Heidi Gardner, PhD


Where can people find you? 

Where did you go to college?

I went to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, graduating with an MSci in Pharmacology in 2015

Major(s) and minor(s)?

Pharmacology with industrial placement (minor – biotechnology)

Did you go to graduate school?

Yes, I stayed at the University of Aberdeen for my PhD in Applied Health Sciences – clinical trial methodology, and graduated in 2018.

Current job title? Research Fellow (staff page here)

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue? 

I read the book ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre when it was released in 2008, I was 16 at the time and it really shocked me. I was naive in thinking that all scientists were doing science to get closer to the truth, and when it became obvious that that wasn’t the case, I wanted to do something about the scale of the problem. I didn’t know how to do that, but I knew it would likely require some sort of science degree, so I studied Pharmacology (the study of drugs and how they interact with the body) because I found the medical science aspects of Ben’s book the most shocking and frustrating. Now I am in the field of efficiency and methods improvement, but I didn’t know it existed until the last few years of my degree. 

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career. 

A previous manager that I had whilst I was doing an internship – she taught me that confidence was often the thing I was missing, and building that and working on my own perception of myself would give me lots of opportunities (she was right!). My PhD supervisors, who taught me that it was absolutely fine to ask questions, not know stuff, and come up with my own scientific ideas to explore. Last but not least, my Mum (how cheesy!), but she always taught me to say ‘yes’ and then learn how to do something later – it’s never failed me yet!

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it? 

During my undergraduate degree I needed to find an internship to take me on for a year so that I could graduate with an MSci rather than a BSc. It was hard, really hard. I had an interview that I really thought I’d aced, and when I got the rejection email it hit me incredibly hard. I thought that meant I wasn’t supposed to be in science at all, but in actual fact when I spoke to the hiring manager (who was the CEO of a small biotech company), she had recognised that I wasn’t a good fit with the business because their research just wasn’t something I was passionate about. She saw that I didn’t want to work in a laboratory setting way before I realised it. After that I kept on going, eventually securing an internship that I didn’t think was for me, but it’s since heavily shaped my career. Sometimes it’s important just to trust the process and take opportunities that you’re given – trying new things can open up so many new options for you. 

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that surprising twists ALWAYS happen. Everyone told me to expect the unexpected when I started my PhD, but I didn’t really understand what that meant – high workload, pressure?! No, what actually happened was a deeply personal family issue that I’ve never spoken about online, but caused me to take 2 months off my PhD program. I worked weird hours after that, and often took time off to be with my family too. It was tough, and I didn’t think I’d be able to do the PhD at all, but somehow it worked out and I finished the program on time. A network of brilliant friends and colleagues pulled me through and believed in me when I didn’t. 

Happy surprises have happened too though! I’ve been given amazing opportunities to present at conferences in South Africa, Ireland, Norway, and the US – it’s all down to saying ‘yes’ and putting your all into collaborating and supporting your colleagues just as they support you. 

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

If I wasn’t a scientist I’d be working in communications – through my PhD I did freelance comms work and really enjoyed it, and I love doodling, writing and reading, so when my PhD finished I was determined to bring in some creativity into the way that I communicate my science. That led to me to getting involved in public engagement work, which I feel strengthens my science. Science really is what you make it – if you love drawing, bring that in! Gaming? Bring that in too! In the past scientists have been pretty bad at presenting a full picture of themselves – people with families, friends and hobbies – but in recent years I think that’s changed and people are being encouraged to bring their whole selves to work. Personally, I think that’s great, not only are people encouraged to be themselves, but they’re bringing new skills to make science more accessible and fun too.    

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path?

Don’t allow yourself to be placed into one box or category. Scientists are often confined to just ‘doing science’ – i.e. in labs, or in offices. The reality is that scientists have lots of transferable skills, and it’s important to explore how you could use those so that you can find the right career path for you. 

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