Professional Information, such as: 1) Current role/title: 2) Location: 3) Field of expertise:
Earth Science PDRA, freelance research, training and management consultant and artist. I currently live in a gorgeous seaside village in north east Scotland.
1. Tell us about your background? For example, tell us about your hearing loss, your schooling, and/or your family/culture
Unlike many of the other profilees, my hearing loss began in adulthood and I’ve only been part deaf for around half of my lifetime. I grew up in a town in northern England with a very middle-class upbringing. I don’t really remember interacting with any deaf people while growing up and my exposure to and awareness of deafness was limited to the idea that old people wore hearing aids, and sometimes someone would translate something into sign language on TV.
I probably started losing my hearing around the age of 21, but didn’t notice or get a formal diagnosis until I was in my mid-twenties. When I was 21, I had a hearing test as part of an investigation into some sinus pain I was having. With that test I discovered I had tinnitus; I came out of the test saying that I probably missed some beeps because I thought they were just normal background noise in my head that I hadn’t noticed before. In hindsight, I think that test actually showed hearing loss, but the consultants never actually showed me my audiogram or raised the issue – they just gave me a leaflet on tinnitus and that was that. I hadn’t noticed any problems with hearing, other than with one friend who is notorious for mumbling very quickly anyway, so didn’t think any more about it. Until a few years later when someone asked me if I was beeping. I thought my digital watch alarm had just stopped working about 6 months earlier. Turns out it was working fine and I just couldn’t hear it anymore.
My first proper audiogram showed I had above average hearing in the lower frequencies, but I was losing the high frequencies. I was given one hearing aid to try out initially. I remember feeling very disoriented when leaving the audiology clinic, wearing that hearing aid for the first time as sounds on my left were louder in my right ear. I also remember substantial pain and discomfort during those first few weeks of wearing ear moulds. I don’t know whether I just had badly fitting ones to start with or whether there is just an adaptation period.
My hearing loss is sensorineural, and probably down to a genetic mutation, but not any of the ones they can test for (or could test for 15-20 years ago). It is progressive and I was quickly moved onto wearing both hearing aids. And then more powerful hearing aids. A few years ago, I completely lost the highest frequencies in my right ear – that was not a fun hearing test as having a sound you can’t hear blasted into your ear at full volume feels a bit like your brain is being electrocuted.
Year by year I lose more and more of my hearing, and I’m now borderline eligible for cochlear implants, so there are big decisions for me on the horizon.
2. How did you get to where you are? For example: How did you decide on your field? How did you decide to pursue a higher degree in your field? What concerns did you have when you started out?
Some of my earliest memories are fossil hunting on a beach with my Mum. I think I inherited my love of the natural sciences from her. I’ve also always been a magpie, drawn to shiny things, and so developed an interest in rocks and minerals. I had the (rare) opportunity to take Geology at school, with one of the UK’s most enthusiastic and inspiring teachers, and got hooked. At university, I had plans to become a physical volcanologist (my inner magpie again – you can’t get much shinier than glowing basalt lava), but my maths and physics wasn’t good enough, and I drifted into geochemistry instead, where it is much easier to visualise and interpret data plotted on graphs and charts. I still wanted to work with volcanoes, and so research was really the only way to go. I managed to get onto a funded PhD program studying the temporal evolution of some Icelandic volcanoes, without having a masters, thanks to spending 5 months doing voluntary work at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
I finished my PhD in the usual (for the UK) 3-4 years, but my publication record got off to a slow start, so I was not very competitive in the research job market those first few years. In hindsight, it is possible that my hearing loss contributed to that difficulty – I was diagnosed about a year after completing my PhD, and so was probably struggling to hear and understand spoken conversations for a year or two before that, but without realising it, and instead just feeling tired all the time and low on capacity to get those papers written.
The slow start on publishing had me drifting from postdoc to postdoc. My first two postdocs, like my PhD, used a technique called Ar/Ar dating, where you work out how old a rock is by measuring isotopes of the noble gas Argon. At some point, funding for dating rocks dried up and I found myself taking a massive side step to work on a project that used noble gases as chemical tracers for carbon capture and geological storage (CCS). That was my gateway into the energy transition world, that has seen me working on a wide range of CCS issues, on hydrogen exploration, and recently teaching MSc students about energy technologies, climate change, and CO2 emissions mitigation.
