What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
Describe a typical day?
What are the things you like best about the job?
I love the opportunity to actually build things and work with electricity, lasers, electron microscopes, things like that. I also like getting to write, because science is actually a lot about convincing other people that what you did makes sense, so reasoning and communication are very important. It’s also great having a job that’s very collaborative, where you can work with people and bounce ideas off each other.
What’s not so cool? What are the main challenges?
Experimental science is, by definition, about doing things that might not work. So it can definitely be frustrating if you have put a lot of time into an experiment or an idea that doesn’t lead anywhere, or that’s just wrong. And some failures you can learn from, but occasionally you just have to accept that you’ve wasted your time. It can be disheartening, but I also think that moving on from failure is a good life skill!
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
My parents were both scientists, which influenced me to pursue research science and also helped give me an idea of what the career path would be like. Also, as an undergraduate researcher I worked in a lab for two years under a mentor who was really amazing, full of both practical advice and encouragement. More recently, the opportunity to do outreach and science writing has influenced my career direction quite a bit, realising that research can go along with popular writing.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Absolutely! Since thinking is such an important part of doing research, you can be very flexible with where you do research, which I like. I have come up with great ideas for work when out on a run or writing in a café. Also you have great opportunities to travel: I have lived all over the US and am now living in Ireland, and seeing the world has been fantastic.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
I took physics and maths, but also history (US and European), English literature, French, and music. I actually had a hard time choosing because I find so many things interesting, but since I was good at maths and knew that physics led to good career options, I ended up focusing on those in college.
What is your education to date?
I finished high school (secondary school) in 2001. I studied physics and applied math at the University of California Berkeley and graduated in 2005. I then did a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Pennsylvania, finishing in 2011.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
I think curiosity is the most important! If you are interested in understanding how the world around you works, then science is a great thing to study. It helps to have good maths skills, but more than that, it helps if you can reason well and put your ideas into a larger framework. You are painting your own picture of how the universe works, and then trying to convince other people that it’s correct!
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
I would strongly recommend summer research positions. Lots of labs will hire students for the summer, and it’s just a couple months but it gives you a good taste of what research is like. It can also teach you what you find fun or boring!
I did a summer job in simulations, all day at a computer, and while the physics was interesting I found myself less and less happy with just sitting at a computer. So I switched to experimental science, where you get to do more hands-on things and there’s a bigger variety of activities. Just try different things, and be honest with yourself about what you like!