Grow From Your STEM

Networking Event for Careers in STEM

Today, I had an absolutely fantastic time taking part in the first “Grow from your STEM” event at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as a speaker and panellist. The organizers put together a great program featuring speed networking, Q&A panels, a quiz and several workshops in the afternoon to introduce 14 to 15-year-old young women from London and surrounding areas to a variety of career paths in science. I had so much fun talking to the students about my work, my career so far and life as a scientist in general while also learning about their interests and concerns regarding STEM fields. My fellow speakers, panellists and workshop organizers also blew me away with their remarkable stories and professions covering academia, industry, government and charity work. I enjoyed the entire day immensely and I do hope the students found it as helpful as I know I would have at their age.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy near Westminster Abbey. 

Some of the questions that were asked during the speed networking and the Q&A were circulated before the actual event so I thought I’d write them out first to have more structured answers at the ready during the actual event. The feedback I got has been so positive and kind and utterly wholesome that I’ve decided to ignore the tiny voice in my head going “Why the hell do you think you’re in any position to tell someone how to be a good researcher” and share some of these answers below. All of these are of course my own opinions very much shaped by my own experiences but maybe they do end up being useful to someone else as well ūüôā

Dr Alice Bunn from the UK Space Agency giving a lovely introduction speech at the beginning of the event.

Speed Networking and Panel Questions

Is there anything you would do differently in your education/career path to this point? / Do you have any advice for your younger self for school/university/career paths?

Firstly, I would definitely be more proactive. I always used to wait for someone to invite me to some activity or to suggest involvement in a project because I thought “If they want me or think I’m capable of doing this they will ask me. If they don’t ask me, I’m unwanted/incapable”. That’s of course completely wrong! Sometimes you do get approached by teachers, professors, tutors etc. but sometimes you don’t and it doesn’t mean they have a low opinion of you, it usually just means they have too many people to look after or they simply don’t know you’d be interested. You have to look out for yourself to some degree and go for the things you want, don’t wait to be invited, don’t wait for someone to give you permission. Take initiative and give it a try and don’t let self-doubt stop you!
Secondly, I’d learn how to ask for help much much sooner. I started university thinking I had to do everything on my own (even the worksheets that were meant to be done in groups which resulted in an unmanageable workload) and that asking questions was a sign of not doing enough preparation work. Again, completely wrong! Asking questions is the best way of learning and developing a research “instinct”. Science itself is just a really fancy way of asking “ok… but why?”. So please don’t ever think your question is stupid or doesn’t contribute to the course! It does and it might in fact¬†actually raise the quality of the session!
Thirdly, I’d encourage everyone to find a support network early on. Uni can be tough. It might not be if you are one of the lucky ones but for most, it will take some getting used to and it might be quite difficult to find new friends. So try and find “your” group of people as soon as possible and be open to new friendships throughout. Make sure you have people who support you both emotionally but also in your academic goals. And most importantly, find friends who admit to struggling themselves. There’s nothing worse than starting your first semester and being surrounded by a group of people who think everything is “trivial” and “easy”. People who “finish the worksheet in half an hour” and then get full marks. Most people will be struggling, most people will have to put in just as much work as you, most people will despair over the same exercises you’re struggling with and most people will pretend otherwise. If you’re not careful this can have a significant effect on your self-esteem and distort your self-perception. So make sure you have friends that are honest and with whom you can talk about your struggles without being judged.¬†

What are the biggest challenges for you at work?

I struggle a lot with the fact there isn’t really a clear endpoint to my work because there is always something else you can do, something else you can try, something else you can optimize. It’s not like in school where you know in the next year we will cover everything in this book and then the year after there will be a new book and we’ll cover that within a year etc. Science is like a book that never ends which is great but sometimes it’s overwhelming and I lose sight of what I’m aiming for.¬†I also tend to doubt myself constantly. Whatever I do there’s always that tiny voice going “yeah, BUT remember, you kinda suck…”. I’m not sure where that comes from but it can be a huge impairment and while I’ve gotten better at telling it to shut up it’s hard some days and your motivation suffers. One word of advice though: Situation like that can be improved greatly if you have someone to talk to, someone to¬†reassure you and if necessary remind you of what’s important.
A more standard work-related issue I’ve struggled with is the enormous amount of information and potential work out there. So many papers and books to read, so many extracurricular courses you can take, so many seminars, so many workshops, so many ideas you want to follow up on. Then you want to make sure you’re not just focusing on your project, you want to make sure you have a broader understanding of your field to increase your chances of being hired further down the line. But you can’t forget about departmental services either, like helping out with the equality committee, mentoring younger students, giving talks, teaching, doing outreach events etc. And what about that series of informative blog posts you meant to write to boost your online presence? What about that neat idea for a visualization script that would make your graphs just a bit prettier? What about rewriting that code you wrote two years ago when you didn’t really know how to do it? There are so many “what about”s every day and I still struggle to prioritize. And even if you’ve managed to prioritize, how do you decide how much time to spend on something. Is it worth spending another couple of days even though the improvements will be minor? But what if I don’t do it and a year from now I run into serious problems because I was sloppy?
I really don’t have an answer for that second part, I’m hoping with experience this will become easier ūüėČ

