Interview with young scientist Katherine MacArthur
This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Katherine and get inspired.
Katherine MacArthur, 28, from the United Kingdom is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ernst Ruska Centre for Microscopy and Spectroscopy with Electrons, Forschungszentrum Juelich, Germany. In her research, she is trying to push the limits of characterising catalyst nanoparticles in the electron microscope. If we can understand their structure better then we can relate this back to their catalytic properties and try to make better catalysts. Can we really count the atoms and determine their atom type and how does that relate to the particles catalytic properties?
What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
I have always been interested in understanding why things work the way they do. I’m very much an applied scientist/engineer. I like to be solving a real world problem. I remember doing a lot of miniature science/craft projects at home with my mother, for example, growing salt crystals, and clay modelling. I would often dismantle things to see how they were made. Physics and chemistry were always my favourite classes in school. I particular liked the chemistry practicals and mixing chemicals together for different results. I think a lot can be said for exceptional school teachers who make the subject engaging as starting point towards a specific career in that subject.
I fully credit my careers adviser at school for helping me choose which science degree to study. She was the first to suggest Materials Science to me as an option. In particular, the course at Oxford University which had a French language option looked the best option. This is because it combined as many of my A-level subjects as possible (at the time these were Maths, Chemistry, French, Product Design and Theatre Studies). Ok, it didn’t containing anything to with Theatre Studies, but all the other four subjects were covered. In an effort to find out more I booked onto a Materials Open Day in Oxford. A day which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a vast array of practicals which demonstrated simple materials properties, all of which had a real connection to real world problems that thoroughly appealed to my practical mind set.
Who are your role models?
My mother has demonstrated how fruitful life can be juggling a career and family life, she is an inspiration. Otherwise I tend to get small inspirations from many of the people I interact with in my daily life. The variety reminds me that there is no specific route one should take to a permanent position in science. For that reason there is no one person who I can look at a say, ‘I wish I had their career’. Instead, I just look at what aspects of someone’s career I am inspired by.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
The first hurdle in my scientific career came right at the beginning when I chose Materials Science as the degree I wanted to take but realised they recommend Physics A-level which I did not have. I was very fortunate that my school allowed me to take complete the Physics A-Level in one year by taking 1st year and 2nd year courses in parallel, adjusting the timetable completely so that I was able to manage my new set of courses. I got my offer from Corpus Christi College, Oxford and I got my 3 A’s in Physics, Chemistry and Maths. Later on my College Tutor who interviewed me said he is still yet to accept a candidate without Physics A-level, so it was clearly worth the extra effort. I found Oxford both enriching and immensely challenging at the same time. It is difficult to be in such an environment surrounded by some of the best minds without developing some sort of inferiority complex. You have to learn to re-evaluate what you classify as good results, and keep reminding yourself that just because the people you spend your day to day life with are immensely clever, does not diminish how clever you are. Unfortunately, I developed an illness known as IBS which is made considerably worse by stress, and I completed my final exams on quite a lot of painkillers. Now I manage the condition but it flares up occasionally, e.g. if I have a impending deadline that I’m not ready for.
[…] the idea that it is possible to image individual atoms was simply astounding […]
For my final year masters project I chose to specialise in high resolution electron microscopy, the idea that it is possible to image individual atoms was simply astounding. I spent many, many hours imaging gold nanoparticles after different heat treatments and was enjoying it so much I already knew that I wanted to do a PhD in Microscopy. Although I researched many options I actually ended up reapplying to Oxford. However I did change supervisors in order to work with Professor Peter Nellist (my college Tutor), Dr Sergio Lozano-Perez and Dr Dogan Ozkaya. The project was sponsored Johnson-Matthey and so had an industrial focus on the catalysts which I like as a link to real world applications. My PhD in Oxford was rather different to my undergraduate degree. Having three supervisors meant there were always at least 3 branches of the project I could work on at any one time. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect particularly as I find it stops me getting too focused and stuck on any one avenue of research. Towards the end of my PhD (some time in my 3rd year) I began to feel a crisis of confidence, I still wanted to be a scientist but I began to feel like I wouldn’t be good enough to have an academic career. I had been jointly working with two or three other people and I began to worry that there wasn’t anything that I could point at as distinctly my contribution. It also didn’t help that I was still the most junior person in the research group as it consisted of me and two postdocs. They both made me feel like research required a real amount of bravado to convince people that your ideas are the best (at least to get successful funding applications). There was a hunger to survive in research which I saw in them that seemed essential for a career in scientific research and which I felt I lacked. I now believe differently, I think you can be a lot quieter and humbler and people will still notice if you have interesting and worthwhile results. After long discussions with all my supervisors (Dogan help in particular because he was able to explain to me why he left academia for industry) I decided to try out a postdocs position before I made my decision about staying in academia or not.
