An interview with the Soapbox Science team

Soapbox Science: Chantal, how did you get your current position?

Me: At school I had no idea what I wanted to do after A-levels. I always enjoyed maths-based subjects more than subjects like English and History, so I thought I would study economics at University. I attended loads of University open days with my parents, but quickly became uninspired. I realised that the topics covered in economics at University were very similar to what I had already done in my A-levels, and it wasn’t going to challenge or intrigue me. During my A-levels I went on a school trip to CERN, just before the LHC was lowered into position. Before the trip I had very little knowledge of current scientific research, and I really had no idea what scientists actually did. However, these scientists were creating and studying particles and interactions that no-one has seen or understood before. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the trip I never thought I was smart enough to be a scientist. My parents suggested that I attend some open days for physics, just to find out more, and I immediately fell in love with the subject. I applied for an MPhys degree at the University of Surrey, combining the Bachelors and Masters degree into 4 years of study, with a placement year in a research lab. For my placement I spent the year in TRIUMF, a lab in Vancouver, Canada. It was fantastic, not just because I was paid to live in Vancouver for a year, but because it built my confidence. This trip showed me that I was more than capable of conducting cutting-edge physics research. After graduating in 2013 I was accepted for a PhD position in nuclear physics at the University of Brighton, which has allowed me to continue studying a subject I find greatly interesting and exciting.

Soapbox Science: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

Me: All three of my A-level physics teachers were incredibly inspirational. Physics lessons at A-level were very hands-on, and the school trip to CERN really opened my eyes to an exciting world of physics research. However, my true inspiration really came from my parents who gave me the support and encouragement to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to study physics at University.

Soapbox Science: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

Me: Physics is like a hydra, you answer one question and two more appear in its place. It is a seemingly endless puzzle about minuscule structures that provide a rich variety of applications, from medicine to technology. In nuclear physics I think it is fascinating that although we cannot actually see the nuclei we are studying (not yet anyway) we can still learn so much about them, and the more we learn the more questions we have.

Soapbox Science: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

Me: I think it is really important, and fun, to share my research with the general public. Nuclear physics is frequently associated with negative connotations in the media. As a scientist working in this field I feel it is my responsibility to share my work with the public to provide a more balanced view. Everything we do as scientists is driven by a thirst for knowledge and geared towards a real-world application. The Soapbox Science is unlike any kind of outreach event I have participated in before. An audience of varied ages, experiences and interests is sure to produce some interesting questions about my research, which although nerve-wracking is very exciting. I think it is equally important to be a role-model for young women considering studying physics at A-levels and University. I was not born knowing that this is what I wanted to do, I was by no means a natural genius, and I hope I can inspire young people who feel the same way I did to push themselves.

Soapbox Science: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day.

Me: Inspiring!

Soapbox Science: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

Me: I would change its relationship with public engagement. Many scientists, men and women, are often reluctant to explain their research to the general public because it can be difficult to explain complex and obscure concepts. You don’t need to be a scientist to be interested in scientific research and appreciate the many ways it improves our lives. Sharing our work with the public is vitally important to ensuring the continuation of scientific research.

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

Me: Physics research is challenging, and you often run into dead ends, but my recommendation would be to embrace the challenge. The key is to enjoy learning, and to have enthusiasm for your chosen research area.

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