hey, hello, hi!
This weeks #WISW/#WomeninSTEMWednesday is from Kat who is another PhD woman in STEM!
Hi, I’m Kat, 24-year-old mathematics PhD Student at the University of Bath. I’m originally from South Wales.
My research is looking into the air lubrication layer that forms when droplets bounce on a liquid surface. Previous work in this field has shown that when the liquid bath (surface below the water) is vibrated with the correct frequency it can cause a droplet to bounce at regular intervals. When the vibration increases you can also produce walking droplets. This bouncing/walking droplet phenomena is the first large-scale analogy to many Quantum phenomena, e.g. it is possible to recreate the famous double slit physics experiment using water drops! In a broader sense the air lubrication layer forms whenever you have an impacting body acting on a bath of liquid, so there are potential applications in many industrial areas. The work I do currently is still in the theoretical stages, though there are many experimentalists working on similar fields.
How did you get into your PhD?
I studied at Cardiff University for my undergraduate degree, where I achieved an integrated masters in mathematics (MMath). This is a four year undergraduate program that is often promoted as an ideal choice if you want to stay on in academia after your undergrad! The modules I took were mostly split between Number theory and Fluid Dynamics. Although the nature of the course in Cardiff made sure I had a solid foundation in many analysis modules too. It was only in my final year of undergrad that I made the decision to stay in Fluid Dynamics rather than pursuing Number Theory.
What made you choose a PhD over an industrial job?
I knew from a young age that I enjoyed research – not that I knew what it was called back then. I figured I just wanted to get paid to stay in school and learn. Having the opportunity to have a career where you’re constantly being encouraged to learn new things and try different methods is ideal. I just wouldn’t be able to have as much freedom within my schedule or research direction in an industrial career. On top of that my secondary passion in life is teaching, I would love to stay on in academia and lecture my own course. I currently tutor both privately and for the university and find it incredibly rewarding and good fun!
What does your day-to-day PhD life look like?
This is definitely a question that is split in two. In a PhD you don’t really have summer holidays anymore, so you’re still on campus while it’s basically a ghost town. This means that there’s fewer distraction so you tend to get more research done. During the term however it is encouraged that most PhD students do some amount of tutoring for the undergraduates, so part of my time is spent teaching, marking and prepping tutorials. There’s also the opportunity to audit modules, so my plan when term resumes is to sit in on a few more modules, not for credit, but because they’re potentially of interest and use alongside my research.
How is your PhD funded?
My PhD is part of the SAMBa Centre of Doctoral Training at the university of Bath – meaning I am funded by Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). As mentioned previously I also tutor for the University, and also do marking/checking/invigilation for the university when the opportunities arise. On top of that I do a reasonable amount of private tuition for GCSE/A level mathematics students which is probably my most lucrative side job. I also stream mathematical content on twitch under KatDoesMaths. This is an idea I had a while ago to bring STEM outreach to a broader audience. I do study along streams, maths office hours, and maths/puzzle games. There is not much money in doing outreach work but I find it incredibly rewarding and I’m hoping to get back to visiting schools once the pandemic is over.
Have you ever doubted your abilities during your PhD? And if so, how do you overcome these situations/feelings?
Very much so. Imposter syndrome is something that I think most PhD students tend to suffer with, especially those in minority or overlooked groups. It is so easy to look around the room and see loads of faces that don’t look like me and wonder if you really belong. I am lucky enough to have an amazing cohort and workmates, and we talk regularly about our insecurities and worries. This stops it being such a taboo subject and it’s comforting to know that when you look at other people and think ‘wow I could never be like them’, more often than not there’s someone thinking the same about you. Everyone has their own talents and you’ve just got to find your own and be proud and loud about them.
What were you interested in growing up and do you think extracurricular activities and hobbies play an important role in encouraging more girls into STEM?
