Adventurous fieldwork trips and a supportive supervisor were a highlights of Dr Natalie Starkey's PhD studies. She's now working as a science communicator and has published her first popular science book, Catching Stardust.
PhD in Geochemistry
|Year of Graduation||2009|
Why did you choose the University of Edinburgh?
I was very excited when I received an offer to study for my PhD at Edinburgh University. I’d been recommended Professor Godfrey Fitton in the School of GeoSciences as a supervisor. My Masters advisor at Durham University described Godfrey as "probably one of the best PhD supervisors you could hope for", and this analysis turned out to be correct.
Godfrey is a fountain of geological knowledge and it is him I must thank for guiding me so well through my research, as well as teaching me a thing or two about off-road driving when we went to Iceland to complete fieldwork. He even persuaded me to take a few months break from my PhD to work as a volcanologist on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat for two months. This was an experience I will never forget; active volcano monitoring by helicopter is an opportunity not to be missed.
It is well-known that studying for a PhD can be a stressful, and sometimes lonely, experience. Students must deal with long hours and the ever-present feeling that they might not be good enough - or have done enough interesting research - to be awarded the doctorate at the end. However, despite the inevitable stresses along the way, my PhD colleagues were exceptionally supportive.
When we escaped the lab, or returned from fieldwork trips, I fondly remember us whiling away evenings in the pub, usually Bierex (now No. 1 The Grange), which I happened to live above. We would either be celebrating laboratory successes or commiserating unfortunate failures; something that is all part and parcel of science research. In fact, it was the failures that really taught me how resilient a scientist must be.
[My supervisor] even persuaded me to take a few months break from my PhD to work as a volcanologist on the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat for two months. This was an experience I will never forget; active volcano monitoring by helicopter is an opportunity not to be missed.
Tell us about your experiences since leaving the University
Without my PhD I’m certain that I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’ve just completed my first popular science book, Catching Stardust, about comets and asteroids, and have signed a commission for a second book, Fire and Ice, about space volcanoes.
In my research job at The Open University that followed on from my Edinburgh graduation, I shifted my research focus. Instead of analysing volcanic rocks from Earth, I began to analyse meteorites and other rock samples collected by space missions to comets and asteroids. While the rocks were different, the laboratory instrument that I used in my new role was very similar to one I’d used in the fantastic Ion Micro-Probe facility in Edinburgh University. It was my fascination with this instrument that really drew me to the job and which helped me to secure the position. The fact that I happened to be working on space rocks was simply a bonus.
A few years into my new research position I applied to the BBC to attend a course aiming to train women to appear as experts in the media. Since then, and through the many media contacts I met at the time, I’ve managed to regularly work as a science expert. I even fulfilled my secret lifelong ambition to appear on the BBC Breakfast red sofa where I was interviewed about the famous Rosetta space mission that landed on a comet in 2014.
My new role as a science communicator also introduced me to popular science writing. After undertaking a writing fellowship working as a science journalist for The Guardian, sponsored by the British Science Association, I was approached by publishers asking whether I’d be interested in writing a book.
When my husband’s job moved us to California in 2015, meaning I had to leave behind my beloved research, I figured that it was the perfect time to take up the book commission. Having the opportunity to share my knowledge and curiosity of science with the public is something that drives me to continue writing.
I’ve no idea where the rest of my career will take me, having moved from volcanologist to laboratory manager/space scientist, to author/science communicator. However, I know that I have to thank Edinburgh for being one of the key factors that set me on this fascinating course in life.
My advice to current students would be to truly make the most of their time in the city. Don’t spend all the time in the pub, although there are many great ones. Instead, get out and explore. Climb Arthur’s Seat early one morning, take in some tourist attractions, and definitely try to stay around for the festival in August; a truly magical time when the city is transformed.
During my time in Edinburgh I also joined the Edinburgh University Triathlon Club (EUTri) where I met a whole range of different students. We had a great time finding new running and cycling routes in and around the city, the perfect way for me to wind down and relax after a hard week in the lab.
Although I strongly believe studying for a degree is important and should be a student’s main focus, I also believe that it imperative to balance studying with other interests, and Edinburgh has everything to offer.
Bloomsbury Publishing page on Catching Stardust (external link)
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