Tell us a little bit about you:
If there is a spectrum of being a sci-fi nerd-- where on one end you enjoy sci-fi movies, books, and tv shows at your leisure but you may forget characters’ names and plot details and you mostly keep that love separate from the rest of your life, and on the other end you eat, sleep, and breathe your fandoms and will discuss them with anyone who is willing to listen—I am planted comfortably on the latter end! Physically, I may be sitting at my desk and writing, but mentally, I prefer to spend my time in otherworldly places—Tattooine, Asgard, Gotham, Vulcan, Westeros, Tamriel, Hawkins, Hamunaptra, Gondor, etc.
What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?
I research the cognitive mechanisms of social learning in non-human primates. Before the pandemic, I was working on a study with capuchin monkeys at Edinburgh Zoo, where I was studying how easily they can learn associative rules when the information they are given is “social” or “non-social.” In short, I was showing monkeys pictures of other monkeys to see if that enhanced their learning! For now, I’ve had to pause that research until it is safe to work up-close with primates again. In the meantime, I’m working on a literature review.
When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?
As a kid, I had always had a love for primates and wanted to be a zookeeper when I grew up. However, I remember exactly when STEM became a serious pathway for me. When I was 10, my mom took me to see Jane Goodall give a talk about her research with the chimpanzees of Gombe. It blew my mind that a woman could sit in the jungle and watch apes for a living! And all of the discoveries she made—that they use tools to forage, that they engage in warfare, that they have fission-fusion societies—excited me in a way I had never experienced before. I wanted to be just like Jane.
Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?
When you are lousy at STEM-heavy subjects like mathematics, it can be really hard to power through and stick with them. I found myself looking up to my teachers for guidance quite a bit. One year, I was dreading and avoiding math so much that I wasn’t turning in my homework on time, and I remember my teacher stealing things out of my desk and saying “Sarah, you’re not going to get this back until you turn in your math homework!” She was being playful (not at all mean), but it was the kick in the butt I needed to just do the work that was hard to do.
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?
The pipeline towards STEM careers is a leaky one. Along the way we lose many aspiring researchers who are women, members of LGBTQ+ communities, ethnic minorities, and/or those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. If we are losing them due to an inaccessibility of resources, that must be fixed at a political level. But, if we are losing them due to a perceived low chance of success when they embark on a STEM career, that is very much the fault of the STEM community itself. If you ask me, STEM fields suffer from an aura of exclusivity that makes it seem unachievable. It feels impossible to go from the young student who might be poor at math to the self-assured, lab-coat-wearing scientist holding the beaker—especially if the student feels they don’t fit the ‘mould’. Many people can feel left out or left behind before the STEM race has even started. We must show them that they matter to STEM, that their inclusion makes for better, more robust research, differing perspectives, and unique contributions. We must actively recruit diverse STEM-thletes and help them enter the race!
In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?
In my PhD studies so far, I have gotten a lot of joy out of organising the weekly meetings for my research group. I find it really heart-warming and encouraging to receive positive feedback from academics I look up to who have enjoyed a meeting I organised. I’m currently organising a whole conference, so hopefully that also goes well!
Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?
STEM careers are mentally exhausting, and I am happy that society is moving in a direction where mental health is considered just as important as physical health. A repeated challenge I have faced is balancing out the mental work I have to do for the day with the other tasks in my life. It can be hard having a part-time job alongside being a STEM researcher, because when you are putting stress on both your body and mind during the week you may feel very drained. My advice is to find a healthy work-life balance by still being selfish with your time: keep your hobbies, maintain your friendships, take time off to recuperate.
Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?
I have found that at any given time when you are feeling low about something research-related, you are never alone in how you are feeling, and that reaching out to your peers for solidarity can help pull you out of a sinking situation. The other PhD researchers in my department are my friends, my collaborators, my fellow markers, my co-conspirators. We all have good and bad days in science, and we are there for each other. When you make connections like that with your co-workers, keep them strong and steady!
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?
My best advice is: science is not scary, and every single scientist is scared. What do I mean by the first part? I mean that a STEM career is very possible, and I encourage you not to be afraid of it. If you have stayed in school, you have the chance to enter higher education, where you have your choice of majors and career paths. If you stick with a STEM one, you will learn skills. You will learn how to be a scientist. No one taps you on the shoulder one day to tell you when you’ve become the lab-coat-wearing expert in the poster; suddenly, you just are. What do I mean when I say every single scientist is scared? I mean that as a comfort to you when you’re just beginning. The unwavering confidence that scientists project to the public is just that: a projection, a trick of the light, an illusion. We all have insecure days, we all struggle through the process, and we all repeatedly fail and are fearful of our next steps. Science is the process of trial-and-error! If you are willing to try, you are good enough for STEM.
Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.
a) My two biggest fears as a child were lava and quicksand. b) I can play ‘Piano Man’ on the guitar. c) I once saw R2D2 crossing the street (out-of-costume) with his wife.