Tell us a little bit about you:
I am married with three children – now aged 20, 18 and 15. I enjoy cycling, particularly in the mountains and along coastal routes. At some point, I would love to spend several weeks cycling through Europe with my husband, enjoying the wine, food and the scenery on the way. I run and occasionally swim to keep fit, and I recently completed a half iron man – never again! I played classical violin until my son, Sam, was born 20 years ago and then just ran out of time to fit things in. So perhaps I’ll pick it up again at some point.
What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?
My research is wide ranging – I get too interested in new things and probably spread myself a bit thin. I currently work on: new low carbon biotechnologies for ground engineering; characterising subsurface flows through geological faults; monitoring very tiny (microseismic) earthquakes in the subsurface; novel methods for tracing groundwater flows at-depth. I work with the nuclear industry, the civil engineering industry and the oil and gas industry. I currently hold a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair, sponsored by the civil engineering contractor BAM Nuttall, to use bacteria to precipitate a mineral (calcium carbonate) that can turn loose soil into rock. We hope to develop this technology as a low carbon alternative to concrete in geotechnical infrastructure, such as flood embankments and coastal defences, as well as to reduce the volume of concrete in structural foundations.
When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?
My first degree was in mathematics, which I was always good at. I realised as an undergraduate though that I wanted to do something that could make a difference to society. So, I left mathematics to do a Masters in water engineering, followed by a PhD. I think I initially picked working with water because I have always loved being at the coast. I still do.
Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?
My mum. She is, and always was, an inspiration. She came from a working-class mill workers background in Huddersfield and won a scholarship to Oxford University to read Mathematics. She obtained the top degree mark in her year, the first woman to do-so (something I didn’t find out until I was well into my twenties) and became an academic at St Hugh’s College Oxford. Perhaps because of this, it never even occurred to me that I couldn’t go into a STEM subject.
What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?
STEM disciplines are predominantly white and male. This predominance is most severe when you look at staff categories (e.g. Professors) and is also particularly prevalent in mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences. Evidence shows that the issues this presents are wide-ranging, from severe discrimination to the more subtle problems inherent within non-inclusive cultural environments. The STEM community needs to accept that it has a problem and put in place pro-active measures to combat it. It is not sufficient to just monitor the problem – or even worse to have no anonymous reporting mechanisms and keep the problems under the carpet. Personally, I think that whilst we can have a big impact on reporting cultures and staff behaviour, we will not achieve a truly inclusive community until the numbers of women and BAME academics in STEM positions. I would support positive action (or at least financial penalties on institutions) to make sure that we achieve that.
In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?
Being recognised for my research with industry by winning the Aberconway medal from the Geological Society in 2011. I was the first woman to do so and the first engineer. It was the first time I had ever won anything and gave me the confidence that I was actually a good academic. I had no idea I had even been nominated and it had a huge impact on me.
Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?
The greatest challenge has probably been the impact of having three children, and then being head of department at quite a young age. I have gaps in my publication record and have struggled to build an international reputation.
Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?
My husband has been great, we share family responsibilities and he never put his job above mine. Apart from that, probably the biggest influence has been that I enjoy my research. I really enjoy multidisciplinary collaboration with others – you are always learning something different and interesting that can give you new ideas. This has sustained me through the tough parts. On the occasions when work has really become too much, I have pro-actively sought change. I have found that even if you ultimately want to resign from a position, if you offer a positive alternative to your current role, alongside a strong argument as to why you cannot carry on, line managers are generally very supportive even if it temporarily leaves them with a problem.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?
If you enjoy STEM subjects then go for it. Research in STEM keeps you engaged and is rarely boring. I could have chosen a very highly paid career path from a mathematics degree at Cambridge University an gone into the financial sector, almost all of my compatriots did and retired before they were 50! However, I have absolutely no regrets. I’m well paid and I remain really interested in science and engineering – I enjoy my job in a way I never would have done in the financial sector.
Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.
a) The secondary school I attended was a large comprehensive school in the bottom 20% of schools in England. b) I started surfing as a teenager and have ridden waves on most of the best surfing beaches in Europe. c) The first gig I took my kids to was Black Eyed Peas at the O2 Arena.