The coolest project is normally whatever I’m working on at the moment.
The place I’m at now (Forschungszentrum Juelich) was actually chosen slightly at random. I’ve heard one of my colleagues describe it as a Venn diagram approach. My husband and I both spoke to our supervisors and sent out a whole lot of emails to find out the availability of postdoc positions in research groups we liked. We each attached the others CV to our emails with a note asking if they knew of any groups in the area which would have a suitable position for our other half. From that I drew up a list of places I liked and he the places he liked. We ended up with a choice of two places in Germany, Juelich-Aachen or Stuttgart-Karlsruhe. Juelich has 5 top end electron microscopes where most places have only one, making it a fantastic hub of research in microscopy. Unfortunately they didn’t have any money to actually employ me but encouraged me to apply for a Helmholtz postdoctoral scholarship, making it the more risky option but would be fantastic if it worked out. Although it was rather nerve-racking at the time, I started in Juelich on a 3 months contract before I found out if my funding was successful or not. Thankfully it was and I’m now in my second year, thoroughly enjoying science again and having just come back from a 2 month research stay in Australia that I never thought I would do two years ago. I even have it in my sights to try and apply for a tenure track position next year.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project is normally whatever I’m working on at the moment. I never have the inspiration to work on something unless I think it’s cool. That being said there is one project which has just been written up into a first paper that I think has real potential. Essentially, we were able to determine the 3D atomic structure of Pt nanoparticles from a single experimental image. Being able to determine a structure from one image (normally requiring 20 or more) means we can get the atomic structure of several particles in the time it took to get one, leading to higher throughput. It also means we are damaging the particles less under the electron beam the structures we get will be more accurate.
A simulation group in the University of Southampton has now done some modelling calculations on these structures. This is an important step for several reasons; firstly, it’s never been done before. Prior to this modelling has always been carried out on ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ structure with atomically perfect particles in their equilibrium shape. In reality catalyst particles are never going to have ‘perfect’ structures, there will always be kinetic effects in the synthesis or impurities which affect the shape and structure. Therefore to understand real catalysts we need to model real structures. As with most materials science challenges is often the deviations and defects from a perfect crystal structure which actually end of controlling overall materials properties. Therefore being able to characterise and model such defects is essential to understanding exactly what is happening down at the atomic level.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?
The first time I ever tuned a microscope by myself to resolve atomic columns. I was so excited I took a picture on my phone and sent it straight to my boyfriend. I think it might be a bit like when you’re groping and fumbling around to find your glasses. You finally find them and put them on and can suddenly see everything clearly again. It’s as sudden as this in the microscope and it’s beautiful. I love that moment every single time, when your visibility suddenly improves and you can actually see atoms. I still send my (now) husband a picture if I find a particle that is just too pretty and I have to share it with someone.
What is a “day in the life” of Katherine like?
I normally get into work 8-8:15. I pour myself a cup of peppermint tea and check my emails. In 90 percent of my days I will spend all day at my computer. Setting up simulations, analysing data taken on a microscope, writing software or reading/writing papers. I normally get a microscope session once every couple of weeks and it takes me that long to understand the images from a previous session. I have a quick packed lunch and then a group of us go out to play Boules if the weather is nice. When I am on the microscope I will work from 8 am through until I get too tired or until I’ve collected everything I think I can get that day. Therefore if the microscope is working well, I have been known stay well until the middle of the night, because the data coming out of the machine is so beautiful. Plus if you are collecting data after normal working hours, there’s normally no-one around to slam doors or run loud machines and carelessly mess up your data.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I think the way that the scientific community is structured makes it very difficult to have long term goals. My contract only lasts for two more years and each funding application is typically a 3 year timescale. In that time you need to have real results to prove you’ve achieved something which was worth funding. Personally, things have been a little shaken up with the Brexit vote. My husband and I had planned to do 3-4 years in Germany before moving back to the UK. Now I think we are already seeing a drop off in scientific funding options and I think there will be fewer jobs available in research. Therefore we’ve had to come up with a new plan rather quickly. I have a plan to apply for a large 5 year funding grant. If I’m successful with this then my husband and I will be staying in Germany, if we’re not successful then we’ll be looking to move somewhere within the EU. Ideally, I would like to end up in a permanent position linked with a university where I’m also able to do some teaching. I really enjoy sharing my scientific knowledge with other people and really enjoyed my time spent tutoring at Oxford. However, I’m a long way off that just yet so it’s easier to think it short-term goals.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
When I’m not doing research, I’m normally cooking/baking. I normally cook a meal completely from scratch every night. With my IBS I have to avoid ready-made sauces and ready meals. This means I have learned how to make a lot of different things including: currys, pizza, sweet and sour sauce, and various pasta sauces all from scratch. My herb and spice rack is rather extensive for this reason. I find it helps me to relax and unwind from the day I’ve had. Some nights I just throw things into a pan for a quick stir-fry, but other nights (if I have time) I go for something much more complicated. I don’t always have time to cook something extravagant as I have German classes, Bible study and dancing most nights of the week.
