What inspired you to get into high power lasers?
Originally, I wanted to be an engineer and design planes, but last minute I decided to change to study Physics. I had watched Carl Sagan's Cosmos, and was interested in the origins of the universe, something not traditionally taught in an engineering degree, so I chose Physics to better pursue this interest. During my Physics undergraduate, I studied optics and about halfway through my degree I started to study lasers, which is when my initial interest in the field began. My first hands on experience with lasers was during my Masters degree, where I was developing a tuneable diode laser.
How has your career at the CLF progressed and your role evolved in this time?
When I first joined the CLF 20 years ago, I had a very technical role assisting with the commissioning of the Petawatt facility in Vulcan. It was an exciting time, I got to be in the lab firing the first Petawatt shot that was fired in Vulcan. After a while working in Vulcan, the position of Vulcan group leader became available, and later on division head of HPL. More recently I was promoted to band H, recognising some of my recent work, such as taking on the role of technical director for the CLF's new EPAC facility. At each chance, I put myself out there and applied for these opportunities. My career journey has been a journey full of taking full advantage of opportunities and collaborating with others.
One of the things I learned as I progress in my career, is how much your perspective on work and challenges changes. The higher up you go, you realise you do larger and larger things that you cannot tackle alone, you have to work with others and you need to take people with you. Therefore, developing the skill to collaborate with others, encourage them and help with their ideas and not just your own, was a crucial skill for me to foster and develop early on in my career.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your STEM career?
My biggest challenge came from having kids. Many things have evolved since I had my children, policies and working conditions have changed, but the challenge of balancing family and work is still as prevalent as ever. I was incredibly fortunate to have a lot of support from management at the time, despite it being a difficult time for me career wise. That support from management and my department was crucial. Without it, I would not have been able to find the right balance between my job and my kids.
Challenges and events in your life, like having kids, make you ask yourself the difficult questions. “Why would I sacrifice time with my kids to be in this job if I don't love it?" Those moments make you reflect a lot about your job and your passions and what's important for you. For me, that made me realise how important loving my job was, and showed me how important it was to find a balance between my family and my work.
If you could pass on one piece of advice to people early in, or looking to start their STEM career, what would it be?
When doing a career in STEM, like most jobs and fields of work, there are always obstacles. For me, three things were key to having a career in STEM: passion, perseverance, and resilience. These traits go hand-in-hand with each other and have allowed me to overcome the obstacles that have come my way so far while pursuing a career in STEM, and also have helped me to enjoy the successes even more.
There will be moments that are difficult, for many reasons, but if you keep your passion and keep going, you will be able to overcome what comes your way. Keep your enthusiasm for what you do, remember why you are doing it, and try your best to not let obstacles crush your self-belief that you can do it. There will also be moments of success, discovery, and satisfaction. All these moments make the job really enjoyable and give senses of achievement.