Name: Dr Becca Wilson
Age range: 30
Research institution: Space Research Centre, University of Leicester
Research career length: 9 years
Currently funded by JISC. Previously funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
Location: Leicester, England
A-levels: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, General Studies
MSci in Geological Sciences, Imperial College London
PhD in Astrobiology PSSRI (Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute), The Open University
Postdoctoral Researcher, Atmospheric Chemistry Group, Department of Chemistry, University of Leicester
Project Scientist Space Research Centre, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester
In recent years there has been a massive increase in the number of researchers who choose to spend time describing their work to non-specialist audiences. Becca Wilson combines her childhood fascination for space and her enthusiasm to solve problems with her interest in talking about her work to young people and other members of the public.
At age six, my mum took me on my first trip to the Natural History Museum in London. That was the moment that I knew I was going to become an Earth or planetary scientist. I bought a toy dinosaur and have kept it with me throughout university and through my PhD. The toy currently sits on my desk at work to remind me of the enthusiasm I had as a child for the Earth sciences.
I did very well in sciences and geography at school and only really wanted to study geology at Imperial College, not least in that I knew the university was right next to the Natural History Museum. Imperial offered a three-year Bachelors and a four-year Master’s course...I chose the latter. I became hooked on some of my lectures - including those in which we learned about the formation of the solar system, meteorites, asteroids and astronomical cataclysms. I ended up doing a one-year voluntary research placement with one of my lecturers, which helped my final year project studying meteorites. The lecturer, Sara, gave me helpful advice and contact details of research groups that were offering PhD positions, which is how I ended up doing a PhD in astrobiology at the Open University. One of my PhD supervisors helped set me off on my science communication path, as she ran the departmental outreach programme on meteorites called ‘Rocks from Space’.
Finding a postdoc was difficult, so I chose to change fields. When I started my research in atmospheric chemistry at the University of Leicester, it felt like starting my PhD all over again - I had to learn it all from scratch. However, whilst my PhD had been fairly solitary research, I was now part of a consortium of 38 scientists from across Europe.
In 2011 I moved to the physics department at the University of Leicester and took on the role of Space Academy project scientist. I have learned a great deal from the project's lead educators, who are outstanding secondary school teachers. This has helped me enhance my own university outreach work, enabling me to link my research to GCSE and A-level curriculum topics. I’ve been communicating science to the public (including young people) since I was a PhD student, but working with the National Space Academy has supported me to develop and deliver masterclasses in GCSE environmental science, and contribute to professional development courses for teachers.
My experience in public engagement and research background in astrobiology led me to being filmed for the STFC planetarium show ‘We are Aliens’. In 2012 I was also awarded a British Science Association Media Fellowship and wrote many science articles for the Irish Times across print, online and social media. It would be hard to list all the reasons why I find my work so fulfilling, but I do love problem-solving; breaking down a problem and trying to find a solution by fitting all the pieces together. Communicating my own research, and that of others, to schools and the rest of the public is extremely rewarding.
There are other rewards to research. I’ve done a fair bit of overseas travel, including memorable experiences such as a conference in Tucson, Arizona, where I gave a talk. After the conference ended, we became tourists for a week, including hiking through Barringer Crater and the Grand Canyon. Whilst I enjoy research, I would like to end up in research communication full time - although I am not sure yet which field to represent. But it’s great to have the options that being a researcher has presented to me.
Images provided by UK Space Agency