Zoë Ayres, PhD

she/her/hers

You can find her on Twitter @zjayres

Education:

  • Undergraduate: Forensic Science, Nottingham Trent University, UK, graduated 2012.
  • Masters: Analytical Science – Methods and Instrumental techniques, University of Warwick, UK, graduated 2013.
  • PhD: Development of boron doped diamond sensors, University of Warwick, UK, graduated 2017.

Current job title: Research Scientist in the water industry.

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

I remember having a perfume kit as a small child, and instead of using the perfumes provided to mix my own ‘perfume’ I would instead go round the garden and crush up plants and make my own essences. I think this is the first real memory I have of playing around with chemistry.

Later in life, I was influenced by watching things like “Crime Scene Investigation” on television, and that really put me on the path to study forensic science at undergrad. I soon found out forensics is nothing like dramatised TV. I did however, fall in love with analytical science during my course; having the ability to test and prove innocence or guilt with the facts, like whether or not someone is over the drink-drive limit, or whether a white powder is nefarious or not, still fascinates me. I later moved on to study analytical science full-time for an MSc, where I discovered chemical sensors – a field I still work heavily in today. 

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

My parents have always been 100% behind me and have supported my decision to pursue a career in STEM. The more I look back now the more I realise the importance and gift of not being told “you can’t be a scientist”. I always knew that I would be supported whatever my aspirations, and that it was my choice what I wanted to go on and do in life and I am deeply grateful to them for that. 

I’ve had some fantastic mentors over the years that have helped me become a better scientist and build up my confidence. My PhD supervisor, Professor Julie Macpherson, inspired me to get into electrochemistry and chemical sensors – her enthusiasm and passion is infectious. I also owe a lot to my undergraduate project supervisor, Dr Mike Coffey, who really just treated me like any other person and not as “just an undergrad student”, which helped me build up my practical skills and not be afraid to get hands-on with science. 

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 PhD I was plagued with self-doubt and that really impacted my mental health. I was surrounded by exceptional people and thought I didn’t belong and that there must have been a mistake. I later learned about impostor syndrome and that many people feel like frauds, even when they are not. I’ve learned to build my confidence with time and remind myself objectively of my achievements. I am also much more open about my experiences now which has led me to realise I am not alone. It is for this reason I am now a mental health advocate for PhD students as well as being a scientist.

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

The first – the fact that my grades to qualify for university really did not go to plan – I ended up getting a C in Chemistry, a D in Biology and I completely flunked my Physics and Maths A-levels here in the UK (equivalent to APs in the US). I now have a PhD in Chemistry. Just because you don’t get the grades doesn’t mean it is not possible.

The second – for a long time I thought I was going to be an academic, then I found myself at a crossroads and decided to make the transition from academia to industry. It was a difficult choice – it feels like once you make the leap to industry you cannot return to academia, and it is often said that industrial science is less creative than in academia. Ultimately I had to weigh up the positives and negatives of both, and made my decision. I have no regrets – I love industrial research. I am still creative every day and get to contribute to some amazing high impact research projects.

The third – that I broke a really expensive bit of kit (an X-ray Fluorescence machine) during my PhD studies. It felt awful at the time, but I got through it and I’m still a scientist! I’m still clumsy…

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

I love to do art, and one of the ways I’ve found to express that is in making scientific posters and infographics for my research as well as for my mental health work. I also love to travel and explore new places and I have been able to travel all over the world with my job (and fit in some vacation time!) 

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

Don’t be afraid of failure. We are so often told that success is the only option and this is not true. Failure allows us to learn and become better scientists. Science also so often doesn’t “work”, so the sooner we can face failure the quicker we can build our resilience.

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