Interview

Sheila Kanani

Education, outreach and Diversity Officer at the Royal Astronomical Society


What does your role involve?

My role is incredibly varied and I essentially wear three hats. The education one involves anything to do with school age children and teachers, the outreach hat includes things like working with diverse groups to inspire and enthuse people to do STEM, astronomy and geophysics, and within the diversity hat I have to think about getting more diverse audiences to engage with STEM, astronomy and geophysics. 

In one week, for example, I might teach GCSE Astronomy students, train primary school teachers about space concepts, appear on Sky News talking about aliens, write a safeguarding policy and attend a conference about how to support LGBT+ astronomers.

How did you get your job? Was it easy?

 I sort of fell into my job! When I was doing my PhD 'science communication' was quite a new field and there weren't many 'official' ways in. Nowadays there are whole degrees you can do on the subject (I'd quite like to go back and do one if I'm honest!).

I've always enjoyed interacting with people and teaching, but I started along the academic career path because I decided when I was 13 that I wanted to be an astronaut. I read about Michael Foale and Helen Sharman, who both had PhDs, so I decided I wanted to do a PhD too - even though at that age I didn't actually know what it was!

All my educational choices were made accordingly, so that I could get my PhD. However, during my PhD and shortly after I realised that whilst I loved doing research I also loved talking about it, and I was good at talking about it to most audiences!

After my PhD I was a little lost as to what to do next. A friend said to me 'if you like science communication, the best form of that is teaching!' so I applied for the GTP teacher training scheme which provides on the job teacher training. That was eye opening! I continued at the school I was in to do my NQT and became a 'real' teacher which was a proud day because teacher training, and teaching, is hard!

Then I was lucky - the job at the RAS came up and I applied for it. Having an academic background and a teaching background certainly helped me get to where I am today.

What advice would you give to people looking for a job in your industry?

If you're interested in science communication, a teaching qualification is invaluable. Knowing how to break topics down, make them fun and engaging, work to time deadlines and be able to interact with students and teachers, are all really useful skills.

If I didn't have a teaching background I wouldn't have had the confidence to teach astronomy in a prison to a room full of male inmates!

"There is nothing wrong with asking questions!"

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I enjoy the people! I love talking and learning about other people, networking and the continued exposure I have with students. I like learning about other peoples lives, not just the science!

I also love that my job is so varied. I've become a jack of all trades (and a master of none!) and I love it!

Where do you want to be in 5/10 years?

I really love my job and where I work so I'd like to still be here at the RAS, but hopefully by then we will be able to see where we've made a difference and we will be able to celebrate our work!

How did you decide which aspect of the space industry to work in?

I became interested in planetary physics through exoplanets, and the Cassini spacecraft. But I like planetary physics because it’s the most tangible area of astronomy in my opinion. We can actually visit Mars, but we can't visit a black hole or the edge of the Universe!

Is there anything you wished you’d learned at university that would come in useful now?

Lots! I mainly wish I knew that you should ask as many questions as you need to in order to understand things. There is nothing wrong with asking questions!

What is the most exciting space thing you’ve seen or heard about? (could be tech, science, future mission etc.)

Everything about space excites me! I think this is why I am so passionate about talking about it!

What are some of your favourite things?

My husband and son, Buffy the vampire slayer, hockey, jazz saxophone, travelling, eating and drinking, TV shows like The Fall and Line of Duty.

Author

Emma Collier

Emma studies Physics with Astronomy at the University of Southampton.

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