the optical and X-ray wavelengths to study the relationship between how fast a star spins and the X-rays it gives out. From this, she will use machine learning to detect even more of these variable stars.

You can see Heidi on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June where she will talk about: ‘stellar ballerinas’ – how studying the way stars pirouette and spin. Her studies can help us answer some big questions: What is going on inside a star? Should we be paying more attention to how our star, the Sun, affects our everyday life?

 

Follow Heidi on Twitter: @heidi_teaman

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

HT: I’ve always loved space but having spent time flying both as a hobby and in the Air Cadets as a teenager, I didn’t know whether to study Physics or Aerospace Engineering. What swayed me was probably spending summers at Space School UK, and in the end the best route for me was to study a degree in Physics with Space Science and Technology at the University of Leicester. During my combined undergraduate and master’s degree, I got to grips with using astronomical data to look for exoplanets, that is planets outside our solar system, and to study the brightness changes in galaxies (flux variations in an Active Galactic Nuclei). In a nutshell, I loved learning about astronomy.

After my degree, I considered two routes: industry or academia, and this time I applied for both PhDs and graduate jobs. Happily, I was offered a PhD studentship at The Open University in 2017, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it so far.

I’m researching the rotation-activity relation, or the relationship between how fast a star spins and the X-ray light it gives out, with the aim of producing a new catalogue of stars which we can use to study this relationship because there could be millions that we don’t know about. In the next step of my research, I’ll be using machine learning to search for even more stars which show this relationship. It’s an important relationship, and it could contribute to our understanding of the inside of stars, helping us to understand our Sun better.

 

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

HT: When anyone asks me why I’m an astronomer, I always jokingly blame an old family friend. At the age of 11 or 12, a friend’s dad showed me how to use a telescope and how to identify satellites in the night sky. From then on, I developed a love of space, got my own a telescope, and headed off to Space School UK. As a teenager, I planned on being an astronaut, and it’s still a dream for me!

But, even before I was introduced to astronomy, I remember firmly blu-tacking a poster of the Beagle 2 mission to my side of the bedroom I shared with my sister. I was pretty upset when two of the spacecraft’s solar panels failed to deploy, and it was lost for over 10 years until a photograph from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter rediscovered the unlucky spacecraft.

 

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

HT: The most fascinating thing about my work is maybe the thing I take for granted every day: the data. When I’m working with rows and rows of numbers, it’s very easy to forget that the data comes from a satellite in space, thousands of kilometres away – its journey to my computer is really impressive!

In April, I visited mission control at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre) in Darmstadt where ESA’s astronomical spacecraft are controlled. I got to meet the people controlling the satellite whose data I use every day – that was a great way of seeing the human side of astronomy and it really made me appreciate where my data comes from.

And it’s also the people that make the work so fascinating. Every person in research has a unique bit of science they’re working on – they have so many stories to tell about their work and their path into research.

 

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

HT: Outreach and public engagement is something I’ve always got involved in – since science aims to make people’s lives better, it’s important to me that us scientists share our work with the public, otherwise what’s the point in doing research? Friends had spoken at previous events and I was inspired by how much they enjoyed it.

 

 

 

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

HT: Fired-up!

 

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

HT: I’d like to see more collaborations between science and the arts, in something we call ‘STEAM’ – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Maths’. The world we live in doesn’t have a clear divide between science and art, and I think these two disciplines could learn a lot from each other.

 

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

HT: Find a mentor! I always thought mentoring and peer-to-peer mentoring was one of those fad ideas until I got the chance to spend time with a mentor. They don’t have to be in your field, but it’s so incredibly valuable to have someone with which you can float ideas, get constructive feedback, or get a reality check or some mental health advice from.

It’s also a great time to go into science – there’s so many opportunities to meet and collaborate with the most interesting people and travel across the world. And you’ll pick up more skills than you’ll know what to do with, so if you decide that academia isn’t for you in the long run, you’ll be able to move into industry.

And I couldn’t end without a quick astronomy plug. It’s a new age of huge astronomical surveys and multi-messenger missions, and you might just be working on discovered Earth-like exoplanets or detecting gravitational waves from new sources!

