Christopher McMahon

STEM Equals Profiles - Christopher McMahon

Tell us a little bit about you:

I’m Chris, a PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Strathclyde. My background is in geoscience, having studied Earth Science (Geology) for my undergraduate at the University of Glasgow before going on to study a masters in Applied Geoscience (GeoEnergy) at the University of Edinburgh. Away from PhD research, I enjoy playing music, travelling and being outdoors.

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

My current research focuses on geology, particularly how we can better understand near surface geology. One of the key aims is to understand how structural features, such as geological faults, can affect how fluids may be released from the subsurface. This is important as many technologies proposed to help mitigate climate change rely on the safe subsurface storage of fluids. Examples include carbon capture and storage (CCS) and energy storage (e.g. hydrogen). These technologies need secure subsurface storage, and this requires an understanding of how near surface geology may provide leakage pathways to the surface through features such as faults. Understanding these processes for different geofluids (e.g. CO2, H2) means that appropriate monitoring can be put in place to confirm storage security and minimise any potential risk to the general public.

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

I have always had an interest in STEM subjects from a young age, but it was really in the later stages of secondary school and then once joining university that I realised I wanted to go on to focus on studying science (Geology). I think the realisation that we as a species face huge challenges in the decades to come inspired me to want to be a part of the wider solution – whatever that may be.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

Scotland has some amazing role models across the STEM disciplines, from famous past inventors to current TV presenters. However, really my inspiration for studying a STEM subject is that this is what I enjoy doing. At the end of the day, when everything is settled and done, I know that I am currently studying in a subject that I enjoy – who wouldn’t want that!

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?

Those who wish to study a STEM subject could be put off by the stereotypical and traditional image of a scientist, who would typically be portrayed as a white male in a long white lab coat looking at some smoking beakers. This is not what it is like at all, particularly at Strathclyde, where the university is open to all. Many of those who study STEM subjects have diverse lifestyles and backgrounds and we as a community are continually striving to promote openness and inclusivity at work.

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

As a first-generation university student, it makes me quite proud to have been fortunate enough to study at some of the world’s best universities – located right here in Scotland. I have been humbled to receive some awards from my undergraduate and postgraduate studies for major contributions to the intellectual wellbeing of peers, particularly during fieldwork and also for best overall contribution to the programme. These are small reminders that your efforts don’t go unnoticed and that there is more to life than simply your academic grades.

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

When I first started studying for my undergraduate degree at the University of Glasgow, I was studying geology, geography and music. My intentions for a while had been leaning towards music teaching as a career path. Making the decision to stop studying music and focus purely on science was a tricky one, but long term it is not something I regret. These life-changing decisions come along every so often and you can rarely plan ahead and have them sorted out beforehand. Personally, due to my family background, I have also in the past struggled financially to support my studies. This can be particularly challenging and remove some opportunities, but I have been fortunate enough that I have got through these tricky times and kept pushing forward.

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

Having a good support network, particularly with peers, staff, friends and family, helps to navigate the difficult times and overcome the inevitable challenges that you will face. When studying a PhD, it is important to also have a good relationship with your supervisory team and other departmental staff. A good relationship here will be hugely beneficial in the months and years ahead. I am lucky that I have a great diverse support network that I can rely on when times are tough.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

My advice to someone thinking about studying a STEM career is simple – do what you love. If you know that this is the subject area for you then go ahead and do it. If you are worried it might not be for you and if you want help and advice, then reach out and ask. There are so many networks at the university who are usually more than willing to offer help, support and advice when asked. The most important thing is that you have confidence in yourself and that you believe you can achieve your ambitions, even when the odds may be stacked against you.

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) I once fell into a bog, chest deep. b) I once crashed my car into a McDonald’s drive-thru. c) I once broke my toe kicking a bed.