Sarah Hudson talks to Smart Futures about her career as a Lecturer in Chemistry.
What are the main tasks, responsibilities and skills required?
That is a tough question as every week there are different things to do – first and foremost I am employed to teach undergraduate modules in chemistry to students studying to become industrial chemists and biochemists, food scientists, engineers, teachers and environmental scientists.
In addition to that, I write research proposals and try to get money to hire postgraduate students and researchers for new projects. I supervise these students and projects. I interact with industry to try to advance the work done by the pharmaceutical companies here in Ireland.
I also do outreach activities to spread the word about how important science (and maths) is to our everyday lives and to the future of our world. Some of these activities involve visiting schools, extra help to disadvantaged areas and talks at national and international conferences and to local communities.
Describe a typical day?
As I said above, every day can be different but today I cycled into work for 9 am, spent half an hour catching up on emails, sending off some new postgraduate applications and then went to a meeting where a new researcher in the University gave a half hour talk about how she was making new crystals to improve drug bioavailability for lithium drugs, used to treat psychiatric conditions.
After that, I spent about an hour reviewing a paper for an international journal and deciding whether or not the work was good enough to be published, had a quick meeting in the lab one of my postgraduate students about some lab work she needs to do, had a meeting with other lecturers about how the students did in their summer repeat exams, quickly had some lunch and now will use some modeling software to analyze some results from the lab. I also have to prepare some lecture notes for my teaching next week (week 1 of the new semester).
Tomorrow I will drive to Dublin for a technical meeting a large group of researchers that work together and we will compare and discuss our experimental results and make plans for what we should do next.
What are the things you like best about the job?
Dealing with different people, students at all levels, other researchers, other lecturers, people from industry – it keeps it interesting. I love really getting to understand a project I am working with and trying to make it into something useful. In teaching or in my outreach activities, it is sometimes a challenge to explain things in layman’s terms but I find the better I understand my subject/research, the easier it is to explain to someone else.
What are the main challenges?
The administrative role of registering students and setting and correcting exams and all the paper work that comes with trying to get money to do your research, hiring people and dealing with all the paper work like non-disclosure agreements and patenting. I just want to do the science and talk about it with people… I don’t aspire to make a lot of money from what I do, I want to just have enough money to try to do the things I think might work.
Who or what has most influenced your career direction?
My supervisors when I came to do my PhD – to be honest, right up until I started my PhD, I wasn’t really that interested in science – I was good at it, I was logical, good at maths and it came quite naturally to me but I didn’t read about science in my spare time.
When I started my PhD, my supervisors gave me the freedom to explore how things worked in the lab and I realised I enjoyed it… so much that here I am still at it 11 years later and hope to be at it in another 20 years.
Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Very much so – it is a balancing act and now that I have a young family, I am not in the lab doing experiments as much as I would like. But I hope to get back to that again in a few years… right now, as a supervisor, at least I get to guide and interpret the results that my students are coming up with in the lab.
What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path?
I did chemistry and physics at Leaving Certificate and French and German – I figured I would keep up the languages by travelling but wouldn’t keep up science unless I did it as a job – I still travel a lot, with family and with my job so the languages are still going and I now speak a little Japanese and Spanish as well but I probably do more chemistry and biology than chemistry and physics.
When I first went to college, I wanted to do physics so that definitely changed as I went down the chemistry and pharmaceutical road.
What is your education to date?
I did my Leaving Certificate in Colaiste Chiaran, Leixlip, Co. Kildare. I graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in Natural Science, Mod (Chemistry), received my Masters in Chemistry from Trinity College Dublin, then I received my PhD in Chemistry from University of Limerick. Finally I did a specialist Diploma in Teaching, Learning and Scholarship from University of Limerick.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
My undergraduate degree and PhD has helped me enormously with my scientific writing and research skills – there is a lot of writing in my job both in preparing lecture notes and writing research papers and project proposals.
The specialist diploma has helped me think about how I teach and how students learn and every year I modify my modules to try to improve my lectures.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
Being a social person is hugely important as you really do deal with a lot of different people through research and teaching.
For your research, being able to relax around people and talk openly with them can lead to collaborations that will last for many years.
Being persistent and a little bit stubborn about your own work is important – if it was easy to do, it would have been done already. By its very nature, research is risky – there is a high risk of failure but that is what makes it exciting so I guess being a bit of a risk taker helps!
Having good scientific fundamentals is hugely important in my job – with a good basis in maths, physics, chemistry and biology or at least a couple of these subjects, means you can get a good grasp on pretty much any area of science – if it seems too hard, the person teaching you probably doesn’t understand it very well themselves and so can’t explain it clearly.
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Getting involved in science fairs is a good option.
Working in any kind of lab would give you a bit of an idea of what my job is like as a researcher but as the job is diverse, there are a lot of types of work experience that are valid.
Any kind of activity that involves group leadership, teaching, writing proposals, raising and managing money and talking to people would be good experience. Of course the lab work is important but just following a protocol and doing an experiment is not what we do. We start with a goal and have to work out how to get there so a little imagination is always good.