Meet our expert for this month: Dr Frances Saunders, President of the Institute of Physics.
What is your scientific background?
I have a degree in physics and undertook research early in my career in the field of liquid crystal displays and opto-electronic devices. I was attracted by both the interdisciplinary nature of the research involving physics, chemistry, human factors, electronics and manufacturing techniques as well as the opportunity to see my work used in practical devices. I then broadened my interests into leading and managing a wide range of research projects with applications in defence and security.
How did you come to take on the role that you currently have?
I took early retirement from my role as Chief Executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory just over two years ago and have been building a portfolio of activities focused on supporting the physics and engineering communities – from education to exploitation. I am currently President of the Institute of Physics, a Trustee of the Engineering Development Trust and work on a number of topics for the Royal Academy of Engineering.
What are the three biggest career decisions that you have made?
Deciding in my early 30’s whether to stay as an active research scientist or go more into management and leadership roles and move out of my area of technical specialisation. Keeping true to my views, values and beliefs in terms of the type of leadership style I wanted to adopt and not giving in to pressure to conform to a cultural norm with which I did not agree.
Having to move locations for jobs that meant my husband and I being involved in weekly commutes to keep two careers going.
What advice do you have for scientists who are looking to take on a career in physics?
Be open to opportunities and grab them when they come along. I did not have a grand plan for my career but took some risks, applied for jobs or took on ad hoc things that I thought I might enjoy, would stretch me intellectually and perhaps I might be good at.
Build your network of contacts, and not just amongst those in your own organisation. Having a diverse range of people who share your interests but have different perspectives is invaluable to challenge you and help develop your thinking.
I suppose we are all attracted into physics by our curiosity about some of the big science topics but not everyone can be a leader in astronomy or particle physics so also think about a career in applied research as an option, solving problems and building your understanding and passion for physics into “small science” solutions can be just as rewarding intellectually.
Tell us something interesting about yourself.
You will have picked up from what I have said so far that I am passionate about translational research and getting science advances used and exploited. So I am particularly pleased to have just joined the panel of the MacRobert Award where we are looking to identify exceptional individuals and teams who have had real commercial success arising from their innovations.
Dr Saunders has kindly agreed to answer one of the 5 questions below. Vote for your favourite and read the answers in December!