(STFC-POST Fellowships are now part of the RCUK Policy Internship scheme.)
2013 POST Fellow Myfanwy Borland is studying for a PhD in particle physics at the University of Liverpool, making use of CERN’s LHCb detector to measure the properties of the Z-Boson. She gave an interview to UK News From CERN about her experiences as STFC-POST Fellow.
UK News From CERN: What inspired you to apply for the STFC POST Fellowship?
Myfanwy Borland: I have always had a keen interest in science communication and outreach. I was an early member of the Liverpool Physics Outreach Group, and spent a lot of time in schools and colleges with science workshops. In fact I missed doing this when I went out to CERN, and became a tour guide for the visits service. I saw an email from the STFC, and after having a look at POST and what they do in Parliament, I couldn’t wait to start the application. It was also forwarded to me by my group leader as a good idea to apply for. And as you need the blessing of your supervisors to take three months off it is a huge help to have colleagues that understand the value of outreach activities.
In addition to that, the application process was quite interesting, as all that was needed was to write a POST-style briefing note on a scientific topic. I chose to write mine on Dealing with Intermittent Energy Generation and it was fun to get my teeth into something completely different to Particle Physics.
UKNFC: Your Fellowship has coincided with the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry into Women in STEM Careers. What is your role and did you expect to get an opportunity to see how the process of Parliamentary scrutiny works at such close quarters?
MB: It has indeed been fortunate timing. While working with the Select Committee I have taken on the role of a committee specialist managing inquiries for the Members and providing advice and guidance on the science and policy. I am managing the Women in STEM Inquiry (under supervision). As such it is my responsibility to analyse the written evidence, identify other relevant publications and to help the Members structure the evidence sessions. You need to have an in depth knowledge of the issues highlighted by the evidence and of the Government policy. During evidence sessions I also sit at the table next to the Chair of the committee to provide additional information when needed.
Myfanwy meets Professor Peter Higgs at a Westminster event
(Credit: M. Borland)
I was delighted to be offered the chance of a fellowship at POST, and I am sure I would have had an interesting time there but the access that I have working with the Committee is a very rare opportunity, even for POST fellows. I have the chance to see the day-to-day life of a Parliamentary scrutiny. I sit in private meetings with the Members and get to hear their private views on the issues we deal with. I am seeing every part of the scrutiny process, from scoping out potential new topics, to evidence sessions and finally to the drafting of a report and recommendations which I will be helping with for the Women in STEM careers inquiry over the rest of my time here. I also regularly find myself on the phone with Dames and Chief Executives which is quite a change from my PhD!
UKNFC: What has been the highlight of your time as a POST Fellow?
MB: I would have to say that pretty much every day there is something new going on. Meeting people who are passionate and motivated about their work and that provide expert advice to MPs on both the Parliament and Government side has been very rewarding. In terms of the work, it is an amazing feeling to work on a topic like Women in STEM careers and helping to give a voice to the people who work hard to improve the under-representation of Women in science.
UKNFC: What is the most interesting/surprising thing that you have discovered during your time in Westminster?
MB: It is the first time in a very long time that I have not been surrounded by scientists and have fully been able to see the lay-perception of the work we do. While I have been heartened by the general enthusiasm towards science, the level of understanding and awareness of current theories and experiments still has some way to go. We have certainly been doing a better job at communicating recently – especially about CERN but I am now more acutely aware that public communication has to be ingrained within every level of scientific research. It is far too important to be missed, especially in this financial climate.
UKNFC: How will your time as a POST fellow influence your research career?
MB: I think this will be hugely beneficial to my career. Firstly the turnaround times for briefings and reports here make it feel like conference season every week. I will have no problem writing up my thesis after this. It has also taught me a lot about being grammatically precise – something that had never really been an issue in physics but in policy, every word matters. It’s felt a little bit like a crash course in scientific writing, but as something I’d like to pursue in the future, it has been great for me.
Personally, working through the evidence on the Women in STEM careers inquiry has sometimes felt like reading a horror story of your own future career but I think that being aware of the gender issues certainly goes part way to tackling them, and it is nice to be in a position to hopefully inspire some change.
UKFNC: Would you recommend the scheme to others?
MB: I can’t recommend it highly enough! For anyone who is interested in science communication or science policy, it is both a valuable insight and experience but also a remarkable networking opportunity.