Natasha Jeffrey: looking at the beautiful Sun and (much) more

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Natasha Jeffrey is an early career researcher in solar physics at the University of Glasgow, UK, a world-leading solar group. She is interested in solar flare plasma physics and studies the largest explosions in the solar system, solar flares, a key component of space weather. She uses both observational tools and modelling to understand how flares accelerate and transport high energy particles efficiently, a vital topic in all high-energy astrophysics. In 2016, she received the EPS Plasma Physics Thesis Prize and in 2017, the European Solar Physics Division Early Career Researcher Award. In 2018, she will receive the European Geosciences Union ST Division Outstanding Early Career Scientist Award.

We report here a short interview of Natasha [NJ] by Lucia Di Ciaccio[LDC], Chair of the Equal Opportunity Committee of EPS.

Natasha Jeffrey
Natasha Jeffrey

LDC. Why did you choose to study physics?

NJ. Mainly for two reasons: I like to solve different problems and I have been interested in astrophysics since a young age. One summer, during my undergraduate degree, I decided to apply for an undergraduate summer project and I realised that solar physics was a vibrant field of research in Glasgow, the UK and internationally. I might be biased, but the Sun is a fascinating object to study. In astrophysical terms it is relatively close, so the big advantage is that it can be studied in detail compared with other astrophysical objects.

LDC. Any worry to match your family life and a career in physics?

NJ. Yes, some. Currently, my biggest worry is finding a happy work-life balance. There is always pressure in an academic career to take on extra work. I am starting to learn that sometimes it is OK to say No to certain tasks. This is really important for finding time to perform research and for finding time to relax away from work.

LDC.  What has been the personally most rewarding experience and also the biggest difficulty encountered so far in your career?

NJ. The most rewarding part of this career is having a job that I enjoy every day. The best part about being a researcher is the job variation. There is the obvious problem solving, observing and data analysis, but some days I am a lecturer, a teacher, a conference organiser, a social media administrator, a poster designer, a presentation designer and a writer. It is a job that uses all the skill set and I think many people do not realise this when they think of a stereotypical physicist.

The biggest difficulty is trying to balance life with short fixed-term contracts and some of the worries that come with trying to find funding for continued research. Also, one of the scariest but ultimately rewarding moments was lecturing for the first time. It is amazing that a group of undergraduate students is far more intimidating than a conference room full of established experts and colleagues!

LDC. Did you encounter any difficulty in finding funding for PhD or a post-doc position related to the fact that you are a woman?

NJ. So far, I have not encountered any gender related difficulties, but I am only in the very early stages of my career.

Any problems I have encountered come from outside academia. I still experience expressions of shock from people when I tell them my job, and I think this highlights the issue. Once, when my male colleague and I did a media piece my title was omitted, which was upsetting.

LDC. Any suggestion to guarantee a balanced gender representation in physics?

NJ. I know from personal experience at Glasgow that universities are now doing a great deal to address the presence of minority groups in science and particularly in positions of responsibility. In the UK, initiatives such as Athena Swan try to address gender issues in higher education and research, and we are starting to see changes.

It is also important for young female researchers to visit schools so that children can see normal everyday women working in science related fields.

LDC. Any particular advice for young aspiring researcher?

NJ. You must work very hard and I suggest that you only pursue a career in research or academia if your heart is really in it, and you have a real zeal and commitment to the subject area. Life as a postdoctoral researcher is extremely rewarding but it is also very challenging. You are always learning new skills and travelling to many countries, but it can also engulf many aspects of your life. It is not easy to go home at night and switch off from this type of job. Importantly, if you are an aspiring researcher, get out there and advertise your work as much as possible both nationally and internationally. I advise young women in particular to be confident with their abilities. Do not be shy about telling people what you can do. Always remember that you, within your narrow field of research, are ultimately the expert, regardless of your level!

LDC. Do you have any female ‘physicist cult figure’ or ‘role model’?

NJ. To be honest, no. I admire anyone that uses their time and skills to contribute to science, whether their contribution is big or small and whether the person is male or female. My only hope now, is that we are living in an era where physicists are only judged by their contribution and nothing else!

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