Alex Blanchard

See Yourself in STEM - Alex Blanchard

Tell us a little bit about you:

I’m Alex (he/they) and when I’m not in the lab, I can be found all around Glasgow; either hitting the pavement in a running kit as a Glasgow FrontRunner or in a kilt and tee-shirt playing trumpet for SambaYaBamba! I also take part in some traditionally nerdy games, mostly Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons, playing a Dwarven Tempest Cleric. I’ve recently picked up drawing as well!

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

My area of research is in Photonics; a crossover between Physics and Engineering, but all to do with light. I’m currently looking at micro-LED (Light Emitting Diode) grids and trying to come up with new applications for them, and at the moment, I’m looking at seeing if we can use the LEDs and light to control other systems.

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

Looking back to being a kid, I was really into reading. Reading anything we had around the house, and there were these kids’ non-fiction series called “I wonder why” on all sorts of topics, from history to geography, science and engineering. From there on, I ended up reading the Horrible Science books (related to the Horrible Histories) and it went from there, finding out how things worked.

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

I’ve always been quite the determined person and rather independent. "The books I read while growing up made me want to stick with STEM and allowed me to excel in them as I already knew partially what was going on from the reading I had done. I also had great teachers though, who were very supportive for me when it came to choosing subjects.

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?

I think a lot of STEM disciplines face an image problem, and that it is mostly done by old white straight men; in 2015, 2/3 BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) students feel that representation in their department as “Extremely or relatively bad” and women in 2018, on average, being outnumbered 4:1 in Engineering and Computer Science subjects. Accountability of departments needs to be increased to ensure that those who do study these subjects are adequately supported in their studies and careers.

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

Having the courage to start my PhD! There was 5 years after my graduation where I was working in various jobs, from an engineering graduate scheme to making lasers! I ended up coming back to academia in part to gain extra skills that would be more difficult to do so in the workplace, as well as a desire to get into more research style activities.

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

Realising what sort of things that I wanted to do throughout my career. I’ve found that understandably, there is a pressure to make career path choices that coincide with what your managers want you to go and do. Working out what it is what you want to do can be hard, but once done, it is very liberating and made me feel better inside when I realised what I wanted to do and how I’d go about doing so.

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

In all the activities that I said earlier, I’ve managed to make a great deal of friends which have been invaluable support throughout, having a willing ear whilst on a run or someone to socialise with after a gig. My partner has also been a great support in the day-to-day, along with my family.

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

Do it! Go into every class with an open mind, even if it’s not 100% relevant to your immediate interests; they might end up being your new focus and get a broad range of things. Finally, work out what you want to do, not what other people want you to do.

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

a) I once did a bungee jump – for fun! b) I have never been to America c) I volunteered at the London 2012 Olympic Game