#InternationalWomensDay

Hi lovely blog-readers,

Sorry things have been super-quiet of late – the deadline for the book is creeping ever closer, so I’ve been keeping my head down! One piece of good news though is that my two most recent Materials Today news stories made it into their top ten most-read articles for the month, woo!

Anyway, another thing that almost passed me by in the fog of writing, is that today is International Women’s Day! As part of that, I contributed to an article in Materials World magazine, along with two other sciencey ladies – Anna Ploszajski and Soraia Pimenta. Unfortunately, they don’t produce a digital version, so I can’t send you a url. However, I thought you maybe might be interested in reading my answers to their interview questions. I guess this more a “life” post rather than a science one, but hopefully you guys won’t mind that too much!

• Tell me about your background.
I’m Irish, and have lived in London for almost a decade. I hold a BSc in Physics with Astrophysics from Trinity College Dublin and an MSc in Space Science from University College London. After my masters, I spent seven very happy years as a scientist in the Materials Team at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), working on everything from water-repellent surfaces to thermoelectric energy harvesting. While at NPL, I became STEMNet Ambassador, and spent lots of time speaking to people all over the country about science. In 2013, I made the decision to leave the lab and try science communication full-time. Since then, I’ve worked with a huge range of scientists and engineers, helping to translate and communicate their work to wider audiences. Last year, I was offered a book deal with Bloomsbury’s new science imprint, Sigma, and my book, “Science and the City” will be available in Sep 2016.

• How did you get into science?
As a kid I was most often found dismantling something, or reading. My dad is an engineer, and both he and my mum thoroughly encouraged my habit of constantly asking questions about how things work. I really enjoy the process of discovery, seeing something through from a question to answer. Most of all, I am hungry for information, and I love learning, so science was an obvious choice. Throughout university, I definitely leaned towards lab-based physics, materials and engineering, and when I was offered a job at NPL, I leaped at the chance to combine my interests.

• What are you currently researching/working on?
I left NPL 18 months ago, so I’m not doing any experimental work (and yes, I definitely miss it). However, my job means that I spend a lot of time reading current research papers, and speaking to scientists and engineers, so I definitely don’t feel removed from the research community. And the broad scope of my book means that I’m getting to learn more about things I’ve always been curious about – from the engineering behind supertall skyscrapers, to the realities of fuel cells.

• Tell us a bit about your book.
“Science and the City” is basically my scientific love letter to the cities of the world. I want to bring the readers on a big “explore” of the science, engineering and technology hidden in today’s cities. Looking through current research, I’ll also identify some exciting new technologies that will change the way we build, travel and work in the future. It’s really a book for curious people (like me) who’ve found themselves wondering where the wind on the tube comes from, or how traffic lights work. I have loved the process so far, and have spoken to some incredible experts from across the world. It’s a huge topic though, so I’m sure I’ll end up with many more questions than will fit in the book 🙂

• What female engineer or scientist would you say has mostly inspired you or your work and why?
It’s a very obvious one, but I would have to say Marie Curie. Her dedication to her work astounds me, as does her ability to see through complex question. Obviously, the fact that she remains the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two science categories also should be something to admire. But throughout history, there have been lots of ‘techie’ women who have inspired me – Ada Lovelace, Amelia Earhart and Valentina Tereshkova to name just three. And thanks to the wonders of Twitter, I get to interact with inspiring techie women every day!

As the future and current generation in science how do you hope to inspire others thinking of heading down the same career path?
I am generally a very organised, strategic person, but my career has developed rather differently than I expected. I think the key piece of advice I’d give to others is to be honest about three things – what you want, what you’re good at, and what makes you happy. Science and writing have always ticked those three boxes, so I feel very lucky that I’m now getting to combine them. I hope that I manage to help people see that science is for everyone, not just for those in lab-coats. Science is all about asking questions, so I want my book to inspire people to just ask more questions, be curious, and to not accept anything at face value.

• If you could make history in science what would it be for?
My ‘pet’ topic from my NPL days is thermoelectric materials – these materials capture heat and transform it into electricity, and they could find use in everything from power plants to cars. When I left the lab, we’d reached an exciting stage in a large European project on these materials, and the data was looking rather promising. If I could get back into the lab, I’d love to solve the remaining challenges facing these materials and help us to become much more energy-efficient in the future.

• What discoveries or research do you hope will make history over the next 10/20 years?
As a materials scientist, I’d like to see graphene move from being a lab curiously to a commercial reality. There are many challenges surrounding its practical use, but if we solve them, the gains would be huge. More generally, I hope that we find a solution to our energy question. We need to find a route that leads us away from fossil fuels and toward more sustainable means of energy production. I’d like to be part of the generation that faced up to man-made climate change, rather than denied its existence.