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Creativity and science: meet Sophie Budge

Sophie Budge is a PhD researcher at the University of Cranfield Water Science Institute. She looks at the effect of exposure to bacteria on growth in infants in Ethiopia. Sophie will be on her soapbox at Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday June 30, talking about  ‘Guts, Germs and Growth: how bacteria affects child development’.

Follow Sophie on twitter: @Sophie_Budge

 

 

‘For most scientists, I think the justification of their work is to be found in the pure joy of its creativeness; the spirit which moves them is closely akin to the imaginative vision which inspires an artist.’

– James B. Conant

 

I was always a creative child. I grew up in a large house that had a room to keep my drawing things and paints and my easel (it still amuses me that I wanted an easel at 10 years old). I remember copying album covers, magazine pictures, other artists – I suppose in an early bid to discover my own style. Even earlier still, at aged 7 or 8, I’d make my older sister and cousin take part in drawing competitions at our dining room table which my father would, under protest, have to judge (and guess who would invariably win?). But my childhood was not all perfect, and in many ways art became my escape and my meditation.

 

I was bright at school; science came easily to me, yet art had my heart, and so at 17 I was convinced I was destined to be an artist. I recall a conversation with my sister at the time: she warned me of limiting my options – how could that be so? I decided privately that to change tack could be nothing less than disenchantment with life itself. So I worked hard for 2 years at art college, lugged my portfolio on the 502 National Express to London, made it into the prestigious University of the Arts and away I was: country bumpkin to city hopeful.

 

Yet curiously, I returned to science again and again through my artistic endeavours. Intrigued by psychology and our personal evolution throughout our lives, my art took the form of video, film and sound where I explored ideas of reminiscence, trauma, processing memory and growth. I read articles, books, watched documentaries: read academic papers and thought how I could make the abstract tangible. I made short films of re-enacted memories. I smashed up old televisions and re-hung the thousands of fragments, ceiling-height, with invisible wire – a projector playing made-up sequences of film through the broken screen. I made films of friends in dressed in costumes of Tetris pieces, after reading an article that the game helped sufferers of post-traumatic stress. I was obsessed with creating my own map of life and how we, each of us, fit into it.

 

Science and art are often discussed as among the highest intellectual accomplishments (‘In science truth, in art honour.’ – Anonymous; in the Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations 2005). Both the artist and scientist need creativity, vision and an ability to see in the abstract. Both are motivated by an insatiable desire to understand the world– and to impart or represent that knowledge to others. A canvas, a charcoal pencil, a test tube, a mix of chemicals: what are science and art but just different lenses through which we try to understand the world?

 

Similarly, it is common to hear a scientist describe their methods creatively (such as in Soapbox Science) or for an artist to use scientific theory to explain their approach (Picasso’s Cubist painting style, like Einstein’s theory of relativity, requires the viewer to think hard, but it rewards the effort with a clear understanding). Scientists spend their lives discovering or proving new concepts: artists express them. We should also bear in mind that for centuries, how we practiced science was driven by what we believed as a society, through ancient beliefs and arts (for example, trepanning – a medical procedure where a hole is drilled or scraped into the skull to let out ‘evil spirits’). Indeed, although science itself is not a mystery, even today much of the physical and natural world remains a mystery which we are unable to explain with our modern methods and technologies.

 

I eventually left my art degree. It seemed my need to ask questions and answer them was greater than my need to express that, and I was frustrated. My sister, of course, was right – I had limited my options, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I studied A-levels for Biology, Psychology and Chemistry as evening classes, and soon I was on my Human Nutrition bachelors and then my masters. I don’t smash up televisions anymore but I do still paint and draw frequently – it’s still my meditation, and it reminds me that life is not a hypothesis we must test.

 

My creative side certainly helps with my PhD: I always like to look at the bigger picture – something important when it’s so easy to get stuck in tiny details, especially in the lab (similarly, I definitely mix paint better!). I embrace both my creative and scientific side, not wondering which I ‘should’ engage or which may serve me best in life, but with an appreciation that I can understand life in different ways – and that gratitude keeps me motivated.

 

To see my art, visit my Instagram page at handle: sophie.b.art.

