Profile: Natasha Stephen (Lecturer in Advanced Analytics, Plymouth University)

Natasha Stephen.jpg

Name: Natasha Stephen

Job Role: Lecturer in Advanced Analysis (Earth & Planetary Sciences)

Organisation: Plymouth University, UK

Education Background:

  • PhD Planetary Geology (Imperial College London & Natural History Museum)
  • MSci Geosciences (Royal Holloway, University of London)

1. What inspired you to take up a career in the Geosciences?

From a very young age I can remember being on beaches with my family collecting rocks and fossils, or roaming around the Natural History and Science Museums in London obsessed with minerals, dinosaurs and space travel; I guess I just never grew out of it! I have always enjoyed being outdoors and wandering around the natural world so a subject that combined an interest in rocks and minerals with the great outdoors seemed perfect.

2. Can you give more detail about your path to your current job role?

I had already decided at school that I wanted to be a Geologist so chose to study GCSE and A-Level subjects that would help me get into University to study Geology and chose to go for a MSci in Geosciences at Royal Holloway, University of London. I really enjoyed my degree and all the fieldwork it allowed me to do, including my Masters fieldwork in Iceland climbing volcanoes and collecting samples to take back to the lab and analyse. From that project, I wasn’t ready to give it up so decided that I wanted to do a PhD and try to make a career out of it all. I applied to various projects but fell for one in particular; the Geology of Mars. Not only did it combine my interests in geology and Space but it also allowed me to work behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum in London, where I had been going for 20+ years! I got to investigate volcanic areas on Mars using data from satellites and the Mars rovers, as well as meteorite samples from the Martian surface itself. After my PhD, I was fortunate enough to be employed by Plymouth University and 18 months later, here I am.

3. What does your current job role involve?

My present job role is highly varied as I am not only a lecturer in the School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences but I also help manage a lab; the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre. We have four electron microscopes in the lab that allow a huge variety of users to image and analyse samples in various different ways. Some days I will be looking at rocks and fossils, others meteorites, sometimes biological samples such as fur or seaweed and even ice-cream or pasties on occasion! I, of course, help with teaching on our undergraduate programmes in geology and chemistry, and have students to supervise at the masters and PhD level. In addition to this I try to maintain my own research interests in planetary science, using meteorites as a ground-truth for spacecraft (satellite and rover) data, and getting involved with international teams to go meteorite-hunting in deserts or working on actual space missions.

4. What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the variety my position gives me; no two days are the same. Being involved in so many different aspects of academic (university) life can be a little chaotic at times but it’s difficult to get bored. It’s very rewarding to see students inspired with a certain area of science, particularly if you have helped to foster that inspiration through teaching or outreach. In terms of research, many of the meteorite samples I look at have never been studied in detail before. My students and I are sometimes the first people to explore these extra-terrestrial worlds, quite literally, and we don’t have to leave Plymouth to do it.

5. Why do you think it’s important to encourage more girls into Geoscience?

The geosciences have historically been a male-dominated field, though we are now seeing changes in this as a community. It’s important to encourage the girls as well as the boys to pursue a career within the varied environment that ‘geosciences’ encompasses to encourage diversity not only with respect to gender balance in the workplace but also in the variety of ideas and collaborations that this diversity can generate. Geoscience is a broad field; there are field-based geologists, lab based geologists, geophysicists, palaeontologists, geochemists, engineers, environmental surveyors… There is a wide range of career prospects for those that wish to find a career in geology and I know many women working in most of them. But before that, anyone that enjoys a subject should be encouraged to pursue that interest and geology is no exception.

6. If you could give a piece of advice to girls currently thinking about a career in the Geosciences, what would it be?

Don’t let a fear of failing stop you from giving something a go! Sometimes things work out and sometimes they don’t; that is the scientific method. Not everything can be a complete success every time but we can learn from our experiences and mistakes, and build upon them. I think most scientists would say the same thing and most of us know we still have plenty to improve upon. If you are interested in a subject, whether that is within the geosciences or not, give it a try and see where it takes you; you never know where you might end up.

7.  Career highlight so far:

I guess the highlight of my career so far is the travel I get to do regularly to collaborate with other labs around the world. Working with a truly international team is essential in the field of planetary science and it brings its own challenges but massive rewards. I have been very fortunate in that I’ve travelled to Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Sydney, Canberra and Berlin to name just a few! I have recently been asked to get involved in a new mission proposal for the European Space Agency as well, and that wouldn’t be possible without international collaboration so it’s definitely a huge positive.

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