Name: Laurie Winkless
Job: Author of Science and the City
A whirlwind. That’s the only word I can use to describe the past three years since emerging from the lab. In that time, I’ve caused a minor fire in a pub*, hung out with lots of Nobel Laureates, helped engineering to hit the headlines, and published a book.
But then I’ve never been one for the quiet life, so it’s suited me so far!
During my degree (Physics with Astrophysics at Trinity College Dublin) I won a summer scholarship from the Kennedy Space Centre and Florida Tech. This experience of a lifetime inspired me to do an MSc in Space Science at University College London, and this wonderful city has been my home ever since. Academia was not for me – I felt my skills were much more suited to applied research, so I joined the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington. There I was surrounded by remarkable scientists and engineers, and I learned a very important lesson. This gist was “It’s ok not to have all the answers, and, in fact, if you’ve just come out of university, you don’t know anything about how research works, so buckle up”. I loved it.
After a few years at NPL, I was offered the opportunity to do a PhD – for almost two years I plugged away at it. But, I gradually realised that it wasn’t at all what I’d expected, and that it was no longer what I wanted to do (another important lesson!). I’d fallen in love with science outreach. I was one of NPL’s thriving community of STEMNet Ambassadors and over the years, the number of activities I’d been involved in had skyrocketed. And the more I did, the more I wanted to do! I was also blogging all the time, tutoring students and doing bit of freelance writing too. When I was offered the opportunity to join the media arm of the Nobel Foundation as a scientific editor, I decided to make the leap into full-time comms. It took me a while to settle in to life outside the lab but it was a year full of one-in-a-lifetime opportunities and I grabbed them all.
But I was ready for a new challenge…. And what happened next was completely unexpected. I was contacted by Jim Martin from Bloomsbury who invited me for a coffee after seeing my blog. Very long story short, I got a book deal! Science and the City: The Mechanics behind the Metropolis was published in August (2016) after more than two years of hard graft. For a while, I combined writing the book with part-time work at a great science communications agency called Proof. But in July 2015, I bit the bullet and quit the day job to work on the book full time – it ended up being the greatest adventure of my life! Since finishing the book, I’ve been working as a freelance science writer and comms consultant, which has been challenging, but fun. I’m also a columnist for Forbes, writing about the science of cities, along with contributing to a range of other outlets.
Where to next? Honestly, I don’t know! Ten years ago, the organised, strategic, OCD-sufferer inside me would have completely panicked at the thought, but today, I find it oddly liberating! I feel like I’m getting ever-closer to finding a way to combine my passions – science, engineering, writing and education, so I will keep moving forward. But I very much hope I get the chance to write another book.
At times my career has felt less like a ‘path’ and more like a pool full of lily-pads that I’ve just leapt randomly between. My career has developed in this way because I’ve been brutally honest with myself and I’ve sought out opportunities to learn new skills. To those who feel like that they should ‘have their career sorted by now’, please don’t worry. Just keep learning and growing, and things will begin to make sense.
* The fire was at my NPL leaving do’ – a thoughtful gift went awry and burned a unique mark into the pub table. It’s still there 😉