I would recommend […] always applying for a position you like the look of even if you worry that you might not fulfill all the criteria.
Of those activities my main passion is the dancing. During my time in Oxford I learned to dance Latin, Ballroom, Salsa, Rock and Roll among others. Now I just limit myself to acrobatic rock and roll twice a week. There’s nothing quite like being thrown upside down to clear your head! Plus I learned during my time in Oxford where the motto is ‘work hard, play hard’ that after a mentally tiring day you sleep an awful lot better if your physically tired as well.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?
As corny as it sounds I would say believe in yourself or find someone who believes in you. Whenever I have a small crisis of confidence or worry that things aren’t going to come together in time, I have a wonderful husband who reminds me of all the things I have achieved and so why would this situation be any different. I would recommend thinking positively and always applying for a position you like the look of even if you worry that you might not fulfill all the criteria. In all my discussion on gender issues and why there aren’t enough women in high ranking positions, there was one statistic that stood out for me. It said that most men will normally apply for a job even if they only fulfill 60 percent of the criteria, whilst most women will wait until they fulfill 100 percent of the criteria before applying for a position. If this statistic is true there are lot of women out there who take themselves out of the running of top jobs by not even applying in the first place.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?
In the field of electron microscopy I think the biggest breakthroughs come through in instrumentation. For chemistry this has come in the form of new holders which allow the in-situ flow of gas or liquids around the sample whilst still being able to image with the electron beam. This is still an expanding area of research and currently has made a lot of pretty videos but is a lot harder to understand the exact processes going on. Getting real catalysts in under microscope in reactive conditions, I think will be essential to really understanding the catalytic process and how to improve it. I think I lot more can be done in terms of quantification. Can we measure the exact ratio of the gases going in and coming out (this is tricky as very small volumes are involved)? Can we track compositional changes with time and understand particle degradation processes? For Fuel-Cell catalysts there has been a lot of success in developing better catalysts than those commercially available, but the problem is over time the particles degrade and activity is lost. We need to understand and prevent these degradation mechanisms in order really achieve more efficient Fuel-Cells.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
Personally I think it’s still more an issue of cultural expectations than anything else. I don’t think we’ll ever be close to reaching gender equality until it is just as socially acceptable for a man to change his surname after marriage as it is for a woman. Far too many people had an opinion on what I was going to do with my surname when I got married. This was an issue which was entirely mine as it was completely assumed that my husband (also a scientist) would keep his name exactly as it is. It may sound like a trivial thing, but I think about it: scientific achievement is measure by how many papers and citations you have. If you choose to modify your name you need to do it carefully so that all your papers can still be attributed to you. Otherwise you are losing out just because you changed your name.
I don’t think we’ll ever be close to reaching gender equality until it is just as socially acceptable for a man to change his surname after marriage as it is for a woman.
I think the ratio of female to male really drops of during the postdoctoral years. Spending your time on limited 1 or 2-year fixed termed contracts doesn’t really provide a great deal of stability financially. I think women worry about this more, especially if they’re looking to start a family. Also as I said above not enough women are applying for the top end positions, so they may be moving from postdoctoral positions to permanent positions later in their career. In Germany they try to actively combat this issue with positive discrimination. For example, they have a professorship funding option available only to women and some of their lower level funding specifies that at least 40 percent of the awards will be given to women. I still haven’t decided if I agree with this practice or not, but if it does succeed in encouraging more women to apply then it could be a good approach. However, it might leave some people believing they only got the position in order to ‘fill a quota’.