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Science should not just be shared with scientists: Meet Alison Connolly

Alison Connolly is a PhD candidate in the School of Physics at the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway. Alison is an exposure scientist conducting research on how professional gardeners in Ireland may be exposed to the chemicals they work with (in particular weed killers).   She will be taking part in Soapbox Science Galway on 7th July with her talk: “When you use pesticides at work, do you absorb the chemical into your body?”

 

 

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

AC: My research involves working with workers who spray pesticides in parks and gardens as part of their work duties. This research is to assess whether the workers are being exposed to these chemicals. I collected urine samples from workers after spraying pesticides to see if they were absorbing the chemical into their body. To identify how the workers were being exposed to the chemical, additional samples were also collected from the hands and around the mouth area of worker. The hand samples were to assess whether the chemical was being absorbed through the skin, while the mouth area samples were to identify whether there was an issue with workers accidentally ingesting the chemical when they wiped their mouth, were speaking on the phone or when eating food after spraying chemicals. . As my research involves collecting exposure data from amenity horticulturists, I also get to enjoy visits to Ireland’s ornamental gardens and historic monuments as part of my research.

The most enjoyable part of my research is having the opportunity to explore and expand an area of research that there is limited information and to contribute to the exposure science community.

 

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

AC: I attended Soapbox Science Galway in 2017, as speaker assistant, and I really enjoyed the experience. I spoke to people in the audience and there was a lot of positive feedback from the event. I felt it gave an opportunity for the general public to find out about the type of research that is being conducted in Ireland and to ask questions that they usually would not get the opportunity to ask. It is a great way to disseminate scientific outcomes to the general public, as well as get the younger generation interested in science, as well as being  surrounded by female role models. I have previously participated in outreach events but they usually involve the general public having to attend a science based event, while Soapbox Science is bringing science to the general public.

 

SS: Sum up your expectations for the event.

AC: I hope that by giving my soapbox science talk this year that I will make the general public aware of exposure science, get people asking questions and hopefully the event will spark an interest in science among the younger generation.

 

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

AC: I would like to see more public engagement with research, which is becoming more and more prevalent, with initiatives such as this one and citizen science. A large part of my research is dissemination of results to participants, which includes developing feedback forms, giving presentations on my work and developing guidance to improve worker safety and I think this is extremely important, to ensure that science is not just shared with scientists!

 

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What in the world are cephalopods!?: Meet Morag Taite

Morag Taite is an Irish Research Council funded PhD student working with Dr Louise Allcock on cephalopod evolution at the National University of Ireland Galway. She will be taking part in Soapbox Science Galway on 7th July with her talk: “The evolution of octopuses and their relatives from ancient to present day oceans”

 

 

By Morag Taite

 

Now I know what most of you are thinking, what in the world are cephalopods!?

Cephalopods are a class of marine molluscs that include species more commonly known as octopuses, squids and cuttlefishes. Cephalopods evolved during the Cambrian Period (around 530 million years ago) and were once one of the dominant life forms in the world’s oceans. However, these cephalopods are not like the ones we know and love today. Ancient cephalopods had external conical shells. The modern cephalopods that most people would recognise today, the octopuses, the squids and the cuttlefishes are not found in the fossil record until at least the Cretaceous period (around 145 million years ago). (photo: Fossilised conical Belemnite shell)

Modern cephalopods inhabit all areas of the world’s oceans, however, certain groups tend to inhabit particular areas. Octopuses tend to be found on the sea floor, although there are octopuses that live in midwater areas, squids are found in midwater areas and cuttlefishes in coastal areas. Cephalopods are extremely flexible in body shape and lifestyle. They have diversified hugely into different forms which allow them to live in such diverse habitats. (photo: Cuttlefish)

 

So why did I choose to study cephalopods?

My fascination with cephalopods began while I was working on the IUCN red list of endangered species for Dr Louise Allcock in the National University of Ireland, Galway. The IUCN red list is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. This work involved extensive research of each species, inputting the information into the IUCN website and analysing the information to judge the appropriate red list category. It is a scientifically rigorous approach that determines the threat of extinction to all species. This work has a major influence on conservation as the  IUCN Red List of Threatened Species plays a prominent role in guiding the conservation activities of many groups such as governments and scientific institutions. It provided me with an invaluable insight into cephalopods of the world, including their ecology, population structure and also their threats.

