Natércia Rodrigues Lopes, PhD

she/her/hers

Where to find her:

Education:

  • University of Leicester, Chemistry with a Year in Industry, MChem, 2014
  • University of Warwick, PhD in Chemistry, 2018

Current Job Title: Research Fellow

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

I was always more interested in scientific subjects at school, but no one particular moment or experience was defining in my wanting to become a scientist (that I can remember). When I was first sure I would be a scientist, around the age of 12 or 13, I wanted to be a marine biologist. Things changed a fair bit; by 17 I knew I wanted to study small particles (I was very interested in the work being developed in CERN). Eventually, I ended up doing chemistry at university and my PhD research was on the boundary where chemistry and physics meet. I feel this is precisely where my scientific interest lies. 

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

My inspiration came a lot from my teachers. I had some incredible STEM teachers, most of them women, in fact, and I feel they both got me interested in the subjects they taught and gave me a sense of self-efficacy, which was crucial for my ability to pursue my interests. This was particularly relevant in maths, a subject I always felt I was not very good at, but the maths teacher I had for the last three years of school before university really showed me I could conquer any learning curve with hard work. And I did. I achieved a grade of 19/20 in my final maths exam, we were both so proud. 

Nowadays, my inspiration comes mainly from people that I meet along the way that are doing fantastic things with their time, their platforms and their skills. I am inspired by people I work with on enacting change, and I am inspired by people who I meet in conferences, talks, and on Twitter who show me just how much is possible in STEM. I gather inspiration from all around me, all the time – it would be unfair, I think, to name a small number of people!

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 have had so many of these moments… But I will give an example. Around the second year of my PhD I thought very seriously of giving up. I just couldn’t find my groove in it and really thought a career in science wasn’t for me after all. At that point, what helped was to take a step back. For a good few months I kept showing up in the office but I had all but given up already; I was doing nothing but the bare minimum. My PI noticed and we had a chat. He told me that he would get me through the PhD no matter what, but that what I did with that was in my hands. The things I achieved, what I decided to do or not do – that was up to me. No publications or ten publications, whatever, that was up to me. I don’t exactly know why but that changed things for me. Taking ownership of my project, of my progress, my interests, that really clicked and gave new life to my PhD journey. I recognise I am very fortunate to have a supportive PI.

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

The first twist and turn that actually worked out perfectly, as if it were a trick of destiny, was at the point of university applications. Mostly out of feeling pressured by my father, I actually applied for universities in the UK (from Portugal) to do medicine. What I didn’t know, was that to do that in the UK you need a special exam, which I didn’t have. So I applied for medicine in all but one university in my UCAS application, and all of them turned me down. However, the University of Leicester turned around and said that, because I had a good application, they would let me do another science subject if I wanted, and then I could switch at a later date. I chose chemistry, and the rest is history. I never looked back! 

Another turning point in my early scientific career was the year I did a placement at the Central Laser Facility in the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (Didcot, UK). As a third year chemistry undergraduate student, I had never had access to a laser lab and I had yet to be involved in real research, and that placement was a transformative opportunity. It was not a common place for chemists to take their placement years and it took some paperwork to get it approved, but it was that experience that really made it clear to me that I wanted to do research in laser spectroscopy and go on to do a PhD. 

Becoming excited about teaching was also an important turning point in my early career as a scientist. At about the same time as I was having my second year PhD crisis, I started doing a lot more teaching in the undergraduate labs, and working towards teaching qualifications and accreditations, honestly because it kept me out of my own lab. But the more I learnt about teaching and learning the more interested I grew, and the more I understood about my own learning processes. It changed the way I thought about the way I was engaging with my research in those uncomfortable moments where I got stuck with something. And, importantly, it showed me that teaching was something that meant a lot to me and, therefore, academia was the place where I wanted a career.

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

I always liked writing and I must confess it was initially a little bit surprising just how much my writing skills would be useful in a scientific career. I have made good use of my writing not only for academic publications, but I think the ability to tell stories has helped with grant applications and science communication opportunities, which is great. 

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.

As hard as that can be sometimes, avoid comparing yourself to others at all costs. It is so easy to get bogged down trying to think about what others are doing and comparing it to your own journey. But everyone’s path is different, and the truth is you will get more out of your own if you focus on it and no one else’s! Take time to think about what matters to you, what you want from life and from your career, and do the things that take you there. Everything else is noise. 

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