Alison Wilson


Find her on Twitter: @AlisonWilson09

Education: Undergraduate degree in Natural Philosophy from the University of Glasgow

As is usual in Scotland for an honours degree, it was a 4-year course. I started in 1970, aged 16, a year younger than most others, and graduated with 2nd class honours in 1974.

I intended to do joint honours in Maths and Natural Philosophy (Physics). In 1st year I studied Maths, Physics and Chemistry. In 2nd year I studied 2nd year Maths, 2nd year Physics and 1st year Biology. At that point number theory had me frustrated and it was clear I wasn’t doing joint honours. In 3rd year I studied Natural Philosophy (change of name as I was in the honours class – Ordinary degrees were 3 years and were called Physics). I also studied Maths for Physicists. In final year it was Natural Philosophy only. 

Current Job Title: I’m retired. Before retirement my business cards said Engineering Manager, but I was really a video producer and editor. I chose my job title to avoid being regarded as “the video man’s wife.” It didn’t always work.

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

Mainly reading SF books and talking to people. At age 10 I remember looking forward to going to secondary school as they did science and I thought that would be interesting. It was. I’ve always liked finding out how things work. Physics is about how the whole universe works. 

I should have studied Engineering. I looked at changing courses at university but I would have needed to do an extra year. I was advised instead to choose optional courses like semiconductors and electronics, and I got a job as an electronics engineer when I graduated.

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

I worked as an engineer for 15 years, for three employers. In every job I was the first woman in the department. That made me very conspicuous. Any mistake wasn’t “one of the new lads.” It was “that woman.”

However all my male colleagues were very supportive and protective. Like brothers to me. A producer once patted me on the bottom. He turned round to find three big chaps looming over him, firmly telling him not to assault the staff. It never happened again. 

I’m still in touch with a few former colleagues from over 45 years ago. 

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?

I remember being in tears in a lab in my first term at university. I had no idea what I was meant to do. When I asked for help, the demonstrators told me I had all the information  I needed. It was too big a jump from school. I believe the current system is more supportive.

When I started work I was sent on a 12 week course for new graduate engineers to be trained about TV technology. I knew a lot about TV technology due to working in student television. However as a physics graduate my electronics knowledge was very theoretical. I spent most meal breaks and lots of evenings asking my colleagues how particular circuits worked. They were very patient with me.

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

I left my first broadcast employer for more money, but in the new job I missed the tight deadlines and excitement of transmissions and live shows. I stuck it out for two years so I didn’t look unreliable, then changed again, to a post I held for 8 years, finishing up as a Senior Supervisory Engineer. My job involved making studio recordings, editing, transmissions and some outside broadcast work. Although we did some component-level maintenance work it was really systems engineering.

I really earned my money when there was a fault. In a few seconds you had to decide whether to coax the machinery back into life, or do something else. Meanwhile millions of people are wondering what’s happened to their TV programme. Fast and accurate decision-making. It was a buzz.

The biggest change in my career came in 1989, when my employer was shedding staff. My husband and I volunteered for the payoff, and used the money to move back to Scotland and set up our own business. We staggered from crisis to crisis for the next 25 years, learned a lot about camera work and a little about marketing, managed to keep our family fed, and had lots of fun. 

A scientific education gives you some surprisingly useful skills. When we had the business, many of our clients were manufacturing and engineering companies. Often I’d be given a long technical report on, say, the advantages of the new product over the previous one. All in passive voice, complete with graphs and tables and specialist vocabulary. My job was to summarise the report into a short understandable video without distorting or misrepresenting any of the facts. I always found that very satisfying. (One voice artist nearly had kittens when he was asked to say phthalocyanine, but he did it well.) 

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

At university I was involved in student television. Every week we had a TV studio to play with.  I found both the technology and the process interesting. That’s why I applied for a job in broadcasting in the first place.

I’m a sea kayaking coach. My last ever job before I retired was doing the final editing and DVD production of a sea kayak safety DVD. It was interesting technically as I had to learn new techniques, and the content was fascinating and relevant to my coaching. A great job to finish on.

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.

A degree gives you more possibilities to choose from. Do something you’re interested in. You’re spending half your waking hours at work. You should try to find something you enjoy, ideally related to an interest or hobby you already have. Don’t be motivated too much by money. The job I took for more money was a poor choice. When I was running a business the money and the hours weren’t good but it was fun.

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