The second interview in our Inspiring Women in Science series is with Dr Deborah Kays, a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. She told us all about how she got into her line of work, and passed on some great words of wisdom for people wanting to follow in her footsteps. Here’s what she had to say:
Tell us a little about your role.
DK: I’m a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry here at the university, where I’ve been for 12 years now. I lecture to second and third year undergraduates in areas such as NMR spectroscopy, catalysis and S-block/P-block chemistry. My role also involves helping to look after the students in the labs (we have great labs here!)
Whereabouts did you study?
DK: I did my undergraduate degree at Cardiff University, which is where I’m from originally. My final year project focused on trying to make metal boron bonds, and I continued that into my PhD (where I finally managed to make some!)
How did you get into academia?
DK: After my PhD, I applied for a Junior Research Fellowship at Oxford University. I wrote a proposal, had an interview with the college and they offered me the place, so I was there for a couple of years doing my own research. In terms of a proper job, I actually didn’t get my first permanent position until just before I turned 30! That’s when I started lecturing.
DK: Yeah I did. Even in primary school I enjoyed science – I used to copy out the periodic table as a kid, so I just embraced the nerdiness! That’s where it all started, and throughout school I was still interested. I then did a week’s work experience at BP Chemicals when I was 15, and it was a great week. I was put in R&D and had a really great time, so it continued from there really.
What inspires you in the workplace?
DK: For me, it’s the pursuit of new knowledge; the opportunity to say ‘I’ve made something that no one else has made before!’ You want to find things that no one has found before, and this pursuit of new things and pushing boundaries still fuels me to this day. There’s also the idea of being able to feed into someone else’s knowledge one day.
How do you think the landscape has changed for women in the field?
DK: There are a lot more women now than there were, and some really brilliant women at that. We got our first female professor here ten years ago, and now there are four, as well as many juniors – so even in the time I’ve been here, it’s changed a lot. And that’s only going to creep up.
We actually have a silver Athena SWAN award here at the University of Nottingham, which is all about helping women in STEM roles. As part of that we have an equality and diversity committee, which I’ve sat on previously and will be sitting on again soon. We monitor numbers, and plan out where we hope to be in the future and how we’re going to get there in terms of diversity.
Are there any obstacles you’ve personally encountered as a woman in science?
DK: Maternity leave is always tricky. The university is incredibly supportive, but the workload has to go somewhere! Particularly when it comes to research; it’s yours, so you want to carry on with it! It also makes it difficult to work in a lab. But it’s a pressure that’s the same for a lot of women, I imagine. It’s just a fact of life!
What advice do you have for young scientists who are looking for a career in academia?
DK: In academia you’ll get a lot of critical feedback, so you have to be prepared to take that on the chin and use it constructively. When it comes to applying for fellowships, getting your face out there is a really good thing – contact people, reach out and ask (it’s how it worked out for me).
Finally, don’t feel disheartened if things don’t always work! Eventually it will pay off, you’ve just got to be tenacious.