 

(IUCN Categories)

 

And what exactly am I studying?

My current research is focussed on cephalopod evolution. Several groups of the 800 living cephalopod species have diversified due to their rapid response to drivers of evolution and different adaption strategies. My project aims to study the evolutionary diversifications of such groups eg dumbo octopuses and bobtail squids. The groups I have chosen inhabit different habitats, therefore, will have responded to different environmental pressures. I aim to study the evolutionary history of these groups and how these relationships have changed over time. Why is this important? My work is important as it will assist with the understanding and prediction of how species will respond to future environmental pressures and will contribute to improving the cephalopod tree of life.  (Photo: Dumbo Octopus)

 

 

 

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There is no such thing as a stupid question: Meet Sophie Arthur

Sophie is a PhD student studying stem cell metabolism at the University of Southampton. Originally from Wales, Sophie studied that the University of Bath before moving to Southampton. Currently in her final year of a PhD, she also makes time to communicate her science through blogging at Soph talks science, amongst other social media activities. Sophie will be speaking at Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “MARVEL-ing at stem cells: how to regenerate your body”, sponsored by the University of Southampton

 

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part? 

SA: I am really passionate and enthusiastic about science communication and have been trying to break down the stereotypes associated with being a scientist for nearly two years now through my blog and Instagram. But I wanted to challenge myself and push myself completely out of my comfort zone by doing a live science outreach event like this, rather than just be typing away behind the scenes on my phone or laptop. I had seen other inspiring female science communicators take part in Soapbox around the world last year and I just wanted a piece of the action. I also work with stem cells so I am really excited about the opportunity to challenge any stigma that is associated with them and share why I love researching them and their huge potential with people that might have just been in Brighton for a day at the beach but ended up learning something from me and the other amazing ladies that are taking part.

 

SS: Tell us about your career pathway

SA: I always wanted to be a doctor whilst I was growing up, but by the time I reached Sixth Form and was applying for university, I had realised that medicine wasn’t for me. There were two subjects I loved at school; biology and French – so making the decision about which path to follow was a tricky one, but I think you already know which one I chose. I studied Molecular Biology at the University of Bath. I wanted to study a subject that was broader than the ‘Genetics and French’ course that I thought was perfect for me and would give me more options to work out which area I wanted to specialise in. As part of my undergraduate degree, I had a 12 month placement at Public Health England doing research on Group B Streptococcus. This opportunity gave me the skills and experience that a three year undergraduate degree never would have been able to. It made me realise what it meant to be a researcher and made me fall in love with discovering something new which inspired me to want to do more research during my PhD. I am now in the final few months of my PhD at the University of Southampton studying stem cell metabolism. I am finishing up all the experiments in the lab and then just the small task of writing up four years’ worth of work into my thesis and hopefully becoming that doctor I always wanted to be growing up, even if it’s not the doctor status I originally envisioned.

 

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

SA: I always wish I had a more inspiring answer for this question. I have a career in science just because I loved science at school. I grew up in a very small village in South West Wales so my exposure to scientists was pretty much non-existent, apart from the ones I learnt about in textbooks. I was always interested in the human body and as I progressed through school and then through to university I became more and more fascinated by the smaller facts of our body. I always used to think it was fascinating how our muscles and brain would coordinate for example so we could walk. But as my knowledge grew, I was amazed by how a handful of proteins would coordinate in our muscle cells to help them to contract so we could walk. I became more and more inspired to work out how all these tiny proteins and DNA all collaborated to allow us to do everyday things.

 

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

SA: Piecing together all the data I collect to work out what it means, coming up with a theory and testing that gives me so much happiness. If you watched me in the lab, I do a lot of adding colourless liquids to other colourless liquids, spinning and shaking tubes and churning out a load of numbers from that in a nutshell. So it might not look very exciting but getting that final piece of the puzzle and getting an answer to your question is such a buzz. Plus the likelihood is that you are probably the first person in the world to ever work that out!

 

SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?

