Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? will be focusing on studying a PhD in general, but more specifically in Chemistry. We interviewed PhD student, Aiden Heeley-Hill who is studying Atmospheric Chemistry and has a keen interest in science communication.
Aiden is a PhD candidate in atmospheric chemistry at the University of York, currently researching indoor air pollutants and, more widely, characterizing indoor environments. He holds a BSc and MSc in environmental science and is a keen science communicator, covering a range of interdisciplinary topics pertinent to his research area.
For more info about undertaking a PhD:
For more info about working in the Environment sector:
Science Communications work:
Hello & welcome to this episode of what do you actually do? My name is Kate Morris and I will be your host today. In today’s episode we will be talking about studying for a PHD, science communication and working in the environment sector. Today we are joined by Aiden Heeley-Hill, who is doing a PHD in Atmospheric Chemistry and also runs the science communication blog ‘trust me I’m nearly a doctor.’ So Aiden, what do you actually do?
Excellent question and thank you for inviting me. I look at indoor air policy to assess what indoor air quality is actually like & if that poses a risk to public health. I also run a science communication blog, which is just general articles on science which interest me.
What was your started point? You did more general environmental science at undergraduate level and masters. What led you towards the atmospheric side of things and also where did that passion for communicating with the public about science come from?
I started out in environmental science because that was what I was best at during school, but not necessarily what I was most interested in, but it is still something of interest to me and something I care passionately about now, but I’ve been to university and understand it a lot more. Going into atmospheric chemistry, that was a bit of a curve ball really. I didn’t intend to do it but it just kind of happened, so when I was doing my masters degree, I got really interested in air pollution and how that would affect human health, and that kind of was an offshoot from there and I thought I really want to look at atmospheric chemistry more widely, and my supervisor was really good at finding me a place and getting me a project. It seemed like a good option to do PHD work and also do something that I really want to do.
So, where do you see it leading to in the future then?
Ultimately, research or maybe some kind of government role, influencing policy decisions – that is something that interests me as well. So, in my undergraduate degree, I did my dissertation in environment policy, so that is where it is going, hopefully with some communication as well, because I really do enjoy science communication. So, I think that is where it is headed.
For people who are less familiar with science communication as a thing, how would you define that?
It is generally about making the science community more accessible to the public sphere & government spheres, and people who aren’t necessarily experts in the subject, or they don’t understand it quite so well. It does allow people to understand it to a greater degree, and it is also about communicating results and difficult scientific ideas in the way that people will understand. So you can use it through things like Instagram or blog posts, or podcasts & things like that. So, there are so many different multimedia avenues that it is something that a lot of people can access.
So studying a PHD is pretty intense, it takes a lot of work – what has motivated you to start up the blog ‘trust me I’m nearly a doctor,’ because that must take a lot of work as well?
It does. So I really enjoy writing, and I wanted a creative outlet in addition to my PHD. Obviously doing a PHD involves writing. You write hundreds of thousands of words on a thesis – why would I want to do more writing? But it is more about accessing other areas of science which I might not study myself necessarily, or kind of as a tangent of what I have studied in the past. So it allows me to explore my own interests and also hopefully inspire people to follow their interests as well.
And you mentioned that as well as the professional research in the future, you want to keep up with the science communication. Have you got ideas about how you might do that? The kind of roles you might get into?
Maybe like a hobby as it is now, or perhaps in a role in the future – there are a lot of science communication roles that you can apply for, so mainly outreach kind of things. A lot of universities have research communities & research institutes. There are a lot of opportunities out there for people that might want to pursue it in the future.
So, as we kind of hinted at, doing the PHD is pretty intense. What would you say the biggest challenge of PHD study has been so far?
I’d say asking for help. It is something that you might not necessarily think of straight away, but when you are at school, when you are doing undergraduate degrees, when you are doing masters degrees, you do have a lot of taught elements to it. So you have modules, you sit exams, you have lectures and things like that. You are not necessarily spoon fed information, but you are taught a curriculum, whereas students who go into PHD life, that is it. You don’t really have that as much. You have meetings with your supervisor, whether you discuss ideas or where you want the project to go, but you are not taught anything in a formal setting. You have people that you can go and ask things or get help, but it is not anywhere near as formal. So, asking for help was a big thing, also having to set your own work pace as well. You are having to do work in a timescale that suits your supervisor, and also fits in with your life and any social elements that you have – you do have a lot of constraints on your time, and so it is all about assessing your own timeline and making sure that you do things in a timely fashion.
