Meet Nicola Bailey at Soapbox Science
How did you get to your current position?
I studied mathematics for my undergraduate degree at the University of Nottingham, starting in 2007. During this time, I developed an interest using maths to model complex engineering problems; working on ‘real world problems’ was what really interested me. An undergraduate scholarship led to a research project working on optimising the performance jet engine components. I found this project really rewarding and I was lucky enough to continue with the group for my PhD; this was in partnership with Roll Royce who make the jet engines for many of the commercial airlines.
Although the PhD was hard work, I knew by this point that I wanted to continue doing research so I applied for an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Doctoral Prize which allowed me to make my models more realistic. This prize gave me more independence from my supervisors, which is important for an academic career. By this time, I had been at Nottingham for 8 years and decided it was time to move to a different university to experience a different perspective. So, in 2015 I moved to the University of Bath as a research associate studying precision control of robotic arms. This was a great experience and allowed me to expand into experimental work which was a new and enjoyable addition to my previous research using only simulations. With great support from my manger and mentor I applied for my first lecturer position at Bath and got it! I started the position in 2017 and the past 18 months have been challenging but also very rewarding!
What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
From a young age, I have always been interested in understanding how and why things work as well as designing and building things, from playing with mechano to building a bike to DIY projects at home. Following a career in science has allowed me to look at more complex systems that we encounter in everyday life and push the boundaries of these new technologies, through both theoretical and experimental work.
What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
For myself, the most fascinating aspect of my work is being able to bring to life an idea that I have or research an area of science that I find interesting and feel I can contribute to. My research focuses on improving the performance of new and existing technology. I love seeing my ideas taken from a theoretical concept through to implementation of a fully working mechanism. Last year I had a picture of an automated robotic arm in my head, and now it is fully constructed and moving automatically!
What attracted you to soapbox science in the first place?
There are a few reasons I wanted to take part in soapbox science but mainly I saw it as a chance to inspire people to follow the career path they want to. Many people’s idea of a mechanical engineer, an engineer or a scientist in a broader sense, is often far from the reality. I really enjoy what I do and if it wasn’t for people showing me from an early age the opportunities that are available in science I may have missed out! When I explain my research, I get asked a lot ‘how do you research Maths? Isn’t everything in Maths known? I hope this opportunity will help answer this question and give people an understanding of the research that can be undertaken! I also hope that I will be able encourage the younger generations to go for the courses, jobs and careers that they want to do and your age, gender or social background doesn’tmatter!
Sum up in one work your expectations for the day.
If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
As an academic, I think science is a great fantastic to work. Universities are great in that they have intelligent and driven individuals at all stages of life. One thing I would love to see would be an equal representation of gender in all fields, and that goes both ways. I believe there are stigmas for women attached to subjects like maths and engineering, just as there are for men in areas wrongly considered the domain of women. To bring balance we need to start at the most fundamental levels, at home and in school. However, vital work is also needed to stop the high rates of attrition we see professionally. I would love for people to follow their interests and do what they want to regardless of their gender, background, or social situation. We are definitely moving in the right direction but there is much more to be done.
I also feel a big problem for scientists is the frequently large gaps they experience between finishing their PhD and obtaining a permanent contract. For example, highly qualified scientists, working at some of the most prestigious institutions in the world are having to repeatedly apply for contracts that can last less than a year. This coupled with the highly stressful politics of grant and paper authorship (lead authorships are essential for survival) can outweigh the benefits of an academic career. This instability, both in a personal and career sense causes us to lose some of the otherwise promising early career researchers.
What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?
Go for it!
An academic career can be hard work, both while pursing your first lectureship and after having achieved it. You will have to dedicate a lot of time, effort and be willing to put in long hours when you need to, but I would rather have a job I love and that stimulates me than one that is easy! Academia can be very rewarding, for example when your students succeed, you obtain an important/interesting result or get a breakthrough. The advantage of academia is that you have more freedom in research compared to industry jobs, and can manage multiple research projects in different areas which are within your interest.
What worked for me was working consistently, minimising procrastination and too many coffee breaks/late starts. Finding good supervision and mentorship (which was more luck than judgement) was also key to my success.