SA: My research is pretty much pure science. I obviously use biology, but I also need to understand some chemistry to know how the reactions in my tubes are working and I need maths to do any calculations I need and perform any statistics on my data. You have always got to be reading around your specific topic though so I have been reading recently about how microgravity can influence stem cells – so there is potential that my future research could branch out into physics or engineering even. But I am a believer that science is never finished until it is communicated, so whether that is using my blog, Instagram or events like Soapbox, my work as a researcher who shares their science with others involves writing, photography and art skills too.

 

SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc), and why did you pick these?

SA: Resilience, creativity and teamwork!

Working in research is full of highs and lows but quite often the lows are much more common than the highs and the lows can last for much much longer than you wanted them too. Sometimes you can be doing an experiment that will work perfectly and when you go to do it a second time, it just stops working. Research can be infuriating sometimes but you have got to be resilient and get back up after each knockback and be determined to fix that problem.

Piecing together all your data to work out what it means requires some creativity. It is very easy to get sucked into the minute details of each and every experiment you do so it’s good to remember the bigger picture sometimes and work out how your research fits in and then coming up with new hypotheses to test further.

While you have your own research project to be getting on with, the likelihood is that you are part of a lab team. You might have to share reagents and equipment and workspace, so it makes your life so much easier if you work with your colleagues rather than against them. Replace things. Order things. Be organised and book equipment in advance. But most important talk to them! Discuss any problems you might be having, or any thoughts you are having. They might have experienced the same thing and can give you some advice rather than you wasting time trying to figure it out for yourself. You also never know what you might learn from them or what opportunities you may get.

 

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

SA: There is a huge pressure on scientists, especially early career researchers, to publish, publish, publish. And those publications have to be positive results. I would love to see a change across the scientific community that publishing negative data is just as important as positive date. I don’t know about you but knowing that one protein doesn’t affect my stem cells for example is just as important as knowing that one protein does affect my stem cells. Negative results are starting to be published more now but I still believe it is not widely accepted and that needs to change. Scientific research is all about advancing our knowledge and I believe we will advance quicker if we know the negative results as well as the positive results.

 

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

SA: Do not let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Follow what you want to do, network inside and out of the lab and find a mentor. Working in an academic environment can be toxic sometimes but having a network of people for advice and to talk to will help you to stay on the path to achieve whatever you want to.

 

SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

SA: Explore everything that you might be interested in. It is better to try something and not like it, than to never try it in the first place. Always be curious and ask questions. Always remember there is no such thing as a stupid question. It is never too late to learn something new and be inspired!

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Follow your heart: Meet Tara Salter

Tara is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sussex, studying Astrochemistry. After an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Oxford Tara did not want to do a PhD straight away and so went to work at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the surface and nano-analysis group. There she worked on developing the metrology (measurement science) for new mass spectrometry techniques, undertaking a variety of research, from understanding the fundamentals of these new techniques to making them more reliable and repeatable, and also analysing different commercial samples. Whilst working at NPL she received a PhD in conjunction with the School of Pharmacy at the University of Nottingham. Tara’s current research uses laboratory experiments to understand how molecules would behave on dust grains in the extreme conditions of deep space.

Tara will be speaking at Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “We are made of starstuff”.

 

SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part? 

TS: I have participated in public engagement events before and always found it exciting to talk about my research to anyone and everyone! Soapbox science is a different format to anything else I’ve encountered and I’m looking forward to the challenge of communicating my research in a different way.

Everyone has heard about space, but very few people are aware of the chemistry happening there. I’m excited about telling people about this new and growing field.

 

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

TS: From a young age, I’ve been interested (and good) at science, particularly maths and physics. I knew early on that it was something I wanted to study in depth and things have just lead on from there.

 

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

TS: Recreating deep space in the lab is pretty cool, literally!

 

SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?

TS: I did a physics degree and now I work in a chemistry group. I use understanding from both chemistry and physics in my research. I also have to understand the astronomical applications of my work. I think that at some level, things are not clearly defined as one particular subject!

 

SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc), and why did you pick these?

TS: Problem solving, practical adeptness and perseverance are all important in what I do. A lot of my work is in the lab and so I have to be happy to be hands-on with the kit including addressing problems when it doesn’t work and not giving up when things don’t go smoothly. Problem solving and perseverance also apply to data analysis when trying to interpret results and deciding what experiments to do next.