What do you enjoy most about your job?

So many things! On a day to day basis, I love the work I do. I love coding (it’s like playing around with Lego pieces) and how you can build such complex models with the right combination of simple lines and I love how these lines can then make a prediction about the way the universe works. I’m incredibly thankful for having amazing coworkers around me (many of them women) with whom I can talk about cool sciency stuff as well as difficulties I might be having. I enjoy being challenged every day even though it’s sometimes frustrating but when it does work out it’s the best feeling and it’s incredibly exciting (and sometimes scary!) working on something no one else is working on.
On a more abstract level, I love how you can sometimes look at an equation and everything falls into place and you understand completely what this equation means and why it looks the way it does and what that implies for the world around us. I’m endlessly fascinated by my field in general and the learning process never really stops so every week there’s something new to discover and it never gets boring.
And on a very selfish, final note: I love how much I get to travel around and how international my field is ūüôā

Do you have to work with other people or do you mainly work alone?

It really fluctuates a lot depending on what I’m working on but when I first started a research project I was really positively surprised how much of a collaborative effort it is. When I’m developing code or researching something (e.g. by reading papers or books) I’m usually alone at my desk though even when I have intense coding days I still talk to a couple of people each day to run stuff by them/ask for advice/help out. Other parts of my research work are far more collaborative. We have several meetings each week, usually within my¬†workgroup or with people close to our field in which¬†we discuss problems we’re having, new ideas, organize events… and this really is where a lot of the work happens! Then from time to time, you might have a collaborator visiting or you might go on such a visit yourself. This summer, for example, I went to New Mexico for two weeks to talk through some code development we’re working on and that was basically just one meeting after another mostly with my collaborator but also with other scientists. It’s a very intense experience (and I was dead on my feet by the end of the two weeks!) but we made so much progress and I think everyone’s understanding of the subject deepened after talking it through with others. I think it really is a big myth that scientists are these lonely, reclusive people sitting at their desk or in their lab. Research is all about communicating ideas and building on the work of the people before you.

What skills/qualities do you need to do your job?

To answer this, I would like to differentiate between skills and qualities. Qualities being character traits you already possess while skills are something you develop.
Let’s start with skills first and again I don’t think you need to be an expert on any of this before starting a STEM career path! It’s good to have a solid basis but you will have to develop these¬†skills further and further throughout your entire life no matter what anyway. Now, when people describe science skills they usually mention stuff like “needs to be good at maths” or “needs to think logically”. I’m not saying that is wrong, but I think it represents a very narrow view of what scientists actually do. Personally, I believe the following¬†skills you can develop during your school/university years are just as important:

  • problem-solving¬†
  • critical thinking
  • teamwork
  • communication (both writing and speaking skills)
  • mentoring and teaching

Now, talking about personal qualities is a bit more abstract and unlike skills, I believe having a natural inclination to some of these will most definitely give you a head start. But that doesn’t mean you can’t develop or nurture them! Personally, I’d say scientists with the following personality traits take to science more easily and are happier in their job than does who struggle with them:

  • Passion
  • Creativity
  • Integrity
  • Patience
  • Determination
  • Resilience
Why did you go into your chosen STEM field? / Why did you choose this career?

