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An interview with Catherine ReganDate: 21/04/2022
You’re currently a doing a PhD in Planetary Sciences, could you tell us more about it? How’s your day-to-day, at work?
A PhD is a postgraduate degree where you research a particular topic for three to four years. This takes the form of around three research projects that link together, and at the end you become a Doctor! My research topic is planetary induced magnetospheres. These are environments in the space around planets that are formed at planets that do not have a global magnetic field, such as Mars and Venus. I am using data from different spacecraft to look at how events going on in the atmosphere of these planets influence this environment in space!
Day-to-day work is always very different! I have lots of different things to keep me busy, and some days I focus on one of these areas, and others I do a little bit of everything! This includes looking at data from satellites and coding with Python to help understand it, reading scientific papers, having meetings with my supervisors, or preparing presentations on my work. I also do a lot of public engagement alongside my PhD, including being lead organiser for the Mullard Space Science Laboratory’s Space Science Week and co-creator of an outreach project called Eyes on Mars. Both of these involve lots of emails and admin, in addition to being able to organise really fun science activities!
How did you decide to become a scientist? Did you get inspired by anyone or anything in particular?
It took me a while to realise science is what I wanted to do – at school I wasn’t in top set science so I didn’t think I was clever enough to pursue a science career. I still found it really interesting though, but my main focus in school was on geography and maths. When I went to university, I wanted to do a combination of all of the subjects I enjoyed, so I found a course at the University of East Anglia – Environmental Geophysics – and this allowed me to continue my passion for geography – mainly volcanoes – and do the maths and physics behind these natural phenomena! Whilst studying at the University of East Anglia, I realised that I enjoyed looking at the Earth as a whole planet, rather than looking at smaller features on the surface. I spoke about this to my supervisor at the time, Dr Jessica Johnson, and she suggested I look into planetary geophysics. As I hadn’t done any physics or astrophysics before I didn’t think this was a possibility for me, but she encouraged me to use the knowledge I had for Earth and apply it to other planets. That piece of advice has led to me now doing a PhD on Mars and Venus!
What’s your favourite part of your everyday work?
My favourite thing would be working with other PhD students. Although there is nobody that does the same thing as me, the variety of topics leads to some really interesting conversations and debates. Being able to talk through your research with other students can lead to breakthroughs and/or ideas in areas you may not have considered otherwise. It is incredibly useful to have other students go through a PhD alongside you, and we have a lot of fun!
What’s the biggest challenge you feel that you (and/or people in similar positions to yours) face today?
The biggest challenge I face is overcoming imposter syndrome. I think it is a very common thing in academia to feel like you aren’t clever enough to be doing what you’re doing, and feeling like you will be caught out for being a fraud. When I first started research I felt this a lot but didn’t realise how common it was. Now I am very open about admitting that there are things I don’t know – the whole point of a PhD is to learn and find things out! Even experts in their field make mistakes.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt so far?
The most important lesson I’ve learnt is to just ask for opportunities. During my undergraduate, I was having difficulty finding any work experience. This resulted in me ringing a researcher in an area I was interested in, and I was offered three weeks of paid research work! This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t rung him up and expressed my interest. The worst thing that can happen if you ask someone for advice and/or experience is they say no – at least you’ve put yourself out there and your name is now on their radar! Grab opportunities where you can and always ask.
Why are you interested in communicating science to students?
I have always really enjoyed talking to people. As a teenager I worked in a museum and I really enjoyed interacting with members of the public. This is something I’ve tried to continue through university, and I consequently volunteered at Norwich Science Festival. This is when it clicked with me that science communication is something that I really enjoyed doing, and I then made a conscious effort to continue doing it through my postgraduate degree, and now during my PhD. I think it’s great to get people excited about science subjects, and encourage underrepresented groups to look at STEM as a possible career option. I really want to spread the message that you don’t need to be the cleverest in your class to go into science – I wasn’t, and I wish it didn’t hold me back at school!
Are you involved in any other projects, apart from Lecturers Without Borders, related to science outreach? If so, could you tell us more about them?
I am co-creator of an outreach project called Eyes on Mars. This project aims to increase awareness of the UK involvement in Mars exploration – in particularly with the Rosalind Franklin Rover, which will be launching in the next few years. The camera on this rover – PanCam – was built and is led by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, yet a lot of people don’t realise this! Half of this project is a big social media campaign – highlighting some of the different routes into the space sector and the people involved in the mission. The other half is providing free resources that can be used in the classroom and with youth groups – I have designed a filter wheel activity that is similar to the filter wheel inside PanCam. We provide all the resources, in addition to lesson plans and activity sheets to use the filter wheel with! More info on https://www.eyesonmars.co.uk/ and on Twitter and Instagram (@eyesonmarsuk).
I am also lead organiser of Space Science Week at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. This is a work experience week we host annually for 16 – 18-year-olds interested in a career in space science and/or engineering. This is a fantastic Week where students are able to meet scientists and engineers, and take part in their own research project, which they present at the end of the Week. If you are from the UK and are interested, keep an eye on the Mullard Space Science Laboratory Twitter and Website for more info!
Outside your career, what do you enjoy doing?
When I’m not working I try and keep creative by doing arts and crafts. This ranges from paintings, drawings, to scrapbooking, which is something I picked up over lockdown! I also do lots of fundraising and raising awareness for Ovarian Cancer Action (OCA). My Mum died of undiagnosed peritoneal cancer in 2012, and I’m working with OCA to raise awareness of the symptoms of ovarian cancer, which my Mum displayed all of. In Summer 2021 I did a skydive and raised over £7,000! I’m planning on what to do next to raise some more money.