My name is Alex and I am a scientist on my journey to get a PhD in Materials Science at the
Institute of Metallurgy and Materials Science in the Polish Academy of Sciences! I love a
good challenge, and my PhD provides plenty.
For my Masters I specialized in ceramic materials, writing my Master thesis based on
research performed during an internship at the CEA in France. For my PhD I decided that I
needed a change and now my work focuses on metals with gallium.
I wholeheartedly believe in the power of science communication and in my free time I love
talking about science and I hope to inspire people to see Materials Science as the amazing
field that it is!
1. How would you describe your role?
Right now, I am a last year PhD student (I plan to defend my thesis in June 2021) at an Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Cracow. However, my favorite way to describe myself is young scientist! I love my job because I get to do a little bit of everything – I am writing my thesis, managing funding, publishing, leading my own project, working as the vice president of the student council, preparing for scientific stay in the US, and in my free time I love to talk about science!
2. What are some challenges you have faced in this research?
Anxiety and imposter syndrome are two challenges that I am still working on. I believe the best way to overcome problems is facing them, which is why I always try to push myself to do things outside of my comfort zone.
I am currently leading a project concerning nanomaterials. The whole process from writing the proposal, getting the funding to actually doing the research has been an equally amazing and terrifying adventure. Being in charge is extremely gratifying but also requires being prepared for the unexpected.
3. What made you choose this STEM discipline? Were you inspired by someone?
My journey into STEM was… a bumpy one. In school I liked math, physics and chemistry… but it wasn’t reciprocated. Even though we had a complicated relationship, my fascination with STEM began in school, when I almost didn’t pass physics class and was made to prepare a presentation about black holes. I started reading a lot of books and I just got hooked on. (We’re made of star stuff?! The Universe is how old?! A teaspoonful of a neutron star would weigh a billion tons?!). The less I understood, the more information I craved. Even though it took me a lot of work and effort, I’ve managed to work on my math and chemistry and decided to go into STEM.
I chose Materials Engineering for my Engineer and Master Degrees as I was looking for something connected with chemistry, but at the same time I wanted that sweet, sweet engineer title. Materials Engineering seemed fun and challenging and that’s how I am were I am today!
4. What’s the best way to enter your field? What kind of experience or skills should one possess to build a successful career in the same?
Materials Science is a fascinating field that combines chemistry, physics and a lot of engineering and if you want to pursue a scientific career and/or a PhD in it, you should start with choosing the right path at the university. Studying Materials Science or Materials Engineering is a great way to start but it’s not the only way! I have friends who are pursuing a PhD in Materials Science, although they have a master’s in physics, chemistry, bioengineering, electronics or metallurgy. This often gives them a unique perspective on the world of Materials Science.
Other than choosing the right studies, the most important thing is to learn to take (calculated) risks (which I’m pretty sure applies to all fields in STEM!). Think big, don’t be afraid – apply for internships and apprenticeships (especially ones that are abroad – there are many ways to fund those!), ask professors if you can help in the lab, look for mentors (there are a lot of mentorships programs in different STEM fields), join societies or science clubs (it’s an awesome way to meet people and work on those soft skills). Get as much of various experiences as you can and stay curious!
5. What are some cool things that people in your profession work on?
Everything around us is made from materials – so materials science touches our lives in every possible way. Personally, I work on metals that are liquid at room temperature (just like mercury, however in my case those metals are nontoxic and safe to handle). But people in Materials Science work on all kinds of cool materials and technologies like aerogels (materials literally made from up to 99.8% of nothing), breathable liquids (liquids, that can have so much oxygen dissolved in them that you would actually be able to breathe in them) or shape memory alloys (those are metals that can change shape if for example the temperature changes!).
6. What keeps you going in your research? What’s next for your career?
What keeps me going is the challenge and the opportunity to try new things, go to new places, and meet new people. I put a lot of effort and time into my research because I have fun and I love what I do!
What’s next? I am not sure yet! I have a few months left in my PhD and although (despite its many problems) I love academia, I would love trying to flirt a bit with industry. At the moment I’ve secured funding for 3 months stay at University College London after my PhD, and I am actively looking for new opportunities!
7. What is it like to be a woman in STEM? What are some challenges that you have faced?
Materials Science is a STEM fields where there are a lot of women (at least when it comes to students – it gets worse after getting a PhD). Last year in Poland almost 48% of materials engineering students were female. The data however does not lie – at the grad school level almost the same amount of men and women get funding (for projects, grants and scholarships), however the proportion changes the higher the step in the career is (for example in Poland, for a grant dedicated only for professors, only 8% of the grants were awarded to woman).
8. What are 3 things that you wish could change about STEM?
🗣Open access to science – the process of publishers getting all the money, while the authors and reviewers don’t see a penny out of it and then the readers have then to pay for it horrendous amounts of money… It’s not okay. Science should be accessible to all.
🗣Communicating science to the public – the public doesn’t really understand how science works (the misconceptions about Covid-19, are just another proof of that) and we, as scientist and people in STEM, are not doing enough to change that. We don’t talk about how we do science; we don’t try to explain our results in an understandable way, we just don’t talk to the people who very often are the ones paying for the research through their taxes.
🗣Mental health in STEM – there is often a very unhealthy culture in STEM (it will depend on the place, the group and the people but it happens more often than not), forcing people to work long hours, not take breaks and just keep comparing yourself to others. Studies show that the mental health of a lot of PhD students is not the best (in Nature PhD Survey 2019, 36% of students reported that they have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies!) and that is something that should be addressed.
9. What do you think can help get girls into STEM?
I am not an expert in the field (however there is some scientific research done concerning the topic and I would love to learn more) but what would have personally helped me was to not treat science as a gendered issue. Boys are shown how cars work, for girls it happens much less often. Teachers and parents often assume that boys should be able to repair things or solve computers problems, automatically sending a signal to girls that they don’t need to have that knowledge. We buy boys a lot of cool, science-y toys, and we buy girls dolls, and we expect the kids to form the same interests. Hand on experience with science and technology would have helped me, personally, when I was younger.
10. What message would you like to give to our young readers?
Being a scientist is a viable career option and it allows you to learn new stuff every day, travel the world and push the limits of the Unknown. It’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it. If you’re curious and willing to work hard, you can do it!
Thank you for reading our fifth STEM Up interview of the season! To know more about what Alex is up to, follow her journey at @scientist_next_door
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