#WomenonWednesdays: Christina Schoettler

For our final interview of the term, we spoke to Dr. Christina Schoettler, a Research Associate in the Astrophysics group.

As an introduction, what is your area of expertise within Physics?

I’m an astronomer by trade and by experience as well. I work mainly in star and planet formation, trying to figure out how planetary systems form around stars and how they’re affected by their birth environments, which is something I talked about a few weeks ago as well (in the Research Frontiers lecture). I’m looking at how the birth environment affects star clusters and planet formation with the end goal of trying to figure out why we find so few systems that look like ours for example and just generally trying to better understand the universe around us.

Describe your pathway into physics, what kickstarted it?

My pathway into physics was not the most direct one. I always wanted to be an astronomer, always been a sci-fi fan, and always enjoyed science but didn’t originally go this direction as a career but studied business instead which back when I started studying was the more secure choice of jobs. Then I worked in industry so I never really thought that I would ever become an astronomer and it was always – I say the biggest regret of my life not really doing what I wanted to do at university. I kind of did what would secure me a job afterwards even though it was still not easy back then to get a job after a business degree.

Then I came to the UK – industry job related not science related and found the Open University which is a distance learning university where you can get degrees while you’re still working. At some point then having to admit to myself that I actually wanted to do this for real, properly so of course I would still take years and years and if going into academia was ever an option it would have to be a PhD at some point. It took many many years because I was still working during my undergrad and my graduate level so my masters and my bachelors and I was studying in the evenings and weekends. Up until I started my PhD I haven’t been at a university in person at all so everything was always at home on my own time. Now of course people are more used to it during COVID. I have done this for 8 years in total, part time, so it took me double the time it would normally take for these degrees. Then I was finally at the stage where with the PhD I didn’t want to go into another round of part timing because of course it would also have been more difficult with funding because part time PhDs normally are self-funded. This was when I stopped working and became a full time student, which was really nice and I studied in Sheffield Astrophysics star formation with a supervisor there which worked really well. And now I have ended up here with my first post-doc at Imperial continuing in this research area.

Was it difficult to find the motivation to study on top of having a full-time job?

I didn’t find it difficult because I did it voluntarily. No one forced me into it. During my job I was travelling a lot as well, so I had to compartmentalise. While I was travelling for work I wasn’t studying and when I was at home, I would be studying next to it, so it was difficult but doable. I didn’t want to go away having to take all my books to a different country and then work there and study there and do everything. So it would be studying while I was at home, work when I was away on business but after a couple of years it was really tiring, especially the early years were very tiring because my credit load was quite high at the time.

During your journey what has been your experience of being a woman in Physics?

Well I have experience being a woman in industry which was not easy. I was in a regular manufacturing environment and often I was the only woman in a room of 20 men. So I was used to it for 10-15 years of my job and that was not something I was unfamiliar with when I came into academia. During my PhD, it was actually quite a good percentage where at least half of the students were women. However, the further up you go the fewer women you would get. At PhD level you still had quite a good proportion of women doing a degree and then you go one level up at post-docs at the time there was 1 woman and then if you go up further at staff level there were 1 or 2 women often there appears to still be the glass ceiling that certain positions are really difficult to get. It’s still like that. That was the original reason why I didn’t study physics in the first place – because when I was at that time – years ago there were virtually no chances for a woman in physics or astronomy to get a job because the job market was difficult even for men at the time. Back then, there were not many opportunities outside academia and many people who ended up with a high degree in physics still couldn’t find a job related to their degree. That has now changed of course. There are now many data science or data analysis jobs which are a good option for anyone having done data intensive science like astronomy.

Looking back, what advice would you have for your younger self?

I would probably say stick with what you really want to do because even though I was good at my job,  the challenge that research now provides for me was missing. While being challenging in its own way, my industry job was not a good fit for me on an intellectual level. My industry experience was really good with regards to learning project management- time management skills, so it did teach me a lot of the soft skills that are not directly related to my science work in physics or astronomy in that respect but are valuable with regards of how I manage my daily work. I always wonder if I had the chance would I tell myself to do physics to begin with – I don’t know – it might have back then not been the right choice for me either so it’s really difficult to say.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think now is a great time to be an astronomer. With all the new telescopes, new technologies – all the data – the possibility to do data science – data analysis is so much better. I think it looks even more promising in the future because of course all the telescope missions will go on for years and years and there are more to come. There seems to be an ongoing supply of huge missions helping us to improve our understanding of the universe and how stars and planets might have formed – how they evolved and why they look like the way they do. That is kind of why I think that it’s a great time now to be an astronomer. Hopefully also for women in science, I hope it becomes more even because I think more diversity does promote a better environment.

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