I left mainstream academia about a year ago. By the time my CV (i.e. publication record) became competitive enough to stand a chance of getting an independent research fellowship or lectureship I was too “old” to be eligible for most fellowship programs (i.e. >10 years post PhD). When I started my last postdoc at Oxford University, I thought that would make-or-break my career. Thanks to Oxford’s exceptional careers centre, it broke it in the best possible way. I had the opportunity to engage with loads of entrepreneurial training and development, that helped me realise that academia is too restrictive for me – I am a generalist who thrives on getting above average expertise in a lot of things, but not the really high level of focussed expertise in a single niche, which is unfortunately still necessary to get on the permanent job ladder in the UK academic climate. The support network I developed through that training also helped me realise that my transferable skills ARE actually in demand, and it is possible to make a living off them. So I took the leap, set myself up as a portfolio career freelancer…. And landed right back in academia again with my first and third contracts, and I’ve just now started a new part-time PDRA at Strathclyde University, looking at storing heat in abandoned coal mine shafts. You gotta laugh.
This period of career transition was also important for bringing me into The Mind Hears. I first met Michele Cooke, co-founder of The Mind Hears, in San Francisco, at the AGU conference (back when we still had in-person conferences). I was giving a poster about native hydrogen. Michele was giving a talk about The Mind Hears and accessibility. We stayed in touch, and around the time I was finishing my last postdoc and looking out for freelance work, I saw that Michele was asking for someone to help with social media for The Mind Hears. So here we are!
3. What is a professional challenge you have faced related to your deafness? How have you mitigated this challenge?
As my hearing loss is progressive, the challenges are constantly evolving, and it is difficult to distinguish between professional challenges and general life challenges. Following meetings, lectures, and seminars has become increasingly difficult over the years, to the extent that I feel like I benefitted from, rather than suffered through, the pandemic lockdown with the move onto online meetings, with captions. One specific challenge that comes to mind is when I realised that I couldn’t hear the fire alarm while working in a particular lab (noble gas labs use a lot of pumps and compressors, so they are quite noisy). My supervisor at the time set up an elaborate plan, that meant I wasn’t allowed in the lab outside normal working hours (yay! – no late nights!), and I would always have a building buddy who would stop by the lab if the fire alarm went off. It was a nice idea, but within a couple of months, everyone who was supposed to be supporting the plan forgot about it, including the supervisor who then scheduled me on evening shifts in the lab. I ended up just leaving the door open when I was alone in the building. To any lab owners reading this – please have your institutions install flashing lights as part of the fire alarm – it is far more accessible!
4. What is an example of accommodation that you either use or would like to use in your current job?
It is more of an accessory than an accommodation, but I don’t know how I would survive without my Roger Pen / Roger On (or some other device that lets my hearing aids work like headphones – see post on FM systems). At the moment, most meetings I have are on video call, so my Roger Pen is attached to my computer and streams audio directly to my hearing aids. It is also great if I can get presenters to speak into or wear it during meetings, lectures etc.
5. What advice would you give your former self?*
Don’t hide your fire!
I think becoming more and more deaf has increased my ability to advocate for myself, mostly out of necessity. And that seems to have improved my capacity to speak up in general and share my opinion more often.
6. Any funny stories you want to share? For example: hearing aid batteries going dead at inopportune times, mis-hearing – hearing gaffes, dating with deafness
Remember that notorious-for-mumbling friend I mentioned in the first section? I remember a phone call with them – I think it was shortly before my hearing loss was diagnosed – they were talking about going on holiday and I was really confused because it sounded like they were going on holiday to Frog. We spent what felt like ages trying to establish what the place was. “Frog” evolved into “Frarg” which made even less sense, before I eventually managed to parse “Prague”. More than 15 years later, it is still an in-joke and we occasionally just shout “FRARG!” at each other.