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Dr Kerry Hebden: Discouragement didn't put me off pursuing my love for science

Kerry Hebden

When I read about other people’s route into science & technology, I am always impressed that most people had a single-minded objective to pursue science and technology from a young age.

1 October 2015

Kerry Hebden

Above photo:  Torres Del Paine trek in Southern Patagonia, South America.

They knew what they wanted to do and set about doing it; they got the appropriate A levels/qualifications, attended University or undertook an apprenticeship and ensconced themselves in a STEM workplace environment that set them up for the career they wanted.

I was not one of those people. My path into science took a little longer to traverse. I loved science at school, but admittedly, I was not academic and I certainly did not feel I had the right credentials to go to University. I was once discouraged from taking up an electronics class as part of my GCSE’s by my form tutor, who thought I had selected too many technology-type options for my exams. I was persuaded to take up something less technical instead. It turns out however, that I am dab hand with a soldering iron and I love playing around with circuit boards. Although nowadays, this is something I reserve for my free time (if I have any).

Valuable work and life experiences

So my path led me to a number of jobs, that although were not exactly what I wanted to do, gave me valuable work and life experiences. I created a centralised database for payment claims for the direct debit department at NatWest Bank, I modernised work procedures at an international finance company and I helped to establish a new business venture for an agricultural software company, for farmers to promote their business, long before individual websites for businesses were popular. Although none of these jobs were remotely linked to the subject I wanted to do - science - I always worked hard and I always gave my all.

Attending University at a later age - a bonus

My love for science never left my thoughts, so one day I quit my (successful) IT job and went to study Earth and Planetary Science at University. Some of my friends (& family) thought I was mad to give up a good job to become a penniless student and when my monthly salary didn’t materialise in my bank account that first month at University, I started to panic and think oh dear, what have I done…But being immersed in a culture of study and exploration, was a joy and it is something I do not regret doing. In hindsight, coming to University at a later age, was for me, probably the best way to do things. It was a decision I had thought long and hard about. I found that a large number of students had no career objectives and no real idea of what they wanted to do, or they were there simply because that is what everyone else was doing. I at least knew why I was there. I got a 1st class honours degree and won an award for my third year dissertation project. For my project, I studied the geochemistry of pumice samples erupted from a submarine volcano located on the Tonga Ridge. Undertaking the dissertation was one of the highlights of my time at University, as it gave me a real insight into research practices. It cemented the idea, that I was not done with research and that I wanted to do more. So, in my final year, I applied for a PhD and accepted a research position at Manchester University studying the chemistry of dying stars.

Working in Australia and Hawaii

Before starting my PhD i managed to secure a 4 month research position in Australia working with my supervisor on a subset of the same rock samples that I had studied for my dissertation. Only this time, I was looking at the diversity of oceanic life that had hitched a ride on the rocks as they drifted across the South Pacific ocean after the eruption. Being in research meant that I could also combine work with my other love in life - trekking and luckily I was able to postpone the start date of my PhD so that I could do some hiking around South America after my research.

My PhD experience was also very eventful. I participated in outreach events at Jodrell Bank Observatory to promote astronomy and I was lucky enough to do two observing trips to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii, amongst many other things. I completed my PhD with an unexpected gift - a daughter.

Photo: Telescopes in Hawaii

Turning to science writing

With a family to consider, and coupled with balancing my partners career objectives, some compromises have been necessary and a main-stream science/research job has not been possible. Nonetheless, this has given me the opportunity to branch into science writing, which greatly appeals to my inquisitive nature. Not only do I get to keep up with current research, I get to indulge my curiosity and speak to a variety of people - often ones that are highly successful and well known in their chosen field.Generally, scientists are always more than welcome to talk to you about what they are working on and their enthusiasm for their work is infectious. Although I often write about my specialist subject - astronomy - I am happy to write about any science topic, as long as it is interesting and relevant.

You certainly don’t need a PhD to be science writer, but it has definitely helped me. Having done research myself, I am happy to pick up a research paper to pick out the relevant information I need to really understand the topic I’m writing about. Asking the right questions, and then later editing an hour long conversation down to a handful of meaningful quotes that summarises work someone has taken months, if not years to complete, is an ongoing skill that I am still acquiring. I am freelance so I have a lot of flexibility in terms of when and where I work, the only downside is that I am not guaranteed a regular and stable monthly income, so planning ahead is key.

World Space Week

If you are considering a career in astronomy but don’t know where to start, then World Space week this year runs between 4th - 10th October. There is a long list of activities up and down the country to get involved in, from workshops to conferences - a few of which are held in secondary schools.

It is never too late to start a career in a STEM subject. If you are determined enough, you will get where you want to be eventually.

Dr Kerry Hebden trained as an astronomer and is now a freelance science writer.

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