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Alice Harling

Alice Harling

Group Leader, NiCE-MSI

How did you end up at NPL?

For me it started with A-Level chemistry! I enjoyed it, so I decided to study it for my degree. During the fourth year, I did a research project, which I loved. It really gave me the taste to do a PhD. Before that I'd had no interest in studying further - I'd enjoyed my degree but I hadn't been sure what to do with it.

My PhD was in plasma chemistry, so it had real-world applications – I loved the whole experience. I had a fantastic PhD supervisor, who encouraged me to speak at conferences. I also got to spend six months in Japan, working in a lab there, so it was full of great opportunities. After that I joined a spin-out company set up by my supervisor, and that was very different from academia. We had to do all the technical stuff, while working on business development plans - it was hard work but fascinating. I joined the Gas Metrology team at NPL in 2008.

Tell us about your work

When I worked in Gas Metrology, I delivered measurement services, worked with industry, and had some challenging research projects. After a little while, I decided I wanted something different, a new challenge. I'd become interested in the project management side of things, so I took a sideways move into the Analytical Science project office, and I loved it. 18 months later, a Group Leader position came up.

I felt I wasn't ready, but a few people suggested I apply. I think my resistance came from the fact that it wasn't in my science area. But looking back at that now, I think that's an advantage. I think it definitely helped that I had been a scientist before - I understand what it's like to be in the lab, and how research works. But I'm not the subject area expert, so I can give a good overview of it.

I always knew the Group Leader role was going to be hard, and it has been, but I love it. I work with a remarkable group of people and I learn so much - every day is different. I see my job as enabling scientists to do what they're best at and deliver the science, while I manage all of the other stuff. I don't regret the move from the lab into management.

Are things getting easier for women in STEM?

I'd like to think that things are changing around perceptions of science, but I'm not sure. I still see a lot of lab coats and old men with glasses on kids' TV shows. But I think that science is becoming a better place for women to work in. Places like NPL are very much equal opportunities for everyone. I think that perhaps things are more difficult for women in universities - the short-term postdoc lifestyle doesn't offer any long-term stability. It makes it difficult to even get a mortgage - this is true for men too, of course!

Read Alice's profile