 

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

TS: Lots of things, but particularly short term contracts! Moving around for positions can be great, but this often occurs at a time in life when you would like to settle down a bit.

 

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

TS: Try to get experience of as many different aspects of research as you can. It’s a good idea to go to conferences, firstly to practice presenting your research which really helps focus on what the important points are, and secondly to talk to other people about their experiences in the wider academic world.

 

SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

TS: Follow whatever your heart tells you to. If you are interested and passionate about science then your natural curiosity will take you a long way to succeeding.

 

 

 

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Role-Models and Women Researchers: Meet Divya Seernani 

 

Divya Seernani (@DSeernani), Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University Hospital Freiburg is taking part in Soapbox Science Berlin on 1st June. She will give a talk entitled: “I see it in your eyes: What Eye-movements can tell us about Brain and Behaviour”

 

 

By Divya Seernani 

For a while now, I have been thinking about gender issues, a bit differently than I did before. I could attribute this to a lot of life events, but the part I’m going to focus on started with the release of Wonder woman. I saw the poster and thought ‘wow, that’s a superhero movie I would see!’ I surprised myself by saying this because I always thought of myself as someone who hated superhero movies! And then it hit me, all the superheros in the limelight of my childhood years, were men.

This incident was followed by a flight I took to a conference in Vancouver. Taking flights = watching movies. On this particular flight I watched ‘Finding Dory’. Apart from being a brilliant movie, this film does the rare and wonderful thing of showing a marine research centre. A research centre! In a kids film! I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have wanted to study marine biology had this movie released 20 years earlier.

So I started thinking…what was I watching and reading as a child? I did remember learning about Marie Curie pretty early on. One would imagine that the way she is celebrated would make any little girl want to grow up, be like her, and win the Nobel Prize! Well, not me. Little me didn’t identify to her black and white pictures, didn’t completely get why radioactivity was cool (the only other thing I knew about it was that it made spider-man), and definitely did not get why being killed by your own discovery was celebrated (it was also confusing why she did not get some superpowers). Grown up me totally gets why Marie Curie was awesome, but still doesn’t identify with her pictures and still definitely doesn’t want to die of something she discovers (thankfully, this isn’t possible any more given my line of work, but still).

Growing up as a girl in India, my text books were filled with martyred women. Women who had sacrificed themselves to nobel causes of society, and typically too old for a young girl to relate to. Savitribai Phule, wearing a sari and having a resolved face, who rose above caste and patriarchy to teach young girls and send them to school. Rajput and Maratha queens who made a mark in history with their bravery. And even Kalpana Chawla, the astronaut of Indian origin, made famous after her death. That’s the thing…a lot of these stories I could remember ended in death. And none of them were a kurti wearing woman from middle class Mumbai suburbs. I wasn’t facing caste issues, my parents promoted my education, I wasn’t a queen and I couldn’t drape a sari. And I did not want my career to kill me.

So naturally, 10 year old me turned to Cartoon Network. The only scientific influence from cartoon network that I can think of is Dexter’s Laboratory…remember that? The tiny nerdy boy who had a complete secret lab doing cool stuff, and the only thing his older sister was capable of doing was messing it up in idiotic ways. Although I liked watching this show, I remember DeeDee’s character making me really uncomfortable. Even as a child. I remember feeling like I really wanted DeeDee to be smarter! Another show I really enjoyed watching was Powerpuff Girls, but I couldn’t help notice that even there, a male scientist had created these awesome girls, with sugar, spice and everything nice. (I recently watched the new, more recent Powerpuff Girls and was baffled at what it had come to! Buttercup was fighting to impress a Boy!!! Tarnished my childhood memories!)

