STEM Up (S2): Cliona Kelly

Hello beautiful people, my name is Clíona and I am a neuroscience PhD candidate at Aston University.

1. How would you describe your role?

As a PhD candidate, I work on a specific project that I have chosen for around 3/4 years full-time. My project investigates eye-gaze in the process of joint attention. To do this, I am using a virtual reality headset (HTC Vive Pro Eye) and electroencephalography (EEG), which is a method of measuring neural activity, by recording the electrical signals on the scalp.

2. What made you choose this STEM discipline? Were you inspired by someone?

Interestingly, I wasn’t inspired by anyone to go into STEM. As we know, Black women in STEM are underrepresented, and so, not being able to see people who like me in the field may have played a role in that. While I was very much interested in science, I was unsure how to pursue it exactly. I was lucky enough to have a supervisor who cared enough to push me towards my academic abilities and to aim higher in my goals. Having that support is incredibly important. I would encourage anyone who is interested to find yourself mentors to help you along the journey.

3. 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?

I don’t think there is a “best” way of entering the field of neuroscience because it is so interdisciplinary. Depending on what type of science you like, you can almost always link it into neuroscience if you want to! For example, physicists can look at brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), whereas biologists utilise neurons at the cellular level and can research neuron firing patterns in particular disorders and/or conditions.
A skill that I highly recommend to everyone is coding. In my opinion, learning how to code to create experiments (e.g. in VR) or analyse data (brain imaging methods) is key in building a successful career, not only in neuroscience but in many other STEM fields if you decide you want to change. It provides you with a lot of freedom and opportunities.

4. What are some cool things that people in your profession work on?

A cool project that was completed in the lab, looked at the process of decision making in police officers. When coming face to face with a potential criminal, police officers are tasked with deciding the threat level of an individual. This informs their decision on how to react to the scenario and the neural responses of this were measured using EEG. Virtual reality offers you a safe space and a controlled environment to practice these scenarios. And so, the possibilities on where we take this collaboration of virtual environments and neuroimaging is arguably endless. 

5. What is it like to be a woman in STEM? What are some challenges that you have faced?

Being a woman in STEM is difficult and being a Black woman in STEM holds additional difficulties. It is important to have a network of people who understand this and create a safe space where you can discuss and work through these difficulties in a healthy way. Some communities that I am a part of in the U.K. are the African-Caribbean Research Collective (Twitter: @ACRC_UK) and  the PhDHive.

6. What message would you like to give to our young readers?

Anyone who is reading this maybe thinking about going into science as a career, I want you to know that you are supported. There are online communities out there who have similar interests to you, and who you can have long discussions with about the subject. Utilize social media, and in particular Twitter – there have been a lot of movements to build communities of people in these spaces, check out hashtags with your area of interest, for example: #BlackInNeuro, #BlackInCancer, #BlackInAstro and #BlackBirders. Most importantly, I want you to know that there will be some tough days and that is okay. Some days you will not want to hear anything science-related, and that’s okay too. Go at your own pace, make great friends along the way and enjoy as much of it as you can.

And it’s a wrap! Thank you for reading our last STEM Up interview of the season. To know more about what Cliona is up to, follow her journey at @neuro_codes

Follow us on Instagram for more women in STEM interviews at codejammies

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