On your blog, as well as giving insights into the scientific things that you have been researching, it looks like you have given some personal insights into the process of doing the PHD, and advice that you would give someone else starting out. Have you got any response from people who read that?
Not really. So I haven’t written on my blog for quite a while, it is something that I do mean to catch up with. Obviously doing work does take up a lot of priority, but generally in the scientific community, by following people on Instagram, you find out a lot of information from scientists from a personal point of view. So you hear about the research they are doing, the issues that they face, so people have had experiments go wrong and have had to start again, or they have decided to drop out of a PHD entirely, or they don’t want to go into academia anymore, or they are really enjoying it and they want to discuss their work with you. For instance, on an ‘ask a question’ style post on Instagram, I’ve had people really getting engaged with the work that I am doing, and wanting to know more about it and the issues.
That’s interesting! So there is really a kind of virtual community of people and I imagine that is global?
Absolutely. So, the official one is TheSciCommunity on Instagram and anyone can follow them, they really want to get into public communication, but at the minute it is about communication within the science community. It is a really good initiative to follow.
Thinking of your experience doing the PHD, despite the challenges, what would you say you are most proud of or have enjoyed from the process?
It has been quite humbling. You go into it not knowing anything about the subject area. You go with a little bit of general knowledge, but when you continue you start to learn more and more and you become more knowledgeable in your area, so the whole point of doing a PHD is you become an expert in the field that you are in and within that small subset of the area that you study. So that is quite a nice experience knowing that when you finish you will have, pretty much all knowledge about that subject, but also the fact that you can set your own timeline. You don’t have to do a 9-5, you can do whatever hours you want to do. You can fit it in around other stuff, as long as you actually do the work. Also, the people that you work with – the people have been so friendly where I am at the moment. I am at the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry labs, and they are a really nice community. It is an open plan office, you can go into anyone, ask anyone anything and they will generally help you or point you in a direction of someone that does know.
So it is kind of stuff that can be on the one hand a real challenge, is also a real benefit, and that flexibility, that freedom, that lack of structure, isolation, but then you found other ways to combat that with the social media and the rest of it. With the atmospheric chemistry – it is so topical isn’t it? The air pollution? York is a really beautiful place to live, but when you are walking, because of all those walls and everything, and those buses, you do really notice there is so much pollution. That much be really interesting to research something that you can see, feel & touch and be directly affected by.
Yes, York really is the perfect case study for pollution more generally, because it is surrounded by high sided buildings, narrow roads, really dense traffic. The pollution is just horrible. There are so many different processes going on, it is kind of impossible for one person to study. There are so many people in a group that will study very different aspects of the same problem. It is really multi-faceted.
Are you studying stuff in York for your PHD, or what is your research area?
I’m looking at indoor air policy, so that is something a little bit different. It is affected by outside air, so you get, when people open windows, or even without opening windows, you do have an infiltration of outside air going into the building. That can cause issues, particularly if you do live in a polluted area like York, or London, or Beijing, or Delhi or these kind of mega-cities that do have massive pollution problems. So I am looking at the indoor aspect to it and that can lead to chemical mechanisms. So you will have chemicals being emitted from certain products, so personal care products, cleaning products or anything like that. They will react with each other, which will cause other chemicals to form that might be more toxic than what was there initially. Things like scented candles, washing-up liquid – that kind of thing. Everything emits some kind of chemical. So that is what my topic is on really.
There was an article in one of the newspapers recently about scented candles, which kind of ruined my life, because I’ve got loads of scented candles and they are all apparently so toxic and it is really bad. Is it kind of ultimately looking at the impact on human heath as a result of what’s in the air?
