There are not many people that you meet on social media who you haven’t met in real life that you can call a friend. And for me, today’s Scientist in the Spotlight is exactly that! I love following her on Instagram as she always has something awesome to share or represent whether it is her latest travels, her numerous talents or her latest venture for inclusivity and diversity in STEM. This amazing woman in physics is studying for her MRes in Photonics at Imperial College London but is right now doing research at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California working with high power lasers trying to optimise their performance for experiments where the conditions found in space are recreated in the lab. So, let’s get to know the wonderful Meriame B in today’s Spotlight interview to learn more about all the inspiring projects she is involved with.
Hello! And welcome to Soph talks science! Thank you for taking the time to answer all my questions. Let’s start off with how you became interesting in physics?
Meriame: Originally, my first ambition in life was to become an artist, then I wanted to be an athlete and then a medical doctor, and then at the last minute – a few months before applying for university – I changed my mind to physics. When I was studying for my A Levels, my physics teacher took us on a trip to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a national lab near Oxford. Here, we had a talk on medical physics, which combined all the things I loved – maths, physics and helping people. For me, it was the perfect career. I didn’t know what medical physics was before this school trip, so I am forever grateful for this trip, thanks Mr Newton, I owe you!
Tell us more about your research then.
Meriame: At the moment I’m working at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory which is home to the LARGEST linear particle accelerator in the world! At the end of the linear accelerator, electrons are travelling super-fast and are then wiggled to produce x-rays which forms LCLS, the x-ray laser at SLAC. The x-rays then travel through 7 experimental hutches which is where very cool science happens – including recreating the conditions found in space and making atomic movies of biological reactions such as photosynthesis. I work in the Matter under Extreme Conditions (MEC) experimental hutch where I’m working with high power lasers. I’m building a system that will help me find out important information about the laser in MEC which will help optimise its performance for experiments that will help scientists find out more about astrophysical objects like the interior of planets.
So, you mentioned about working at SLAC in the US – are there many differences carrying research out between the US and here in the UK?
Meriame: Oooh, that’s a good question. I’m still figuring out the differences, because there’s a lot of overlap but if I were to mention the biggest differences I would say.. In California, I find that people here are so open, ambitious and friendly. I’ve been told that California is the land of opportunity, and I definitely feel it! Over here, I feel like I can achieve ANYTHING and I’ve met some incredible people here, including the CEO of YouTube! It’s such an inspiring place to be in and I feel so lucky to be here. I always have to pinch myself to remind myself that it is real and not some fairy-tale I’m living in. I currently live in area that is surrounded by Apple, Google, NASA and Facebook – it’s honestly a dream come true to be here and meet such incredible people.
What is a typical day in the lab like for you?
Meriame: For me, a typical day in the lab involves wearing gloves, laser goggles and working with shiny optics like mirrors or lenses. I have to be very careful with them, because any dust can scatter my laser and ruin my results or even the optics when the high-power laser is sent through. Before you walk into the laser lab I work in at SLAC there are a myriad of safety signs, mostly related to laser safety signs.
I want to talk about your advocacy work. So, I often see that you refer to yourself as Minority Squared. Can you tell us some more about that?
Meriame: As a woman in physics, I’m a minority. As a woman of colour in physics, I’m a minority in a minority, something I call minority squared. Whenever I give a talk, one of the most common questions I get asked is where are you from?, which when I answer West London, is then followed by but where are you actually from. But why does it matter where I’m from, surely the physics research I’m talking about should be what the conversations following my talk should be about? Just because my parents are form a different country shouldn’t mean that singled out from my fellow white scientists like this. My fellow white scientists don’t get these questions. I recently spoke about diversity and inclusion in STEM at the SLAC Symposium organised by Devon Conradson, a student from Lewis & Clark College, and it was an amazing opportunity to not only share my story but also discuss it with some very senior people who took my story seriously and are making changes at SLAC to make it more diverse. It’s so beautiful to see people come together to help others. You can check out the talks here and here.
What advice would you give to other female women of colour that may be interested in a career in STEM?
Meriame: For me, I don’t see many people, if any, like me in senior roles in academia, which does make me think, am I cut out for this? Can I actually succeed in this field? To get around this, for me, seeing other people that look like me in STEM on Instagram and other forms of social media has provided me with role models and made me feel like I’m not alone. Following or joining women in STEM or minority in STEM groups on social media has helped me share my voice but also hear others’ stories which I can relate to. I’m so grateful for these groups. These groups also act as a support group where it’s safe to bring up issues you may be facing and also a way to help others too, which I think is such a valuable thing.
If you’re considering a career in STEM but feel like there’s no one that looks like you in the field, just go for it and become the first person! I fully support you and I know you’ll kill the game! Be you, you’re amazing and do what you love.