Although I do remember a good show a little while after, somewhere in High School – Captain Planet! He may have been around earlier, but I was probably too young to understand it. I think he was the closest I came to liking a superhero. He saved the planet from pollution and garbage and made it all green! (yes, I’m regressing and writing like 12 year old me now! :P)

There was one other thing that really stands out from my childhood. Tigers being endangered. There was a drive in my school and all over the country to ‘Save the Tiger’. All the kids had to get some signatures and get people to sign a petition to save tigers. As a by-product of this event, I landed up getting a subscription to the Sanctuary Asia Magazine. My parents really encouraged me reading. They had, in all fairness, gotten me tons of scientific books before this point, including huge volumes of Tell Me Why series, books on space and so on. These didn’t hold my interest long enough though. While I got my parents intellect and curiosity, I was not a part of their patient encyclopedia generation and my idea of fun varied considerably. The magazine was my idea of fun. So naturally, when my reading-encouraging parents found out, they did not hesitate to get me subscription after subscription for plenty of years. This magazine had games on fun facts about how ecosystems work, small sections that made endangered animals sound really cool, fun and worth saving. What was best was, the centre page was always an award winning wildlife picture! All of this without a gender stereotype to it.

It was experiences like this that fascinated me and drove me closer to science. The Sanctuary Magazine, a visit to the Planetarium, nature trails and field visits. I write about the magazine more than the rest because the others were isolated incidents. The Sanctuary Magazine was a constant for many years in my life, so was Cartoon Network, so was my school curriculum. And so were the people in my life, which eventually got me interested in psychology, over anything else.

Fast forward another few years. I’ve figured out I like science and psychology. At that point I couldn’t study both together, so I chose to study psychology. I didn’t even know they could be combined till I reached the final year of my undergraduate degree. One would assume things would have changed somewhat now and I am full of role models in my career of choice. Maybe they did. In fact, my undergraduate years were full of women because men (and most smart women) in India are still discouraged from taking subjects like psychology, sociology and literature. This meant that I was surrounded by mainly women students and professors, all smart enough to have taken mainstream professions, but chose psychology. Some of them, particularly the professors, were working in challenging fields of research. Most of them were encouraging us to get into research and develop a critical attitude to our thoughts. Another 3 years send me to my post-graduate degree in Bangor, where men and women were all doing brilliant research, with cool gadgets and I got to work in a room named after Faraday! I got to do science!

Now, as I do my PhD, I feel like I am re-creating my mental image. Of a woman cognitive scientist. And I need to create this image for myself because it isn’t any of the images I had grown up with. I think I still don’t have a role model. First of all, I can’t just take a woman researcher I admire. I didn’t have to face the resistance of the women before me. In fact, I now work in an environment where flexible work hours, bringing babies to your work and even breastfeeding in public are non-issues. Secondly, I can’t take a fictitious figure because there isn’t any book, TV or cartoon character who is female, smart, slightly nerdy, interested in looking good but puts comfort before style, loves her work but isn’t a workoholic, enjoys scientific podcasts but but also mindless comedy, is a Harry Potter Fan, enjoys fantasy works, but not a Superhero fan, is all for Gender-equal toys but had a cool toy kitchen set growing up herself, enjoys indulging in good food but also an entire morning of Yoga ….basically a regular, smart girl with normal hobbies and personality traits that don’t neatly fit into a sketch. Lastly, I can’t directly take someone from my real life, because although I admire a lot of women, I don’t want to completely turn into any of them.

I wonder if my other colleagues face similar challenges, male and females alike. A lot of  new age researchers blog and tweet about their work, making science more approachable than ever before. Open source software and scripts are the new wave in science….a community where money was till date generated by paying for journals. Universities are designing degrees in scientific communication, to make sure findings reach the masses. BBC doesn’t just make documentaries any more but has cool science podcasts that even children listen to. Funny, understandable science podcasts, mind you! And women in science are not as The Big Bang Theory shows it to be. No woman scientist I know looks as unkept as Leslie or dresses as conservatively as Amy. Women in science are doing to science what Anushka Shankar has done to classical Indian music – giving it a makeover, and making it cool! The more veteran scientists are doing their part too! For e.g. a recent conference I attended (ECEM 2017) took a radical step and made sure that 50% invited speakers were female!

The portrayal of science is changing. Gradually, and to my great pleasure – from within and from outside the industry. I hope that if I have a daughter, and someone asks her what she wants to be when she grows up, she won’t hesitate to say a marine explorer, an astronaut, a physicist, a neuroscientist, a forest ranger, an archaeologist, or simply someone who knows stuff and figures things out.

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