Sam Rowe, PhD

He/Him/His

Where to find him:

Education:

  • Undergraduate: Chemistry MSci at Imperial College London, UK (2009 to 2013) 
  • Graduate: Chemistry PhD at University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK (2013 to 2018)

Current job title: Public Engagement Officer at the Earlham Institute

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

When I was young I remember falling in love with science through reading books about space and the solar system. I really enjoyed learning about what the different planets were like and how much more we still had to learn about the universe. I’ll always be interested in (astro)physics but chemistry was the subject I found the most fascinating as I got older, particularly through the topics and experiments I did at high school and then continued with into my undergraduate degree. I still consider myself a chemist but my PhD also incorporated elements of biology, such as microbiology and biocatalysis, through my work with electric bacteria and I gained a huge appreciation for research at the interface of different subjects.

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

My family has been incredibly supportive and really helped me throughout my MSci degree, PhD and career in science communication. My parents didn’t go to university so there was a lot we had to learn about together when I moved to London as an undergraduate. They’ve always been there to discuss things and encourage me when I’ve had to consider what degrees and jobs to pursue over the years.

My PhD supervisor, Prof. Julea Butt, helped me to develop as a researcher and offered lots of guidance when I was learning about new science topics and writing my thesis. This made the process of editing and submitting my thesis much smoother during what was a particularly stressful time in the PhD. I’m also really grateful to the teams at Norwich Science Festival, UEA Events and the Norfolk Network who offered me lots of opportunities to develop my science communication skills alongside my research. This allowed me to learn more about careers outside academia and put me in a good position to apply for jobs after my PhD.

Lastly, I’m always inspired by the amazing LGBTQ+ people I’ve connected with on Twitter. They’ve made me feel really welcome within the community and I’ve learnt so much from them as they share aspects of their research and science communication projects whilst talking openly and honestly about their personal experiences working in STEM.

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 found the first year of my PhD quite tough as I had just completed a chemistry undergraduate degree and then started a research project featuring lots of biology techniques that I knew very little about. At the time I had doubts about whether I was the best person for the project and I felt like I was constantly falling behind the rest of my cohort who started at the same time as me. Fortunately, these feelings changed over time as I learnt more about the research area and really got to grips with all the new laboratory techniques. I also learnt how important it was to ask lots of questions and surround myself with people who hoped to collaborate rather than compete. A PhD is a long-term project and an extended learning/training experience, and once I started viewing it as a marathon rather than a sprint I found it much easier to be resilient against set-backs and avoid an unnecessary rush to collect data in my first few months.

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

Overall, my early scientific training followed a relatively linear path as I went directly from high school to undergraduate degree to PhD without any extended breaks. I was really lucky because I was accepted onto the programmes I was interested in and worked on projects with patient and supportive colleagues. I’ve experienced more twists and turns after finishing my PhD and starting a career in science communication due to short work contracts and dealing with the uncertainty of waiting on job applications and funding decisions. This has meant that over the past few years there have been periods where I really wasn’t sure what type of job I would end up working in, or where I would be based for work, or even if I could continue working in science communication. On the positive side, I’ve gained lots of useful experience through working with different people and organisations. I’ve also just started a new two-year contract as a public engagement officer at the Earlham Institute in Norwich, giving me some much-needed certainty and stability as well as the chance to continue working on other projects in the city.

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

One of my favourite things I do in my spare time is gymnastics. I used to do it as a kid and picked it up again a few years ago as an adult to keep up a routine of regular exercise. In my previous job at Developing Experts (an education technology company in Norwich that makes online science learning resources) I had the chance to record some physics videos about forces and energy so the team decided to incorporate clips of me doing gymnastics to help demonstrate the concepts. It was a really nice way to link up the physics topics with wider discussions about sport and exercise to show how science can be applied to different things.

Beyond that, I really recommend keeping up your non-scientific interests even if they can’t be incorporated into your work. For me that’s things like baking, gaming, reading fantasy and sci-fi books, and watching lots of tv shows and films. I found that achieving a decent work-life balance was really important to properly relax and then reflect on the work I was doing so I could come back to projects with a clearer mind and lots of new ideas.

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.

If you’re in a position to do so then don’t be afraid to give things a go and follow your interests because the work you start out in after your science degree doesn’t have to be what you do for the rest of your life. Everything you get involved with is useful experience, even if it just means learning about aspects of a job that you aren’t interested in. Meeting new people through work or social media will also expand your network and keeping up conversations with everyone you connect with can be a great way to start up new projects and hear about job opportunities. On a practical point, I really recommend making a record of all the projects (however big or small they feel) you get involved with on your CV or LinkedIn because it’ll make it much easier to recall what you’ve done when it comes to job applications.

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