I also want to ask you about your many side hustles that you have going on starting with being a contributor for Forbes. How did you get into that?
Meriame: I started writing for Forbes through a connection I made on the radio show I help present and produce, Science Mixtape. Robin Andrews, who also writes for Forbes and IFL Science, was a guest on Science Mixtape and I got talking to him about my blog and my science communication and then he forwarded my details to his boss. They loved my passion and writing style so ‘hired’ me to become a Forbes contributor. Thank you so much Robin and Alex, you’re legends!
Where do you get your article ideas from?
Meriame: I’m signed up to lots of national lab media mailing lists and so whenever new science comes out, I’m one of the first people to know and I get to write about my take on the new science. It’s honestly such a great thing to be able to see all this new science come out, and by being a Forbes contributor it forces me to read lots of new papers which only broadens my knowledge. Thank you Forbes!
Has freelance writing taught you anything?
Meriame: It has definitely made me much better at simplifying complex ideas into manageable bites. I’m also much better at reading papers now which helps in my physics research. On top of that, I’ve also been able to network with people across the world and find out more about their research. I’m honestly so lucky, and even luckier when I get to meet the authors of the papers I write about.
You mentioned Science Mixtape before, what is that?
Meriame: Science Mixtape is a radio show and podcast that airs every other Saturday on Soho Radio. It’s a show that aims to make science and scientists approachable as well as share all the cool science happening in our world right now. We’ve had scientists that rap and artists whose work is inspired by science on our show. I love being part of Science Mixtape because, just like Forbes, I get to meet amazing individuals who do incredible science and it opens my eyes to other fields that I’m not familiar with. But also, it’s so much fun getting to hear different music chosen by our guests. You can check out the Science Mixtape podcasts here.
I don’t know how you manage to get everything done, but you also manage to mix being incredibly stylish amongst all of this. How do you do it?
Meriame: I love fashion and in my research group I’m known as the ‘fashionable physicist’. I love doing my hair in different styles, wearing eyeliner that matches the colour of an item of clothing I’m wearing, and rocking heels every day! Even if I’m in the lab, I don’t let my fashion disappear. I love dressing up and it gives me a boost in the morning whilst I get ready – just like the saying goes, if you look good, you feel good. Most people associate physicists with a lack of style, but why should being a physicist mean you can’t be stylish – you CAN be BOTH! I rock a yellow pleather skirt, with red lipstick, eyeliner and heels in my lab where I work with lasers and it makes me feel good. Just because I do physics, does not mean I can’t be fashionable. Be you. 🙂
What is next for Meriame then?
Meriame: Well, I’m actually taking a year out so that I can start my science communication job at Imperial College, where I’ll be in charge of outreach for the Computing Department. During this year, I’ll be planning my PhD and starting the VISA process to potentially return back to SLAC and start a PhD relating to high-power lasers. Although, I’ve recently had a chat with some scientists at SLAC and maybe this will be sooner. The real answer is I’m not sure yet, and I’ve come to understand that sometimes it’s ok to not know what’s going to happen and everything will work out in the end. I’m also facing a dilemma of whether or not I want to move many, many miles away from my family and friends in London ..but then this is California we’re talking about. So, we’ll see what happens..
And finally, where in the world should I be visiting next?
Meriame: You should definitely go to HaLong Bay in Vietnam – it’s one of the seven wonders of the world and it’s just stunning. Take a one-night stay boat trip to the bay and watch the stars and moon shine on the calm water of the bay that is filled with floating jellyfish. It’s honestly one of the best places I’ve visited.
Huge thank you to Meriame for answering all my questions. I wish you all the best with your remaining time in California, but looking forward to you heading back to the UK so we can arrange a meet up 🙂 If you have any questions about lasers, being a woman in physics, events about diversity in STEM, radio shows and all in between then I’m sure Meriame would love to answer all your questions. Ask them in the comments below or you can get in touch with her on all these different social media platforms:
And where are they now?
If you missed what Spotlight September was all about then check back here. But this is the second year that I am doing this monthly special on my blog, and as well as bringing you NEW stories from scientists and engineers around the world, I also want to catch up with the scientist’s I have previously featured on my blog. Today we are catching up with another lovely lady who I interviewed for Spotlight September in 2017, Emily C aka The Space Gal. Check out Emily’s Scientist in the Spotlight feature from last year to learn more about being a science TV host and writing a science book for children, as well as how you can follow her on social media. Let’s see what she’s been up to over the past 12 months:
S P O T L I G H T S E P T E M B E R 2018 has truly begun, and I am very excited to bring you more stories from scientists across the world. Make sure to check back in every Monday and Friday in September to meet another scientist and learn about their story, and to catch up with our previously featured scientists too. Did you enjoy this story today? Is there anyone you would love to see featured on my Scientist in the Spotlight features over the next year?
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