Dr Helen Bridle, academic, sportswoman and ambassador for young women in science

Helen running

Dr Helen Bridle is an Assistant Professor at Heriot-Watt University.   She recently won the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Innovator’s Prize for Public Engagement. Between 2009-2015 she held a Royal Academy of Engineering/EPSRC Fellowship investigating the detection of waterborne pathogens.  In 2012 she was awarded a British Science Association Media Fellowship.  

A keen runner and orienteer, she has competed in the Marathon des Sables (6 marathons in 6 days in the Sahara) and came 6th in the 2006 World Orienteering Championships. She also won gold (2002, 2006) and silver medals (2006) in the World University Orienteering Championships.

When I read Breaking The Mould and looked back at some of the scientists I thought about how difficult it was for them to go to university. In some ways I felt quite lucky that things have improved so much but then, also sad in that all sorts of women have been fighting for equal rights for so long and it still feels like there’s lots to do. It was interesting reading about some of the women who have overcome real adversity and made something positive out of it, really impressive.

The publication introduced me to history that I didn’t know about. The broad perspective was interesting; I think quite a lot about gender equality in science and the pamphlet covered many different areas; there were many names I didn’t recognise.

I liked the balance; the profile of scientist Charlotte Auerback mentioned her other interests and noted she had written a book of fairy tales. I liked that aspect of showing other things people are interested in beyond what they are famous for; I wouldn’t like people to feel that they can only succeed in academia if that’s all they do, it’s nice to see people having a wider range of interests.

My motivation is to do something that is challenging, new to me, when I can learn new skills, that sort of thing, where I feel there’s some sort of personal development. So, it might not be a…it’s sort of not a plan to get to a particular status or earn a certain amount of money but to do things I find interesting I guess.

It’s hard to single out career highlights but there’s certainly a buzz when you get something back, when you find out you’ve won a prize and perhaps particularly when you get some grant funding because you think ‘oh brilliant, I’ve got the money now to deliver that or explore that idea’. I find it really exciting when a student I’ve helped has gone on and achieved things. I published a book about water-borne pathogens in 2013 and that was a real effort to write, it took so much more time and it was so much harder than I imagined it would be so I think that was quite a highlight in terms of actually feeling that it was completed and seeing the printed book.

Helen Science.jpg

There wasn’t a career plan, it has been more things that have interested me at the time or things that I felt passionate about. I didn’t think I wanted to be an academic necessarily and actually I didn’t know that much about it when I was at university studying, because I didn’t know anyone in my family who worked at university or did anything like that.

I’ve always done orienteering, it’s something my dad was very keen on so it was a bit of a family activity when I was young. I had reasonable success and then started training a bit harder and got to represent Great Britain. It was really exciting, a great way to travel to lots of different places – I’ve been racing in Japan and South Africa, Taiwan and lots of places in Europe as well. I think one of the good things about sport is that you have to learn quite a lot of skills that are transferable to life. Like performing and managing your emotions, all of these sorts of sport psychology skills that transfer into work skills. Often in orienteering you run an individual race but we have relay races as well so there’s a teamwork element and…you make some great friends through it as well.

Having interests outside of work impacted on my work choices because being an academic you have this flexibility, you’re sort of in charge of your time in a way that you maybe wouldn’t be if you worked a 9-5 job, and you can obviously work from remote locations. So it has been flexible in terms of what I’ve wanted to do, orienteering or other crazy running things that I’ve been able to fit in.

I won the Royal Society of Edinburgh prize for public engagement so I’ve done quite a lot of community engagement.  For example a group of us were involved in a project called ‘Ingenious’, taking researchers from the university to schools. We only had the resources to deliver the project in two schools so we tried to pick areas that maybe wouldn’t get opportunities all the time.  A good mix of people were selected from the university in terms of gender balance, background and other factors, so that pupils could see that a scientist or an engineer didn’t look a certain way and that anyone could be one. The literature said that by age 11 many girls have already rejected science subjects/career options and we when we asked the pupils ‘would you consider a career in science and technology?’ a lot of the girls [age 12 & 13] were already ‘definitely not’.

Helen school.jpg

I’m also involved in Athena Swan, which is about equality of opportunity in science; a charter that universities can sign up to. The Engineering and Physical Sciences School at Heriot Watt University have just been awarded our Bronze award.

I find it hard to think of clear role models. I guess it would be occasional things where I’ve seen things in people and thought ‘oh they’re really passionate and dedicated about what they do’. Certainly people have helped me with their advice or in a mentoring capacity. For example I got the Royal Academy of Engineering and EPSRC five-year research fellowship and at a mid point I got advice  saying ‘you’ve got a couple of years left on this fellowship, you need to think about the next steps’, whereas I probably would’ve thought ‘oh I’ve got a couple of years left, I’ll worry about it next year’.

Think about trying to put yourself forward for prizes or at least ensure that perhaps the people who would nominate you for prizes know some of the things that you’ve been doing. I think it’s a funny sort of skill to develop but that first fellowship application I wrote, I remember you had to write two pages about track record where you basically say ‘I’m so wonderful’ so they believe that if they give you the money you will deliver what you said you’re going to do. The first one I wrote, it was just awful, I think my first draft was very meek and didn’t really sell myself at all and then someone gave me some examples and I thought ‘oh I see!’ Now it’s interesting I can write that sort of thing without difficulty but it feels really awkward and strange to begin with.

You have to develop a coping mechanism to deal with rejection. I think I’ve just decided that funding is just a percentages game, you get a lot of negative feedback, success rates of funding applications are 10% or 20% – maybe less- so I try not to take that personally.

Time is quite a major challenge. Obviously there’s so much time-management and trying to keep a work-life balance… one of the things that I really like about science is that I can explore my own ideas and develop them and see them from an idea to an actual product, and sort of figure out how things work, but it’s time consuming.

To find out more about Helen visit:  http://drhelenbridle.weebly.com/cv.html


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