Women in STEM: Alexandra

Alexandra in the nature

My 49th guest is Alexandra, a PhD student in plant science and a passionate science communicator.

Hi Alexandra! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

Hi I’m Alex, I’m 26 and I’m from the UK. I have an MSc in Biology and I’m currently working towards a PhD in plant science. I’m also really interested in science communication so being invited to be on this blog is really exciting!

When did you start your Instagram account? How did you get the idea?

I started my Instagram because I was involved in a science communication competition called “I’m a scientist get me out of here!” where scientists talk to school kids about their job. I knew before I took part that I enjoyed science communication but I absolutely loved getting to talk about science to the kids and it helped me decide that science communication is what I want to do after my PhD rather than go into further research. It also showed something that I’d kind of been aware of for a while which is that a lot of people don’t know how cool plants are and don’t really think about how vital they are to everything. As a plant scientist I really want people to like plants so my Instagram is aimed at getting people to notice plants more and thing about how important they are to life on this planet!

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life? 

Sometimes getting a good work life balance is hard. Especially during Covid when the university shut I sometimes really struggled to get the balance right. Either I’d struggle to get going or I’d work into the evening past when I would normally leave the lab. I think I’m getting better at that. I don’t have kids which has definitely made working from home during Covid easier since I only have to look after myself.

Alexandra and a friend during graduation day

During your academic studies how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

Both my undergraduate course and my PhD year had more women than men. I think Biology, at least in the UK, doesn’t have the same problems with gender imbalance as some other sciences. I know growing up I heard things like “Boys are just better at maths” which might put some women off and contribute to subjects like physics and engineering having a bigger gender gap? Biology has its fair share of maths but I don’t think people are as aware of it as they are for something like physics. I will say if you’re worried maths will be a barrier to studying science, don’t panic. I’m not good at maths (which has nothing to do with my gender I’m just not good at it) but physics was one of my A levels and I’ve managed to do statistics courses at university and do a PhD without a problem.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

I’ve been very lucky to not have faced any significant sexism in my academic career. In my personal life and social life? Oh yes have I had to deal with some sexist rubbish, but not in my work life so far which I’m very grateful for. I went to a girls only high school where the teachers were very clear that girls can excel in any subject that boys can. And coming onto a university course that was probably 60% female meant any sexism was probably going to have a lot of people calling it out. I can remember a friend had a guy on a group project who was being sexist and when they complained the lecturer booted him out of the group and made the guy do a project on his own. So I’ve always been in a very supportive environment which has definitely helped me feel confident about my intelligence and my ability as a scientist.

How did you became passionate about science?

Some of my earliest memories are making baking soda and vinegar volcanoes, catching frogs in my grandma’s pond and getting a science kit for Christmas. So I was always interested in experiments and nature. I think when that turned into loving science was at high school where you start to learn how thing work on a deeper level. The world is incredibly complex and learning about how it works fascinated me and still fascinates me. Biology is my favorite of the sciences because I find learning about living things more compelling than physics or chemistry but I studied all three at A level and I enjoyed them all. Plants in particular are interesting to me because they are vital to all other living things on earth and because they are stationary. Animals can move if conditions don’t suit them, plants have to make do with where they are. And they’ve adapted so many ways to do that.

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

At the moment I’m studying for my PhD. During a PhD you spend 3 years working on a piece of research. This research has to be novel (you’re not just repeating something already done) and completed to a high standard. I’m looking at a species of plant called Brassica napus, also known as oilseed rape or Canola. The oil from this plant is used in food, in industry and to make biofuel so its a pretty important crop. Unfortunately the plants are not very good at taking up phosphorous which is a vital nutrient. This means farmers often have to apply large amounts of phosphorous fertilizers to the plants which is expensive, causes pollution and isn’t sustainable in the long term because the source of the phosphorous is non-renewable. I’m trying to identify if there are traits in the roots of Brassica napus that make phosphorous uptake easier for the plants. To work this out I’ve been growing different varieties of the plants, some of which take up more phosphorous than others, and I compare the root architecture, the internal structure of the root and other measures. Basically I want to see what makes the high phosphorous varieties better at getting phosphorous. For example do the plants that are good at taking up phosphorous have roots that go deeper into the soil? Or spread out more widely? Do the cells in the roots have a different arrangement? Long term (much longer term than my PhD) this information could be passed on to plant breeders so they know what traits to breed for to make a variety of Brassica napus that won’t need as much fertilizer applied to it.

Alexandra’s plants

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in STEM?

Being a girl is not relevant to if you will be good at science. It might affect how some people view you but those people are ignorant and should be ignored. What makes a good scientist is: -passion for science -being prepared to work hard -caring about what you do And most importantly the ability to have an experiment go wrong, laugh and start over.

Follow Alexandra on Instagram.

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