Natasha Stephen

Director of the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre

Who are you and what do you do?

I'm Dr Natasha Stephen, a Lecturer in Earth & Planetary Sciences and the Director of Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre at the University of Plymouth in the South-West of the UK. I studied geology as an undergraduate (MSci Geosciences from Royal Holloway) and then planetary geology for my PhD (Imperial College London). I skipped the post-doc part of my career and gained a lectureship straight out of my PhD, which was both a blessing and a curse!

What does your role involve?

I am a lecturer in the Faculty of Science & Engineering, which means I have all the normal teaching, research and administrative responsibilities of an academic position - this should be roughly 50% teaching/admin, and 50% research - but it never works out that way! I teach in the field of geology, planetary science and also analytical microscopy; scanning electron microscopes and X-Ray analysis. 

My other role is director of the EM Centre here at the University - this is kind of like a head of department role, where my department is a research-focusing facility rather than a teaching department of staff and classrooms. We have 4 electron microscopes (SEM, TEM and FIB-SEM), as well as sample preparation and analysis tools. These are used by researchers, academics, commercial partners but also students! We do teach a LOT of students in the lab - we typically see 800+ users each year, and every one of them gets hands on with the equipment too.

How did you get your job? Was it easy?

I did not have a straightforward PhD - most things that could go wrong, did (ask me about it if you want to know more), so it was quite a personal achievement to finish my PhD in 2014. Within a week of my PhD viva, I also had a job interview for my post at the University of Plymouth - so not only did I skip the Post-Doc part of my career to go straight into a lectureship, I also had to do my PhD corrections whilst already in a full-time academic post.

It was pure luck that I find out about my job; the post-doc I shared an office with whilst a student in London (Dr Ashley King) saw the job advert online and emailed it to me saying that it seemed perfect given my PhD focus and analytical skills - and it was! I'm very lucky in some respects, but it has brought it's own challenges as well. 

Academic careers are difficult, no matter what your path into them is - so be careful to judge who is "lucky"; most truly deserve the posts they have, and you never know what hardships they overcame to get to where they are today.]

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

Informal emails and inquiries to people you would like to work with, or with a job similar to the one that you think you might like, can go a long way! Most of us are able to take on work experience placements, find studentships or offer work-shadowing, all of which can really help a future job application. Even if we can't directly offer a post or practical experience at the time, opportunities might arise in the future that are useful, or we can sometimes point you in the direction of a colleague who could help - you never know where that one email might lead!

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The variety - no two days are the same! Sometimes I am playing with rocks from asteroids, sometimes from the Moon, sometimes from Mars... Other days I am teaching someone new to use a piece of equipment they never dreamed existed, others I might be writing, sometimes I am on fieldwork searching for meteorites in the middle of the Australian outback - you never know!

What is the most challenging part of your role?

Expectations from colleagues, and the pressure I put on myself to meet them. It can be hard to learn to say no to people, especially at the beginning of your career and to those more senior to you, but it's an important skill to learn. 

You have to manage your own time effectively to keep yourself happy and healthy, but you also have to manage others expectations of what you can realistically achieve in your role, on the average day. Yes, it would be great if we were all churning out academic papers week after week, but at what cost? 

Find a mentor that you respect, and more importantly one that respects you. They will act as your champion, no matter what role you're in, and they'll support you in your personal development - as well as in those hard to make decisions!

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

Sometimes the "right answer" doesn't exist - sometimes all that we can strive for is a "suitable" or "acceptable" answer. Perfection isn't always an option!

What is the most exciting space thing to you?

Meeting Apollo astronauts who are just as excited about the science still being conducted by others today, 40+ years after they originally collected samples, as they were walking across the Lunar surface themselves at the time!


Áine O'Brien

Áine is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her PhD project involves the search for organic materials in martian meteorites. As a former high school Physics and Astronomy Teacher, she is passionate about encouraging young people into the Space Sector.

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