Welcome to the next installment of Spectacular Scientists! This time, I have interviewed Hollie Wright, a photonics researcher working towards an EngD, as well as being part of the WISE initiative and sharing her life in the lab on her Instagram and blog– how cool is that!
What does being a photonics researcher mean?
Photonics is the physics of light and can be applied in many ways, from improving microscopes to developing medical treatments. For my research I am developing a technique for measuring distances to high precision using lasers.
Sounds awesome! What did it take to get to where you are today?
For my undergrad I studied physics at St Andrews University. I loved it because I was able to take classes in such a variety of subjects – from quantum mechanics to astronomy – and develop an understanding of physics that could be translated to different fields. I was particularly intrigued by photonics because light seems so intangible and yet it can be manipulated and used to do amazing things! I did my masters research in photonics and my supervisor recommended my current course to me. I am training with the Centre for Doctoral Training in Applied Photonics. At the end of my training I’ll get an EngD!
How did you decide what you wanted to research?
All research projects with the Centre for Doctoral Training in Applied Photonics are sponsored by a company in industry. The companies suggest projects which explore something they are interested in; at the end of the project the company gets ownership of what the researcher found, and the researcher is rewarded with an EngD. When I looked at the list of projects I choose this one as I love lasers and I wanted to develop an application that I could see being used in the real world. Visit their website to see the current projects available.
Why did you decide to do a doctorate in industry over one in academia?
An industry doctorate means you are sponsored by a company in industry and do research for them, usually based on an application for them. I chose to do an industry based doctorate because I’ve always been more interested in applications of physics. I think it takes a lot of skill and understanding of the physics to be able to create an application for it.
Have you always been interested in science, and what initially sparked your curiosity?
I have been interested in science for as long as I can remember! I found a folder of school work I had done when I was 4 years old and in one worksheet I said I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up!
That is so sweet! Who inspires you now?
I am in awe of female physicists like Marie Curie and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell because they were so passionate about physics they continued their research even when their achievements were being accredited to the men they worked with.
I am also inspired daily by my friends. I met Josie, Jessica, Caroline and Rosie at university and I am in awe of how they kick-ass on the daily!
If you had to choose, who would your favourite female scientist in your field of research be?
I’m currently fangirling over Donna Strickland (obviously). She is the third woman to win the Nobel Prize in Physics AND she works in photonics AND we use her discovery in my research group all the time! I’m really hoping I’ll get the chance to meet her soon! When I do I won’t know whether to ask to work with her or ask for a selfie! I’ll probably do both.
What is the best thing about working in a lab? What is the hardest thing?
The best thing about working in a lab is getting hands-on and coming up with inventive solutions for whatever challenge I’m facing that day.
The hardest thing is that it can be frustrating. I spend a lot of time trying to tackle the current problem. When you’ve gone for a few weeks without a win it can get demotivating. It’s worth it though, the hard work makes the eventual successes so satisfying!
I love your Instagram stories showing little snapshots of your research! How important is science communication to you, and what inspired you to start?
Thank you! It’s always great to get feedback and know what people want to see!
Science communication is very important to me. I believe the reason physics and engineering are so white-male dominated is because there aren’t enough public examples of diverse physicists and engineers. Children learn about careers from the adults in their lives and from what they see on TV. Most think scientists are wacky, and engineers are the men who repair washing machines! If we want diverse workforces in STEM then we must show children examples – after all, you can’t be what you can’t see! Public engagement is not the career path I want to follow but I resolve to be visible where possible and regularly take part in public engagement so that I can be an example of what an engineer “looks like”.
Physics and Engineering are particularly notorious for being male dominated fields, have you ever experienced any difficulties from this?
At times it can be difficult to be one of the few women in the room. Hopefully, as physics and engineering become more diverse, this will not be an issue in the future.
You are studying business alongside your research- why did you decide to do this, and how do you handle the workload?
I’m studying half the courses for an MBA as part of my training with the Centre for Doctoral Training in Applied Photonics. I’m really grateful for the opportunity as the courses are paid for me and I’m even given time to study during my work hours!
What does being a member of the WISE Young Professionals Board entail?
The Young Professional’s Board is a group of women under 30 in STEM who work as an advisory board to the main board. We are included so as to keep WISE’s projects relevant with the next generation of STEM workers. We also run some of our own projects. Right now we are running our Problem Solving Challenge for 10-15 year olds. For more information visit https://www.wisecampaign.org.uk/aliens-competition/ (closing date 30th June 2019).
What tips would you give to aspiring scientists?
Make contacts and talk to anyone you can. People in science are always happy to discuss their work and they can help make you aware of opportunities which may be suitable for you!
Thank you so much Hollie!
If you want to see more of what Hollie does, follow her blog- The Science Geekette (where I have just written a guest post!), or find her on instagram and twitter @holliewrightre !
Make sure to keep an eye out for a guest post on her blog written by me!