University of Glasgow, Scotland
The Early Years
I am a solar physicist working at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Glasgow is where I was born, grew up, and completed my university education, but after graduating Ph.D. I spent more than 7 years living in other countries. I have only just returned `home'!
My interest in science and in astronomy might have started when I was a child; I remember thinking that if I were close enough to the stars, I would be able to count the points on them Perhaps that was an elementary thought about what we can learn about stars like the sun if we get close up! At high school, I thought physics was difficult, but really fun. We had a physics teacher who would have us all riding skateboards along the corridor to study momentum, or trying to make electric motors after only the sketchiest description of how they work.
One (but certainly not the biggest) reason I chose to study physics and astronomy as an undergraduate was that I thought I would have a better chance of getting a job than with the other subject I wanted to study, which was literature. But you should never be driven by only that kind of consideration, otherwise we would all be lawyers. You should always, always be curious and excited about what you study. First physics, then astronomy, and now solar physics, have fascinated me from the beginning.
At Glasgow University in Scotland I studied math, physics and astronomy in a four year course. I always did pretty well in tests and in laboratory work (though I hated getting my lab work marked - I was always nervous that I had done something wrong!) but found out later that there is a big difference between studying to be able to answer questions in an exam, and carrying out your own research. Still, there are a couple of things I did as an undergraduate which are still useful today. First of all, I never worked for more than 45 minutes at a time without a break of 15 minutes! This strategy worked very well when revising at exam time. 45 minutes is a natural attention span. Secondly, I became a meticulous, if not very tidy, recorder of all my thoughts and results - I didn't want to miss anything which might cost me a point! Thirdly, I gradually learned to play about a bit and try out new things in the lab. , or derive an equation by a slightly different route.
Being a solar physicist
I am a solar physicist because I am still blown away by the thought that by looking at the Sun I am looking at a star, close up. A star - I mean, what's more huge and exciting than that? My big love is solar flares and I study them in two ways. I create mathematical models of what I think happens to fast-moving particles in solar flares and calculate how we might be able to detect them. I also examine data from the Yohkoh and TRACE satellites to see if we find anything like what is predicted!
What I do on a daily basis varies a lot, but it usually involves a computer. I spend some of my time turning raw data into useful measurement, I spend some time programming, and some time writing papers. Writing and publishing papers is one of those things I find difficult - like getting my lab work marked all those years ago! But it is crucial to share results. It's the only way that other scientists can judge what you are doing (and whether you deserve to get the money to keep doing it).It's also the way that collaborations are formed and progress is made. Researchers be prepared to have their ideas examined and questioned, and to work with others. In fact, that's really the best bit of the job.
Someone with a science training possess a number of skills that are valued by employers generally; skills such as math, computing, and the ability to analyze problems in a systematic way. But one of the most valuable skills, which I learned from my Ph.D. thesis advisor, is to be persistent in the face of difficult questions. I won't give up a problem easily now. After my Ph.D. I moved onto postdoctoral positions, which taught me two more vital skills; how to ask questions and how to work in a team. I had mostly worked alone during my Ph.D. and was almost afraid to speak up or voice my ideas at meetings, or approach people with questions. I think that this is felt by a lot of younger women in science. But everyone's ideas and questions have merit, including yours and mine, and in fact your colleagues are losing out too if you don't make yourself heard!
Rewards and Sacrifices
I made one big personal sacrifice for my career, by moving away from my home country of Scotland. But in fact that turned out to be a rich and rewarding experience which I wouldn't have missed for the world. My personal and professional confidence blossomed when I left Scotland - for example I had to learn to speak Dutch when I lived in the Netherlands, and that terrified me but I got there! Professionally, I think that there is little chance I would still be in solar physics if I had stayed in Scotland. Only by going away could I develop enough professionally that people in Scotland would want to have me back.
But just because I have worked so hard at my career doesn't mean that I ended up a frozen white coat in a lab (I never wear a white coat!). I have many interests, like singing, running, hiking, cooking, partying with friends....just like regular people. Being a scientist doesn't mean that you have to dry up and lose a life of full of arts and creation and emotion.
Being a Woman in Science
When I was a graduate student and even before that, I was nervous about what people would think of my work, whether my questions and opinions were worthwhile, whether I would ever get anywhere in my career. I don't know if I felt like that because I was young or because I was a woman. But I have certainly observed that a lot of women in solar physics, and some of them are good friends of mine now, have had the same sort of thoughts and feelings. No matter how good we are at what we do, or how strong, there is this huge expectation that society as a whole has about what kinds of jobs women should and shouldn't be doing. I am in a minority in solar physics, but I have never felt myself discriminated against by my community. Still, I think I wouldn't be human if I didn't feel that societal pressure sometimes, and I still do. But I have never accepted that I can't do what I want to do just because of my gender, and I think that none of my colleagues, male or female, would say anything different! Perhaps men and women go about tackling a problem in different ways, perhaps we have different weaknesses and strengths, but there is nothing wrong with that. We all have something to contribute, and we all do our best. Do what you love most and you'll do it well.