Women in STEM: An interview with Hannah Levene, NuNano Process Engineer

Here at NuNano we care about and want to help promote equality and diversity in the sciences. To this end, we’re kickstarting a ‘Women in STEM’ interview series on our blog. Over the coming months we’ve got interviews lined up for you with female scientists at different ages and stages of their careers, within both academia and industry.

However to start us off we looked to our own organisation and had a conversation with our newest member of the technical team Hannah Levene. Hannah has just finished her PhD in Chemistry and Engineering working on developing nanoelectrodes for electrochemistry in molten salt environments at the University of Edinburgh. Hannah has been part of the team since September 2018.

 

HannahLevene.jpg

Have you always been interested in science?

Definitely, I was lucky that my junior school started a science club which I joined and really enjoyed. We won a science award too at our school and had a trip to Aardman Animations as the prize which was amazing. All the way through school I’ve had lots of encouragement, but I think it’s when you’re at a really young age that you need it most.

I enjoyed chemistry and physics at secondary school. I went to an all-girls school and had some really great teachers – my physics teacher in particular was fantastic.

In fact, my decision to go on to study sciences was because of my physics teacher – she was brilliant. Thinking about it now, she probably had more of an engineering rather than a physics background. Before teaching she had a career in industry, working for British Aerospace. Her enthusiasm for her subject was contagious.

For me doing science has always been about following my curiosity. I don’t come from a scientific background but that hasn’t stopped me. The more I learn the more I realise how many more jobs are available to me because I’ve got these qualifications. It’s great to feel that I have lots of opportunities, the field is really wide.

How do you see your career in science developing?

In terms of my career I’m still feeling my way – exploring and figuring out what I want to do in the longer term. So far, I’ve been fortunate to be able to just keep doing things that I’ve enjoyed – such as being part of the NuNano process engineering team.

I’m glad that I’ve managed to keep research as my focus and enjoy having a job that uses my curiosity. I really enjoyed my time in academia, studying for my qualifications, however I don’t mind admitting that I’m ready to throw myself back into the more ‘practical’ side of science, and looking forward to the challenges it will bring. I’m loving working at NuNano because I get to develop new products, which requires figuring out ways to make different AFM probes and understanding the processes involved to resolve challenges, all with the support of a close-knit team.

What does it mean to you to be a ‘woman in science’? Is it important to you?

Whilst it’s not all that common, yet, for women to be scientists and pursue careers in science as standard – at least not as common as it is for men – for the most part I don’t spend any time thinking about myself as a ‘woman in science’. But it’s the little silly things that bring it to the forefront.  

During my undergraduate degree for example, whilst I was working in the lab it was obvious that the space was set up mostly with men in mind. Everything was just too big for me, including things like protective gloves. I knew we were pushed for budget and that made it feel like a difficult thing to ask for them to buy in some smaller size gloves for me.

Hilariously, a similar thing happened when I came to work in the cleanroom for NuNano – I was too short to reach the shelf where some of the masks were kept! I didn’t really worry about it though, you get used to that sort of thing. What was great is that I just mentioned it off hand to Nathan and he got it changed right away, which was nice.

Did you think about pursuing your career as a scientist in academia?

Whilst I’m really happy where I am right now, one of my future dreams, if I could do anything, would be to become a professor in academia. Having just come out of the system and knowing what a long hard journey it is to get there though, that does feel…. a long way off, at the minute.  

It’s hard to progress from post doc level and there’s not much by way of job security. I’d have to do lots of travel, move around a lot to show that I can adapt, and that’s not always easy to do. If I’m being honest, starting along such a career path scares me if I think to the future, when I might want to have a family. I think it’s pretty difficult, as a woman, to have a family and progress far in academia. Not that many women do it and it looks really challenging.

What’s next for you?

Well, I just successfully passed my viva! It feels amazing to be completely done with my PhD, at least for the time being.

Right now, I’m just really enjoying working for NuNano. I get to carry on working in the lab, putting my knowledge to very practical uses. As we’re a small company I think there’s more freedom than there might be in a larger organisation, which is nice. We’re all involved in discussions and decisions about lots of aspects of company and product development. Recently I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to work in the new lab in Bristol too. That’s great because my family are from Bristol and it’s a good excuse to get home regularly for a bit of mum’s home cooking - as well as to work in a brand new lab space, honing my skills, working closely with James and developing new products.

 

 If you liked this blog post you may also like ‘An interview with Professor Daniel Robert’ and ‘An interview with Professor Mervyn Miles’