Dr. Helen Maynard-Casely is an instrument scientist for the WOMBAT high-intensity powder diffractometer at the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering, which is part of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s (ANSTO) site outside Sydney. She assists and collaborates with visiting scientists, works with the sample environment team in commissioning new equipment for WOMBAT and is co-responsible for improving and expanding the capabilities of the instrument. Her expertise is in the study of small molecules and ices under pressure and much of this work is motivated by the wish to understand the interiors of planetary bodies.
“…I worried a lot about taking the ‘wrong’ path, and what I’ve realised latterly is that there is no ‘wrong’ path and as long as you keep moving forward, meeting new people and learning you’ll find your place…”
Hello! I’m an instrument scientist for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), based just outside sunny Sydney. One of the things ANSTO does (aside from making nuclear medicine, environment research and assisting industry) is that we run large scientific instruments for the Australian and overseas community. I’m co-responsible for one of these instruments (known as WOMBAT) which is a neutron diffractometer – able to find the location of atoms within pretty much any solid material.
I’ve been working with ‘big’ science facilities like this since my Ph.D., first undertaking experiments at them before landing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne, which lead me to the position I now have at ANSTO.
From Cambridgeshire to Sydney
In making the move from the UK to Australia I suppose my first motivation was to get somewhere with hills! But, undoubtedly the vast skies we have in Cambridgeshire inspired me – you can see so many of the stars and this probably ignited my curiosity in the planets (helped a bit by TV programmes like the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and BBC’s The Planets).
I knew for a long time I wanted to work in science without really knowing what that would actually be like – I didn’t know any scientists growing up. Getting to uni seemed to be the biggest goal then, and what I learnt there was that science is a truly international business, and that there were some interesting possible careers to be had.
I did a Ph.D., partially because I wanted to explore more, but also because I wanted to keep options open for as long as possible. The Ph.D. enabled me to learn a ‘science trade’ (high-pressure crystallography), but also gain a host of skills in writing, presenting, working as part of a group, cool experiments and even networking at conferences. I feel that having that sort of training can set you up for an interesting and flexible career – both in research and out of it.
Relocating to Australia
I didn’t have any hesitations about the move at all ready, though the real clincher was the fact that Australia would offer a working visa to my husband as well (other places didn’t), and the timing worked well for both of us, which really helped us make a success of the move.
I took a bit of advice from my supervisors at the time too. From that I gathered that Australia has always been strong in my research ‘trade’ (crystallography) but there were less high-pressure scientists and less of them applying these experiments to planetary science – so I guess I saw some opportunity to spread my wings a bit.
Collaborating with NASA
It’s an absolute perk of the job to form good collaborations, you learn so much new about your research area as the best collaborations arise when people all bring unique skills and insight to the problem.
My work with the planetary ices group at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory came about when they had found a new material but needed someone to help solve its crystal structure. They happened to be at a conference where I presented some work on solving the structure of a similar material and we got chatting from there.
I’ve also really enjoyed collaborating with colleagues in Japan – I got to go out there for a three-month visit in 2014, and I was so impressed by their approach to scientific instrumentation. I got so much out of that trip.
Advice to girls and women interested in careers in science
If you can keep doing what interests you, I don’t think you can go wrong. I worried a lot about taking the ‘wrong’ path, and what I’ve realised latterly is that there is no ‘wrong’ path and as long as you keep moving forward, meeting new people and learning you’ll find your place.
I suppose there’s also a balance to be struck about listening to advice from others, and carving your own path that can be difficult – try to limit people from having a negative impact on your outlooks. During my Ph.D. I was told: “You don’t want to be an instrument scientist” – and I’m glad I ignored that advice and stuck to what I wanted.
Risks of the progress that’s been made breaking down gender stereotypes being lost
This is part of that ‘unwanted’ advice, the influence that those stereotypes have on people. Though I’m hoping that a tide is turning, people are becoming more aware of the norms that they have created and are more willing to accept differences. I love the stuff that the site A Mighty Girl promotes, and refer my friends there all the time (plus is a great place to look for Christmas and birthday presents for little people).
Plans for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Ha! I think that last time I took part in Womanthology (ahead of International Women’s day in 2017) I mentioned that I’d be at the Australian Synchrotron collecting data on an experiment simulated Europa – and, guess what… I’ll be doing something very similar for International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
I’ll be back at the Synchrotron (I promise that I’m not there all the time, it’s usually three days or so a year!) with some of the crew from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, this time looking at materials relevant to Saturn’s moon, Titan.
Coming up next
This year is going to be exciting for me as I’m starting to supervise my first Ph.D. student – she’ll be based in UK for a year before coming to work at ANSTO for two years. I’m excited because I think it’s a scheme that will set her up really well, and it’s about passing on my science trade – high-pressure crystallography.
I’m also doing a bit more teaching, mainly on the intensive courses we run for scientists wanting to learn techniques in neutron scattering and diffraction – planning to get organised with my resources and try and improve them.
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory image credit: By NASA (NASA JPL image) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This article is dedicated by Helen to Kia Wallwork for being a mentor, friend and an all-round inspiration to her.