Osnat Katz, Master of Physics Student at the University of Manchester
Osnat Katz, Master of Physics Student at the University of Manchester
What do you do?
I'm designing a new experiment for students to work with. Learning how to work with different tools, using them to get results and then interpreting those results is really crucial to understanding how to do physics - but it's more complicated than it looks! If an experiment isn't well-designed, it just ends up frustrating and confusing students rather than teaching them about good experimental technique. It wasn't too long ago that I was an undergraduate puzzling over some of the experiments in the teaching labs, so I remember where students come unstuck and I'm using that to come up with an experiment which will hopefully challenge them without being too unintuitive.
I'm also a science writer - I currently write for the Society for Popular Astronomy's magazine, Popular Astronomy, and for Skymania. And if I have a spare moment I'm always happy to do some science busking, where a group of volunteers get together, grab some cool demonstrations, and talk to passers-by about physics.
What does a day in the life look like for your job?
I'm still studying full-time, which gives me a good deal of structure, but no day is ever quite the same. I'm usually in university by 9am to attend lectures or work on my project.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays I start my day by coming into the teaching labs where my project partner and I are building the new experiment. We usually have a rough plan of what we want to do, but we're designing an optics experiment and they're very fiddly. On the plus side, there's never a dull day working on our project.
If I come across an interesting paper or a story I really want to work on, I'll email my editor for approval, then work on the story over the weekend.
In summer, or if there's a large science event going on, I'll usually try and volunteer for something along the way. Last summer I volunteered at Bluedot Festival in Jodrell Bank, which is a science festival held on the grounds of an observatory, and I had an absolutely ridiculous amount of fun.
How did you become interested in your field?
The story of how I found myself doing science is straightforward; the story of how I decided I prefer talking about science to doing science, not so much.
I was a curious child and when my parents stopped being able to answer my questions, they started taking me to museums. Sometimes, there would also be demonstrators doing experiments and talking to members of the public. Their passion and enthusiasm made me fall in love with science and I couldn't wait to be out there, doing real research.
When I started university I was still absolutely convinced I was going to become a researcher. I couldn't imagine anything better than devoting myself to answering questions about the universe. I also started doing science outreach seriously and was absolutely hooked - I'm introverted and awkward, but somehow I managed to find myself helping people understand science, just as people started helping me a long time ago. Eventually I realised that I was more interested in talking to people about science than I was in doing research - and now here I am!
Do you have any media to recommend?
I am media overdosed, so I'll try to keep my list to just three items:
For anyone who thinks that they just don't "get" science or maths, I recommend How to Solve It by George Pólya. It's all about breaking down difficult questions into easier ones. I don't believe that science and maths are things you either understand or you don't - I believe that just about anyone can engage with some aspect of STEM if it's presented in a way people can understand. Turning STEM from something big and scary into something you can ask questions about is an important part of that.
It's a bit niche, but I enjoyed What is Mathematics, Really? by Reuben Hersh. It discusses the nature of mathematics - do numbers exist somewhere out there? Is maths something we construct? Is it all just a game? Mathematics underpins just about all of the modern world, so knowing more about it is vital. It's not an academic text - it's aimed at a general audience - and I think it does a really great job of getting people thinking about some very fundamental questions.
I got my start in astrophysics, so I absolutely have to include Cosmos here (the book by Carl Sagan, the TV show he presented, or Neil deGrasse Tyson's reboot). It's an absolutely classic journey through time, space and how it all relates to us here on Earth.
What kinds of challenges did you overcome to get to where you are now?
The biggest obstacle to me succeeding has been my mental health issues. I suffer from chronic depression, which for the uninitiated means that on a bad day I have no motivation to do even the most basic of tasks. It affected my academic performance greatly and so I've had to essentially come up with lots of workarounds and little tricks to manage my mental health and my studies at the same time. Particularly as an undergraduate, I sometimes felt like I didn't deserve to be studying at a good university if I was struggling. Mental illness used to be seen as a taboo topic within the department, something you didn't talk about because it was a sign of weakness, although I'm pleased to say that there's been a real push to pay more attention to wellbeing. It's a start.
I also have social anxiety and sometimes find it difficult to interact with people, which is obviously not ideal for a science communicator. I've had to really fight to pluck up the courage to pitch ideas to people, or to stand in front of a room of people and give talks - I'm proud that I've managed to do it though. I think of social interaction as something I can practice, rather than as something that I either understand or I don't. I haven't always felt able to talk about these things in case it's not appropriate or I come off as incompetent, but I want people to know that being ill is not something shameful.
A very big challenge has been volunteering and working without pay. I'm in a position where I can do that, but not everyone is; a system where you start out working for nothing discriminates against people who can't afford to do that.
Do you have any asks for the reader?
Yes! I have quite a big ask, actually: think about who science is for.
My view is that science should be for all - that you don't need to have a PhD to appreciate the universe around us. By that measure, we're failing an awful lot of the population. An awful lot of people don't care about or actively mistrust STEM. Maybe it's something they were never encouraged to get into. Maybe it's something they were discouraged from doing, either actively or because they weren't given the support they needed. Maybe they were wronged, or people they know were wronged, and science was used to justify that.
I don't think we listen to those people enough. Maybe that makes sense superficially - after all, they don't care about science, so why should we engage with them? I think it's precisely because people mistrust or don't care about STEM that we should be out there making every effort to engage with them as equals.
I'm not saying that you have to go up to someone who seems dangerous or someone who actively peddles those ideas - your safety comes first and if someone's day job is spreading misinformation, you'll be hard-pressed to convince them. I'm saying that there are lots of people who might have been turned away from STEM or discouraged from getting into it and it's unfair to leave them out in the cold.