Dr Angela Gallego-Sala is an ecosystem scientist and biogeochemist, who works as a lecturer in the Geography Department at the University of Exeter. Here, she tells us about her love for Nature, the importance of having role models, and the danger of undervaluing creativity. Angela will be speaking at our Soapbox Science Exeter event this June.
SS: How did you get to your current position?
A G-S: I did not follow an entirely traditional path into academia. I was an Erasmus student and came to the UK to do an MSc in Materials Science at Kent with Prof Alan Chadwick as an exchange student. I had a great time and I loved the fact that it seemed possible to continue to work in science even though I was a woman and a foreigner. I remember my first conference, it was in Southampton and I enjoyed the multitude of scientists from all over the world, and I thought I would like to form part of that “family”. I then worked for a while outside academia, for the European Agency of Evaluation of Medicines in London, and for a while, I taught at Christ Church University in Canterbury. I soon realised I needed to do a PhD if I wanted to stay in academia, so rather belatedly, I came to the West country and did my PhD in Bristol. It is there I became interested in peatlands. After a number of postdocs in Bristol, Lund and Exeter, I got my current position as a lecturer in Exeter.
SS: Who inspired you to get a career in science?
A G-S: I have always loved Nature and the outdoors. If I think back to my childhood, my mother is a pharmacist and my two brothers are scientists, so there was a lot of science going on at home. I remember my brothers used to teach me rare scientific units because they found it funny that a small child should know this, and when they wanted to call me names, they would use some of the rare scientific names they had learnt at school! I decided to read Chemistry at University because I wanted to know how things work and why the world is the way it is. To learn the answer, perhaps I should have done philosophy instead!
SS:What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
A G-S: I find all of the natural world fascinating, and for me, intellectual knowledge is one of the ways in which to express my love for Nature. I love the fact that my research is not just a mind exercise: there is a very physical part of it (field work), then something you do with your hands (laboratory work) then a part to do with your mind (data analysis) and finally a part where you can combine your head and creativity to interpret the data and write about it.
SS: So what attracted you to Soapbox Science?
A G-S: I like the idea of making science part of our everyday life, and enabling adults and children to encounter science in the high street seems to me like a great way of doing that. I also realise there is a lack of role models in science for young girls, and I hope Soapbox Science makes a contribution towards showing those future scientists that Science is wonderful and fun.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
A G-S: Excitement!
SS:And if you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
A G-S: If I could change one thing in UK scientific culture right now it would be to make it more inclusive, more democratic in the sense of making access to scientific posts easier for everybody. I would also give people more chance to be creative inside academia, with more and more pressure to perform, I think there is a danger of creativity being undervalued.
SS: And finally, what would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
A G-S: I would say that it is an exciting time to go into science as a woman, things are changing and they could be part of that change, making it more inclusive and paving the way for other women.
Catch Angela on her Soapbox in Near Princesshay Square, Exeter City Centre, on June 13th 1-4pm, where she will be talking about “How peatlands might help us mitigate and cope with climate change”.