That is what I am interested in. So I want to look at the public health aspect, which will form one part of my thesis hopefully. That is probably the bit that is most interesting. Scented candles are a bit of a poster-boy for the air pollution community, because they do represent a lot of things.
But they smell so nice!
Unfortunately, they are not that great for you, but we are not saying ban scented candles.
So, thinking about other students who might want to embark on a PHD, or maybe considering working the career areas that you mentioned – the research, the government work, the science communication, any advice for people thinking of going down that path?
I think anyone wanting to do a PHD should consider whether that is something they generally want to do, because it is a big commitment. You’ve got at least three years of study if you do it full-time, five years if you are doing it part time. If you are working on top of that, then that can get quite intense, and it can make either side of your work suffer, so I would really consider that you want to do it before you embark on it. Also, just work hard now – if you are doing an undergraduate degree, then make sure you get good grades and do really well in your exams, but even if you don’t do as well as you wanted to do, there are opportunities out there. So, you can – I passed with a 2:1, got a masters, got a pass as well, didn’t do quite as well as I wanted to do, but I still got a place. I was interviewed by lots of other places as well – so that is a big bonus that you can still do a PHD, even if you don’t do as well as you wanted to, because there are groups out there that will take you. Explore what you want to study as well, so doing a masters is a great option – you can explore what you want to study further, so I did environmental science, then environmental science & management, decided I wanted to look at pollution. That’s what led to my atmospheric chemistry PHD, even though I didn’t set out to do a chemistry degree, that was the avenue I went down, so take an opportunity while you can. Anyone wanting to go into science communication, as I say, there are a number of roles which you can take if you want to do that, so getting outreach experience helps, so I know that the University of York has a lot of other opportunities for you to do that if you wanted to – write blog posts, write for a student newspaper, do anything really, even volunteer at a local charity and say ‘can I do some writing for you?’ They will probably say yes, just to get your name out there. There are other kind of schemes. So like a placement scheme I guess? People will take you on to do writing for them, so policy advice and that kind of thing. They’ll take you on and at the end of it you’ll have something that says ‘I did this.’ It is a good career to follow, with lots of different areas to go into. Work hard now and find what you are interested in.
Things are changing all the time – there are lots of changes in politics. Are there any key challenges that you think students should anticipate for the sector, things that might be coming up in the future that could impact on these career areas?
The big ‘B’ word – Brexit – Unfortunately, Brexit has meant that a lot of scientific funding is in the balance, so, a lot of the scientific funding that has come from the European Union or other sources affiliated with the EU – that has now been put into jeopardy. The UK government has said that they will honour any kind of monetary agreements into the future and after Brexit, so there is that kind of benefit. I think the whole industry has been thrown into disarray because we might not have the same links that we do now, so there is a vast European network of universities in the area that all work together an collaborate on projects, and now that is in jeopardy. I think once this period, however long it lasts is out of the way, I think things will improve. Also in America at the moment, we’ve got issues with funding for certain scientific bodies and some scientific evidence is not being published. It is very insidious, I suppose. I think politics is playing a bigger part than maybe it should, but I think that will settle down.
We often advise people that they should develop their commercial awareness about the sector that they want to go into, but it is also how politics is having a direct impact on that sector, so it is keeping an eye on current affairs as well, the bigger picture as well as just actual scientific developments.
Also some scientific areas become more fashionable than others, so, if you want to be a successful scientist, follow what you want to do, but also keep in mind that your area might not be fashionable at the time that you go into it. Bear it in mind that things might not go the way you want them to. It can be quite an uncertain career I suppose.
But I think, like with you, you have been open to different opportunities, you have taken slightly different pathways, you are doing this blog on science communication, showing there is ways to keep yourself with more options, rather than just specializing 100%.
Ok, well for more information about the career areas we have mentioned today, I’m going to add some relevant links to the episode description and a link to the full transcript of today’s show. But thank you so much Aiden for joining us, it’s been really interesting talking to you.
Thank you very much! It has been a pleasure.
Thanks for joining us this week on what do you actually do? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris and edited & produced by the Careers & Placements team. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers & Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram. All useful links are in this episode’s description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers & Placements. For more information, visit york.ac.uk/careers.