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Hannah Cheales


3 minute read

In her own words, Hannah Cheales shares her story. 

I have quite a convoluted educational history. I studied geology as an undergraduate masters (an integrated masters) at Southampton and then went to UCL for a postgraduate masters in biodiversity evolution and conservation. Unfortunately, both times I left university, there were oil and gas economic crises. That meant that any of the jobs I wanted to do were taken by people that couldn't find jobs in oil and gas, so I was struggling.

My twin sister is a physicist; she had a job here at NPL and was really enjoying it. There was a job going up in her area within microwave and RF measurement and I applied. I thought, it doesn't matter what medium the waves are in. The fundamental physics is the same, and so I joined in 2018 as an assistant research scientist.

I got promoted in April 2020 to Research Scientist and worked the whole way through lockdown. I spent that time largely on my own, locked away in a shielded lab and it made me have a rethink of my prospects. I also became disabled during that time, and I had quite a lot of medical stuff going on. It was quite a pivotal time with me wanting to maybe change my path.

I had another friend that worked in the emissions area. He really enjoyed the role and he also did geology as well. When a job came up I applied for it. I’ve been here now for just over a year and I'm really enjoying it. I now do a mixture of field work and research-based work.

It’s been a bit of a weird and wonderful path, but I'm enjoying where I am at the moment.

I don't really have an average day. A lot of what I do is research-based. At the moment I have a lot to do with two separate projects, so a lot of that is having meetings, but also doing research. I'm sending out samples and corresponding with our clients usually in other countries to check our quotes and get things priced up and then communicating with them about getting them shipped out.

There were a couple of times I thought my career might go in a different direction. When I did my postgrad masters, I really wanted to do a PhD and go into academia. I wanted to be a lecturer. I applied to a lot of PhD's and got really, really close each time, but I was getting emails that were like break up letters from PhD supervisors - “it's not you, it’s me”!

I couldn't deal with that anymore. It was really cut-throat. As much as I had passion for science, I couldn't deal with the level of drama sometimes. I just wasn't cut out for it, even though I desperately wanted to do it. That's when I went into more lab-based work and I found I really enjoyed it.

Being a woman in STEM can be really difficult. Typically, in the Biological Sciences, it's overwhelmingly female, yet still we're completely underrepresented in terms of the funding paths or appreciation.

Within geology, it's quite difficult getting into the field. As a female, particularly if you're going to more remote areas, there’s so much more that you have to think about.

I'm also disabled, which I found quite difficult because there's a fluctuating disability and an invisible disability that a lot of people don't understand that well.

I'm dyslexic, so while writing my dissertations, I had supervisors say, “have you ever thought about having someone read your work?” I didn't realise how much that affected my progress as a scientist.

Having moved from geology, which is very male-orientated, I didn't receive half as much as sexism as I did when I moved into the biological sector.

In one place I worked, all the toilets were male. The only female toilet I could use was the disabled one, and I had to ask for a key or a code each time.

They treat you so differently to how they would treat my male colleagues. When we would stay in hotels, if I was with a male colleague, the receptionists would assume we're a couple, even if they were considerably older than me.

My advice to others who might have similar experiences would be to not let yourself hold yourself back. There were lots of times where I believed that certain people were saying, or thinking, that I was incapable. It's looking at what you can do yourself, but also not beating yourself up if you need to say no.

There have been times where I've had to put my health first or had to take a step back, and that doesn't make me less of a scientist to have to do that. You need to look after yourself, have a healthy work life balance. I worked ridiculous hours and got no recognition for it and it made my disability so much worse, for no one’s benefit.

You don’t have to enjoy every part of your job, but enjoying the main aspects of your job is really, really important.

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