Women in Science Week

To celebrate Women in Science week Rachel took the opportunity to interview internationally renowned, local scientist/artist, Dr Mhairi Towler. Dr. Mhairi Towler originally studied Biochemistry at Dundee University. She went on to develop further skills and knowledge as a postdoctoral scientist in San Francisco before returning to Dundee.

Back in Dundee she became involved in projects which mixed science, art and community together. Mhairi also began lecturing undergraduate students in Dundee.
Through all of these experiences Mhairi saw that animation and science can work together to engage an audience and illustrate complex scientific processes.

Mhairi became very passionate about this idea, to the point that she retrained in animation and went on to set up her own company Vivomotion, redefining her career in the process.

Dr. Mhairi Towler has never stopped learning and every new job and opportunity she has undertaken has helped influence her work and her life. She has created her own career by taking every opportunity that came her way, constantly learning and following her passions.

Rachel (R) – So Dr Towler, thank you very much for speaking to me today. My first question is; What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Mhairi (M) – When I was younger I was very interested in hairdressing. As I went through school I took lots of different subjects. In 5th and 6th year I studied all three sciences along with geography and art, so science had always interested me. When I was looking at the Dundee University prospectus I saw pictures of cells, which I really liked. This got me interested in Biochemistry.  I grew up on a farm, so I think I was always interested in biology and nature from seeing everything around me.

R – What project throughout your career have you most enjoyed?
M – The highlight for me was working on Designs for Life with Dr Paul Harrison from the Visual Research Centre, Dundee University, which is based in the DCA. The aim of the project was to make science more accessible for everyone. Paul worked with me to take the data from the lab (and 11 other scientist he worked with) and turn it into screen prints.
R – So you were involved in using science as art?
M – Yes and we did outreach work along with an exhibition. I got to go into primary schools and speak to children about working as a scientist and I found this work very rewarding.  
The project has now been exhibited all over the world and there was a book published about it as well.
This was the beginning of my change in career. I now work in the creative industries (animation) but get to use my scientific knowledge to translate scientific concepts. I combine science with animation and try to find ways to make it more engaging.

R – My next question is what type of person do you need to be to have a career in the sciences, what type of skills do you need?
M – To be a good scientist you have to be a curious person. You have to want to know how things work. You have to be able to problem solve and troubleshoot. As a person you have to have resilience, the ability to work on a problem for a long time, exploring lots of different options and paths in a lot of detail. You have to have tenacity and perseverance to continue with this until you find the right explanation. You also have to be able to communicate, both in writing and orally – explaining your research and the things you have discovered to the rest of the world. You have to have numeracy skills and be digitally able as well.

R – What do you think are the best and worst things about being a scientist?
M – The best thing is when you get good results. All that perseverance you put in has paid off and you can publish your findings and share them with the world.
The worst thing can be when you get negative results, and you have to keep looking for the answers. It can also be disappointing when someone else publishes what you have been working on before you.

R – Thank you so much for that Mhairi, my final question is; What do you think jobs in science will look like in the future?
M – It’s hard to predict what jobs will look like in the future, because we aren’t sure what will happen. We couldn’t have imagined all the opportunities that the Internet would give us when it became accessible. What we do know is that there will be developments in technology. This will mean it is likely that a lot of jobs (including in the sciences) will be automated. But technology is the future, there will need to be people to create this technology and people to maintain it, people to tell it what to do. Technology is likely to be the future within science.

R – Thank you so much Mhairi for giving your time to talk to us. Is there anything else you would like to say?
M – Just because you do a degree in the sciences doesn’t mean you have to be a scientist or that you are tied to that type of job forever. It gives you lots of transferable skills, things like problem solving, communication, perseverance. These are relevant in whatever job you do. I changed my career direction, but all the knowledge I had built came with me.

Dr Mhairi Towler giving us some insight into working in the sciences.
If you would like more information about Dr Towler and her work you can explore her company’s website www.vivomotion.co.uk or follow her on twitter @Vivomotion