Susannah Cootes - a career in academia

14 March 2010

14 Mar 2010

Who or what first stimulated your interest in science? And how old were you?
I became interested in science at a relatively late age (15-16) during my GCSEs. During this time I had an excellent biology teacher, who really made the subject come alive. During my ‘A’ levels, I was lucky enough to be taught by this same biology teacher, as well as two excellent chemistry teachers, and I eventually decided to focus on chemistry at university.

Do you have a science hero?
My chemistry heroine would have to be Marie Curie. She overcame so many obstacles to get where she wanted to be, and tolerated considerable hardship to focus on her studies and her research. She will always remain an inspiration to me, and I try to take her lead in my approach to my research.

Why did you decide to pursue a science career?
I wanted to study science because I wanted to study something ‘useful’. I was very interested in science, especially enjoying biology and chemistry, but was also aware that studying science also offered me the opportunity to move into careers outside science, should I decide later that I wished to do that. It seemed to me to be a ‘safer’ option than studying something quite specialised, with little room for manoeuvre later on. After all, deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life at the age of 18 is quite challenging!

What attracted you to your degree course(s)?
Before becoming interested in science, my favourite subjects at school were foreign languages. Although I decided to study chemistry at university, I was really pleased that it was possible to combine studying chemistry with language tuition and to undertake a year studying abroad. My chemistry course at the University of York allowed me to choose from a wide selection of different option modules within (and outside) chemistry, as well as the opportunity of studying at a range of different renowned European universities. I was really attracted by the flexibility and the high quality of the course, as well as the opportunity to study at such a well-respected university, which I felt would allow me the very best start in carving out a career involving chemistry.

How would you persuade young people that science offers interesting and worthwhile career opportunities?
Studying science allows you to become involved with the things that really matter, and allows you the potential to have a real impact on society. Research is a really exciting place to be, but even if you don’t want to be a researcher, studying science allows you access to so many different career opportunities, even ones that seemingly have few links with science!

How did you come to join SCI and why?
I joined SCI for several reasons. Firstly, I was aware that SCI organises a number of events for early-career scientists and I wanted to become involved with some of these events, and to meet other researchers at a similar career stage. In addition, having not had much industrial experience, I was keen to hear more about the opportunities available in industry and to meet researchers currently working in industry, so that we might share our experiences.

Is SCI helping you develop your career and how?
SCI’s events for early career scientists are really useful for meeting people and broadening your outlook. Especially for people like me who have remained in academia post-PhD, it is really valuable to be able to meet scientists working in different areas and from different backgrounds.

Is there more that SCI could do to help you and others developing careers in science?
The many SCI meetings and conferences are great opportunities to learn about new areas and cutting-edge developments as well as great networking opportunities, and are very good value for PhD students. I only wish that the registration costs for postdoctoral researchers could be reduced somewhat, as unfortunately, having to pay the same rate as independent academics results in these conferences being out of reach for many postdoctoral researchers.

If you could do one thing to improve the image of science what would it be?
Compared to the past, I think that science has a positive image right now. Organisations such as SCI and the RSC are doing a fantastic job in terms of promoting science, and informing the public on the huge variety of science that goes on. I think this is reflected in the increased numbers of students opting to study science at university level compared to ten years ago, when I was applying to university.

Where do you hope your career will take you in 5 years time?
In 5 years time I hope to have obtained an independent academic position, and to be running my own research group. Though initially I think I would miss working in the lab, I think I will find helping students to develop into independent researchers very rewarding. I’m also very keen to be involved in teaching – you learn so much yourself through teaching others!

You can connect with other SCI members who are in a similar field to Susannah, through the SCI Members' Directory.

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