I was lucky enough to have a lot of hobbies growing up, but one thing that always made me curious is how many people I went to orchestra with that ended up doing STEM subjects at university. I was also a girl guide for many years and ended up as a young leader for them. I think that sort of group can be particularly empowering for a group of girls while growing up, especially in recent years. I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that didn’t believe in ‘boys activities’ and ‘girls activities’, so we were able to do things like pedal car racing, and air rifle shooting whilst also doing baking and sewing. It meant that we were encouraged to follow whatever interest we wanted regardless of whatever gender norms existed in the wider society.
I remember when I was in year 9 I had the opportunity to go to a series of Maths Masterclasses at the local university. The group of 8 of us that went were split boys/girls 50/50 from my school, and just happened to be the group of us that were interested in giving up our weekends to go learn some cool maths. This meant that gender wasn’t a limiting factor for us in school to pursue STEM subjects.
While growing up, do you recall anyone that particularly motivated you to go into STEM?
My parents, though their careers were very different, always encouraged my curious nature and allowed me to ask questions all the time about everything. It was never obviously pushing me towards STEM but looking back on it there was no way I would have ended up anywhere other than doing maths as my career. My GCSE maths teacher was an incredible woman, and she really pushed all of us to achieve. She taught in the most friendly and accessible manner. I remember always looking forward to maths lessons, just because they were always fun. I still model my behaviour while I’m teaching or doing outreach, on Mrs Davies.
In university it was my third year Fluid Dynamics Lecturer, Dr Katerina Kaouri that really inspired me to follow my research interests through to remain in academia and stand up and be another female voice in the institute, and a friendly face for undergraduates. I am only where I am today because of the supportive female role models I had growing up, and I only hope that I can live up to them.
What do you think needs to happen/what changes need to be made to get more girls into STEM subjects?
We’re definitely on the right track in terms of where we were even 50 years ago. However there is still so much work to be done. Part of the training I received as a STEM Ambassador showed the percentages of girls showing interest in STEM subjects as you look through the year groups in the UK. There is still a massive drop off around the secondary school age of girls relative to boys. I think part of that is still the societal view that STEM is a boys subject, especially the more applied end of things (engineering, computing, technology etc). The best thing we can do is keep highlighting how many awesome women there are working in these fields and encouraging the shift in perception of the fields themselves. An interesting quote I heard said that “if a job description asks for 10 skills, men are more likely to apply even if they only have 4/10, whereas women will hold back with 8/10 because they feel unqualified without the final 2”. The take home message of that really speaks to me, especially as someone who suffers with Imposter Syndrome because I really struggled while applying to think I was good enough. But we need to keep reminding everyone that they are good enough, there is space for them, and you should follow a career that makes you happy.
Kat, your research sounds so interesting, if a little complex – quantum physics always mind boggled me! But more importantly, your shear passion and motivation to encourage more girls into STEM really shines through.
I can relate SO much to wanting to get paid to stay in school and learn! I know a lot of people were so happy to see the back of university but honestly, for me, I couldn’t think of anything more amazing. And I think you highlight the most important thing about women in STEM – the more friendly female faces you see and voices you hear, the more normal and comfortable it feels for the following years.
It also sounds like you have such a great working environment in terms of support. It’s so important to have people around you when you’re having those, as you said “I don’t belong here” days!
So, this is my first summer doing a PhD and although my supervisor warned me that the uni would turn into a ghost town, I didn’t quite realise HOW QUIET it would be. There is no one around. No one in the car park. No one in the corridors. Literally no one! It’s really strange, especially after finally being allowed back into the lab etc – I was definitely hoping to see more people.
Kat, your interview has highlighted and reiterated the importance of letting children just be children. We don’t need to have ‘boys toys’ or ‘girls clothes’ or ‘boys subjects’. I think (or I’d like to hope) the majority of us know that by now but it’s subtle phrases like that, which girls hear over and over, that stop them ever pursuing their dreams in STEM.
I could quite easily ramble on about how much I enjoyed reading your interview, but for now I will leave it at that. Thank you again.
All my love, Meg x
P.S if any of you would be interested in checking out Kat’s Twitch, you can find the link here.