Purely by accident really (though maybe subconsciously I was always gravitating towards astrophysics and I just didn’t see it^^). In any case, I really didn’t know what to do once I finished school. In Germany, you don’t really need to decide what to study at university (or even at which university) months in advance (though there are exceptions, like medicine). So I literally graduated and the next day I sat down and went “Well, what now?”. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t find anything that interested me, it was more a case of not being able to decide which of my interests to pick. Additionally, while I was OK at most things I wasn’t really exceptionally good at anything and wrongly¬†thought that to study subject X you needed to be really, really good at X to begin with. I was really struggling and with the start of the first semester drawing closer I decided to just go for a subject that I thought would be useful no matter what I would end up doing in the end. Now, I knew I wanted to study something scientific and I argued for most science fields you need at least some mathematics and some physics. My plan was to study one of those two for one semester and while doing that I’d go to some other lectures and figure out what subject really interested me so I could switch to that in the next term. I ended up choosing physics because while I liked maths I’d always been more interested in applications of maths and I had liked physics well enough in school. After enrolling at the University of Tuebingen I went out and bought a book on the recommended reading list, brought it home, opened it and probably didn’t close it for a couple of hours and for the remainder of the summer I kept going back to it, just reading selected chapters and being absolutely fascinated. That was probably the first indication that the whole “study for only one semester and then switch” wouldn’t work out^^ Fast-forward to the start of the semester and I was sitting in my first lecture and any plans not to at least try and get a physics degree died really quickly once I discovered how much I loved it.
A couple of years later I had issues with indecisiveness again, this time I was struggling to decide whether to specialize in quantum mechanics or astrophysics. In the end, I chose astrophysics but I think I would have been just as happy in QM. Towards the end of my undergraduate course I took on a student job in the astronomy department aiming for a Bachelor’s project there but as it happens I got assigned a coding project by coincidence. I loved that so much that I switched into the department of computational astrophysics and stayed there until I left for my PhD three years later.
So to summarize, I didn’t really plan on getting into this specific field but through a series of lucky coincidences and trying out a lot of stuff I found a field that happens to be the perfect combination of my interests.

    Did you always want to work in/study STEM?

    I think so yes. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be literally up until finishing school but ever since I was a child I wanted to be a scientist. Back then I had, of course, no idea what kind of scientist or what scientists actually do but I was sure I wanted to be one ūüėČ Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I then moved from one “dream job” to the next (Dinosaurs were a big thing when I was 6, let me tell you. My parents are still traumatized!) and one exception aside (at some point I thought I’d make a good politician… yeah I don’t know what went on in my brain back then either) all of them were scientific jobs. I was probably shaped a lot by my family (both my father and my uncle are physicists and my granddad was an engineer) and the media I consumed as a kid (my poor parents had to get up early every Saturday just so I could watch Star Trek). So I always thought of science as something beautiful and pure and the answer to the millions of questions I had. Sadly it’s not as pure as I thought it would be and the very reason science exists is the fact that we cannot answer all questions but I still think it’s beautiful and able to connect people across cultural divides like few other things.
    That being said though, I want to make clear that “wanting to be a scientist ever¬†since you could walk” is by no means a requirement for a scientist! I was really lucky growing up in an environment that supported and encouraged my curiosity and left me with no doubt that this is something I could totally do. Not everyone is that lucky and for many people, the path to science is much harder. That doesn’t mean your less suited to being a scientist though and it certainly doesn’t mean you won’t be successful.

      What issues have you faced due to your gender in your field?

      Unfortunately, there is a huge gender gap in astrophysics (recent reports suggest it will take another 100 years to close that gap) and it’s even worse in computational astrophysics. I think there are a lot of reasons for that ranging from women constantly doubting their abilities to pressure within our society to take on a more “traditionally female” occupation. I never had any real issues with professors/supervisors though I know of people who have had problems and strangers do love to make comments about my gender ranging from “Oh, that’s very difficult. You should aim for something easier” to “You’re buying a physics book? Is your boyfriend a physicist?” and my favourite one: “It’s a great idea to study physics! So many guys will be in your courses, you’re bound to find a husband who’ll make a lot of money one day to support you!”.
      It’s been getting better in recent years but there is still some way to go and I think the best advice here is to not let these obviously sexist and misogynistic individuals change your perception of yourself. Remind yourself that your gender has no influence at all on your mental capabilities (have a look at Angela Saini’s “Inferior“!) and that you are just as capable as your male classmates. Trust in yourself and your ability to work hard to see you through to your goal.
      There are also a lot of support networks and events popping up all over the place specifically for young women in STEM fields. This workshop is one excellent example but there are also networks such as 500 Women Scientists (which has a London Pod as well), WomenWhoCode, STEM Women, Minorities in STEM, …
      Reaching out to these networks or members of these networks that offer mentoring can make a huge difference if your own personal support system is not really up to supporting gender-specific issues you might encounter in STEM.

        All my amazing co-panelists during the Q&A session.