What do you do?
I’m a Technical Consultant in Altus Ltd, a software and consultancy company working in the Financial Services sector. I’m not a business consultant; I primarily function as a technical architect, so I get the opportunity to sit with the people who “do stuff”, understand how they do it, and help them do it better. The “stuff” is complex and requires a strong technical background to understand needs and how they can be met. The best assignments are where I work closely with techies as I enjoy building relationships and trust and just being part of improving things.
Why did you choose to pursue this career?
I’ve always been pragmatic, a rationalist, wanting to know more. Many girls are like that. It is mis-attributed as a "boy thing", this makes some girls feel like outsiders and suppress this behaviour, not realising it is normal. Many females are more "Princess Parallelogram" than Lord Byron (now that is an interesting story…).
Beginning in Physics and meandering through software development, innovation and product management, you pick up a massive amount of experience and knowledge, and consultancy is a natural progression. I don’t know if I would describe it as a career. It's just I have a low attention span and refuse to be bored.
How has your experience been, not only pursuing your chosen career but also after your STEM education?
I love the freedom that science and rational thought gives you - proving something is wrong is just as important as proving something is right. This is truly liberating.
School was incredibly important in adding rigour to my rational mind, it was an east Bristol mixed comprehensive that faced many challenges. In the sixth form, although small in number, the best mathematicians and scientists were girls (you know who you are, Sarah and Lorna). The best computer science students were girls - shout out to Maneesa. STEM subjects were just what girls succeeded at, no big deal.
It’s a cliché, but my teachers were key, in particular crazy/inspirational Mr Dorsman, Physics, and the mercurial Chris Melhuish, Computer Scientist extraordinaire, who is now Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems at the University of Bristol and UWE. I was always going to have a career in STEM with those two behind me!
University was really the beginning of my tech career. In school you learn the tools needed for science, in my case Physics. At university you learn the wonder. And being pulled around an underground nuclear lab, on a trolley, by a dog, one crazy Friday afternoon in NYC is probably the most fun you can have in a STEM career (thank you Prof Sharpey-Schafer for the opportunity).
What advice would you give to women/young girls who are interested in pursuing a STEM career?
Are you rational? Are you forever asking questions (even when you know you should shut up!)? And, controversially, do you have a low attention span (which really means, you understand concepts quickly and have already moved on!)? If yes, STEM is for you.
What should you expect from a career in STEM?
Never bored. Never out of a job. Never underpaid.
Were there any challenges when leaving University and entering work? If so, how did you overcome them?
My path was very smooth. At university I completed a PhD in Nuclear Structure Physics. It's a phenomenological science, which means it's experimentation-based. Essentially, as far as the specific research project, you study as an individual, but this is carried out in the context of a very large team. Every member is reliant on others. In my case, I was studying a rare earth nucleus, Er157. Other fellow PhD students were not just looking at different nuclei, but also different and complimentary areas of physics. For example, some were studying the materials and electronics that made up the detectors we used to measure the nucleus; both physics research, mutually beneficial, but different disciplines. Working in such an environment is closer to a commercial setup than the ivory tower perception of academia. After completing my PhD, I worked as a post-doc in the Upper Atmospheric Science Division of the British Antarctic Survey, a Research Institute that again was not an ivory tower. From these experiences it was an easy step into work, especially during the dotcom boom when knowledge was valued, and employees were spoilt.
Is there any advice/tips you would give for those currently in education that want to improve their rational thinking?
Really tricky question! A person cannot know everything. My PhD supervisor explained to me that we don't need to remember every equation, what we need is a tool for deriving any equation (He was obsessed with angular momentum). The same can apply to thinking in general. We can't know the answer to everything, we just need a tool that will enable us to look at something and use our experience and knowledge plus any available evidence to determine an answer. That tool is rational thought, and the more you use it, the better it becomes.
One thing I always tried to do with my kids when they asked a question such as "what's a rainbow?" was to think through an answer with them, out loud. It's a good exercise, try it with a friend. Exposing the thought process will surprise you, observing your own mind as a tool, one that improves the more you use it. The answer may not always be 100% correct (you can always check Google later), but you learn a lot from the process. And always remember that in trying to understand something you are acknowledging its complexity, how amazing it is, making it more interesting, more beautiful
Are there any workshops/online resources that you would recommend for those students that are not sure whether to pursue their education in STEM?
There are so many resources out there, it is difficult to single any out.
TED is the obvious one. You don't have to go for the specifically STEM talks, just look and listen to something that interests you, or better, something that doesn't interest you (you can practice your rational thinking and apply pure logic to the narrative), it all comes down to STEM in the end anyway! A lovely short talk is "Caroline Weaver: Why the pencil is perfect", aesthetics (that sound, those colours!), history, tech, product development, it's got it all.
Jim Al-Khalili's Life Scientific on BBC Sounds is always a good listen, there are over 200 episodes, so there is bound to be something of interest.
Finally, what is your most memorable piece of tech growing up?
That's easy, my BBC Micro B, I used it for my A-Level Computer Science, a vision system - identifying real physical shapes, written in 6502 assembly language.
Sarah's Profile: https://www.altus.co.uk/our-people/sarah-bateman
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