Dr Joanna Barstow (@DrJoVian) is a post-doctoral researcher in Planetary Physics, based at the University of Oxford. She currently works on simulating visible and infrared spectra of both extrasolar and solar system planets, to help identify the nature of their atmospheres. Jo will be standing on one our our soapboxes today, on the SouthBank 2-5pm, to talk about “Finding Earth Mark Two: habitable worlds and how to search for them”.
SS: Jo, how did you get to your current position?
JB: I took physics and maths at A-level (and really should, with hindsight, have taken further maths) before studying Natural Sciences at Cambridge. I then moved to Oxford to do my DPhil (Oxford’s fancy name for a PhD) and applied for a postdoctoral job, which I got, during the last few months of my graduate studies. I’ve had that position extended so I’m still working in Oxford now.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
JB: I was very lucky, I had a lot of people encouraging me when I was younger. My dad, Martin, is also an astronomer and so I grew up surrounded by science – and by other astronomers! My late godfather, George, was the supervisor for my Nuffield bursary project at Leicester. I have a sort of extended family of astronomers who knew me as a child that I’m reconnecting with now I’m a professional myself, and whilst I had thought it might be awkward it’s actually really nice. It’s been especially fun to be able to work with my dad – we have co-authored several papers. I also had two great physics teachers, Keith and Claire, during GCSE and A-level who really pushed me to keep studying it – without them, I probably wouldn’t have persevered.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
JB: We can find out details about the atmospheres of planets that are too small and faint for us to take an image of – even with the largest, most powerful telescope we can possess – just by looking at tiny fluctuations in the amount of light coming from their stars when the planet crosses in front. Even after several years working on this topic, I still think that’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to do.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
JB: I love giving public talks and also just chatting to people about my work. I thought this would be a fun and different way of doing that, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of speaking without slides!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
JB: Something I think would really help is a change to how fixed-term contracts work for a postdoc taking maternity or paternity leave. It depends on the source of funding, but often whilst the leave is paid the contract isn’t extended to reflect the break, so the postdoc loses some of their time working on that project. That’s bad for the postdoc, but also for the supervisor or project PI as leave for a researcher isn’t covered by someone else. Since women usually take longer leave, it disadvantages female scientists in particular. In a perfect world, there would be the option for returners from parental leave to extend their contract by the length of the leave, so they don’t lose project time.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
JB: I have a tendency to constantly compare myself with my colleagues, and whilst for some people that might be a good motivator it’s often not very helpful or healthy. Science is competitive, and it is easy to feel as though everyone except you has things sorted, even though it isn’t true. So, my advice is, run your own race – focus on your work, not the competition.