Fiona Panther, PhD

she/her/hers

You can find her on Twitter/Insta: @fipanther and on her website: auntiematter.space

Education:

  • Undergraduate: BSc 2014, BSc(Hons) 1st Class 2015 in Mathematics and Physics, The University of Auckland, New Zealand
  • Graduate: PhD in Astronomy and astrophysics, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia 2015 – 2019

Current job title: Research Associate, University of Western Australia

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

I have always loved science (it was my favourite school subject my whole life) but I really started enjoying physics in high school. I was particularly interested in two things: space (I had been hooked on learning more since seeing comet Hale-Bopp when I was very young, and then after watching the movie The Dish) and nuclear/particle physics. I had a fantastic Y9 physics teacher who encouraged me to consider astrophysics as a career. When I was younger I loved biology and wanted to be a vet. I think I changed my mind when I realised that being a vet wasn’t all cuddling the cute animals!

I wasn’t always good at, or interested in, physics I really struggled with maths (a very important part of physics) in primary/middle school. The school I was at progressed the curriculum a little too fast, which meant I missed out on learning skills like number bonding. This meant I struggled with mental arithmetic. Combined with some not so great teachers, I developed a real fear of maths. I had a very patient middle school math teacher, and as soon as algebra was introduced I started to get a bit more confidence with maths.

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

In my final year of high school, anyone who was good at physics was pushed toward engineering as there was a shortage of engineering graduates at the time. I had a brilliant maths teacher and a very supportive careers advisor who encouraged me to pursue a physics and maths degree instead. Even my history teacher, who encouraged my enthusiasm for independent research and writing was supportive. I was very fortunate to receive a significant scholarship from a charitable foundation (The Owens Family) via my high school for the first three years of my university education too.

During my PhD, I had amazing opportunities to work with people who inspired me and supported me. My whole supervisory panel was excellent – I would not have been able to do all the things I did during my PhD without their support. I also had wonderful mentors outside of my supervisory panel – I found having a mentor who didn’t ‘have a stake’ in my research very helpful, as they could give a more objective opinion on my progress, my career plans and progression.  I also had the good fortune of being able to establish some strong collaborative networks in my field and I got to travel to Europe several times to collaborate with people who were experts in my field. 

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?

One of the things about research is that you are often at the edge of not just what you are comfortable working on but also doing things that nobody else has done before, so it can be a constant case of doubting yourself. One of the big things for me was to surround myself with people who didn’t doubt me. In particular, I remember a time during the second year of my PhD when I was really struggling with doubting my ability as I only had 18 months left in which to finish my PhD. He sent me an email where he explicitly told me he had no doubt that I would not just finish, but produce a really good piece of work that both he and I would be proud of. I printed that email and had it above my desk for a while. 

However, you cannot deal with doubt or imposter syndrome by only relying on external validation. Something I recommend for everyone is to seek out professional help. There are only so many seminars by academics with no training in counselling or psychology that you can attend, and lots of them can actually do more harm than good. I saw a psychologist throughout my PhD (and before and I continue to do so today). I would recommend it for anyone who just wants to understand themselves better or who wants to build resilience. Lots of universities provide free or discounted services. 

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

I think I started out my scientific training at university with a very naive idea of what physics research actually involved. I was very enamoured with the idea of mathematical particle physics (which involves a lot of writing equations and solving them), however when it came time to choose a research project, I found I was much better suited to using computer programs to solve problems rather than scratching away with pencil and paper.
During my PhD I started working on a very niche topic – the number of people in the world studying where the antimatter in our Galaxy comes from is very small compared to other topics in astronomy. By the end of my PhD and first postdoc I felt that I had almost backed myself into a corner in terms of research, and I faced a big choice: a fellowship (a very independent research position) working on my PhD topic, or take stock of the skills I had learned and moving into a different, growing field of research.

I chose to do the latter, not because I wasn’t interested in my PhD topic or because I didn’t feel I still had something to contribute (on the contrary, I intend to continue contributing to that field!). I actually felt that the skills I had learned in gamma-ray astronomy – picking very faint signals out of noisy data – could contribute to a growing field of astronomy: gravitational wave astronomy.

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

I tend to keep science and my hobbies quite separate as I consider science my job. I really enjoy science communication though. It’s a way to combine my research and my love of writing and sharing information with others. But just because I keep my science and my hobbies pretty separate doesn’t mean that everyone should or does. Lots of people find ways to combine their non-scientific interests with their work.

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.

The best advice I can give is to be open minded about what careers you consider. In the end, a science degree is less about the content you have learned and more about the skills you have gained. There are many things you can do with a science degree and research is only one of those options.

If your goal is to go into academia or research, I would encourage that, but also remind you to keep an open mind with what sort of research you want to do. If you are going into a PhD or masters program, try to go to a variety of seminars and activities, not just ones immediately relevant to your PhD. This does two things: you get an idea of the breadth of research that is happening, and you realise how your experience may be relevant to other topics.

Also bear in mind that pursuing an academic career means dealing with unique challenges: short term contracts, and a lack of guarantee you will gain permanent employment (although this is not impossible). Take regular stock of what skills you have – critical thinking, specific skills to analyse data – and be open to seeing where you could apply those skills outside of academia.

Finally, I would give the advice to try, as much as possible, to have fun. I don’t believe in the adage ‘do what you love and you will never work a day in your life’, but I do believe that if you do something that makes you want to learn more and that you generally find enjoyable, it can make the hours you do spend at work more pleasant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s