Interview With a Scientist

How did you become interested in science growing up?

Wow, that’s a big question. I grew up in Zimbabwe actually, when I was very young and we had pretty great skies – no light pollution, an opportunity to see the stars. I got a telescope when I was maybe thirteen, and from there is just kind of developed. I used to be a lot more terrestrial-based and interested in Earth processes – but then I realised that Earth is a bit passé, and I’d prefer to go a bit further afield.

What did you want to be growing up?

I don’t think I’ve ever thought “scientist”, but something in which I could employ the tools of science, whether it was science communication and writing, or consulting. An astronaut, ideally, would be very cool. But no, I never thought to myself I’d end up as a research scientist.

What qualifications did you take before entering university?

I had A levels in Politics, Law, Maths and Computing. So I didn’t actually have that many science subjects, but I’d like to think that it didn’t hold me back too much.

What did you study at university?

Physical Geography, which by any other name is Environmental Science.

When did you first become interested in habitability?

During my master’s degree, with Andy Watson, who used to run the Earth and Life module. He was my master’s supervisor and he built this probabilistic model for working out how many Earth-like planets there might be around different types of stars, and that kind of just invigorated it for me. Actually the whole Earth and Life module was where it kind of started, which is why I like teaching on it now. I feel like I’m giving something back to the course that really gave something to me.

What do you enjoy most about your research area?

I guess that it’s still quite new. There’s still quite a lot to be discovered. That works both ways of course, because it’s a little bit frustrating when you see how much work needs to still be done and where we are compared to other fields. But I enjoy the fact that I feel almost like a pioneer, pushing out there to the boundary of what we know, and I just think it’s super exciting to be working in the field as its happening. It’s a confluence of having the technology – like telescopes – working and having enough people who are actually interested in it and now I’m realising that there’s a lot we can do with the data we have.

What are you hoping to achieve from your work with NASA Ames?

Hopefully to help the general public to understanding a little bit more about planets around other stars. At this stage you’ll get a newspaper article every few months that’ll say “oh we’ve found another Earth, and it’s just like the Earth and we could be holidaying there if we can travel at light speed” but often it’s a lot more complex and subtle than that and to be honest we don’t even have the technology now to definitively tell people that. So hopefully after a little while, working with the science and outreach side of the post we can help people to get a better understanding of other planets in the galaxy

What do you believe was the key to succeeding in your area of research?

A little bit of luck – being in the right place at the right time. And just enthusiasm and dedication – that sounds a bit cliché, but I think that even if I wasn’t employed to do this kind of science I’d still be doing it in my spare time…that just makes me sound like a nerd, doesn’t it?

It makes you sound passionate!

Yeah exactly, passion. I worked at a shop for a year in between my master’s and my phD and even then, when I wasn’t being paid to, I was still reading and writing and doing science, so I don’t think you could keep me away from it.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I cycle a lot, I go to the gym, I play bass – and probably way too many video games at this stage – and read sci-fi, all the time.

What advice would you give to students who are unsure of what to study?

I’d suggest taking a relatively broad subject that you find interesting. Don’t try and focus down and look for an astrobiology degree, go for biology, or geography, or chemistry, or something if you’re unsure. If you know you want to do science, then I would say take a broad science. You can always focus later. It’s better to have that background, bigger picture, understanding first, because of course if you do a very specialised degree you might realise half way through that you’re not really that into it and then you’re stuck in that field.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Just that there are a lot of resources online. If you’re not sure whether you’re interested in this field or not, there’s a number of “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses), and there’s one run by the University of Edinburgh on Astrobiology that’s really good. It’s a couple of weeks of online participation and they’re really good, really encompassing, and they use some of my work, so I like to push them a little bit. But just generally there’re lots of resources online, particularly the Planetary Habitability Lab, any of the NASA Ames websites, they’re all pretty good at giving you a good handle on what’s going on in the field if this is something that you’re interested in.

Where can we go to follow your adventure in the US?

I have a website! I haven’t kept it up to date in a little while but I hope to keep it going with some science stuff when I’m up and running. I just write about stuff I’m interested in, usually not peer-reviewed or anything.

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