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Women in STEM | Prof Jess Johnson

In honour of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day on March 8, we asked women in environmental sciences to answer questions about what it is like being a woman in STEM. The following is a compilation of questions and answers from the questionnaire with Jess Johnson, an Associate Professor of Geophysics at University of East Anglia.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

Maths, because it made so much sense and I found solving equations so satisfying.

How have your beliefs, motivations and aspirations changed over time? When did a career in STEM become a priority or choice?

I have been lucky that I have always been encouraged to follow my own interests in STEM (I know a lot of girls don't have that luxury). I never really had a doubt that I would go to university, but I hadn't given much thought to what I would read until my geography teacher handed me a university prospectus open at the page for geophysics. My entire life was planned out in that instant. It was exactly what I was meant to do.

What is/was your PhD topic?

Discriminating between stress and structurally controlled seismic anisotropy in volcanic regions.

How did you get into your current field? What is your academic background?

I had a very linear career. I did an MSci in Geophysics at the University of Leeds, a PhD in Geophysics at Victoria University of Wellington, a post-doc at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory/University of Hawaii at Hilo and then a Marie Curie fellowship at the University of Bristol before getting a permanent lecturer position at UEA. I've had my eye on the prize since a very young age and have never wavered. The main decision I had to make was whether I would prefer to be in a volcano observatory setting or a university setting. In the end, I chose a university because I love teaching.

What are the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome? Do you feel that your academic career would be easier/harder if you were male?

I have been very lucky and have not had to overcome many obstacles because of my gender. The main time I felt disadvantaged was after I took parental leave, when I was being compared with (male) colleagues who had not taken a break and so my research record was not as impressive.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?

I think there needs to be an overall change in attitude. From very early on, some girls are told that they can't do Science and Maths. I cannot believe that this fallacy is still being echoed. I also think that success in science needs to be measured in a more diverse way. We are still judged by the number of papers we publish, but the effort put into quality teaching, impact and engagement, while recognised, is not weighted evenly.

Do you have a female role model?

Many! My geography teacher who first introduced me to geophysics, my PhD supervisor, my colleague 2 doors down the hall. All three of these women have successful careers, happy families, and open-door policies. I am constantly in awe of them for being able to have all three.

What advice would you give to other women beginning their PhD journey?

Just be your best self. Do what you enjoy, and you will do it better. Push yourself but don't change who you are because of external pressures.

Do you have a network of women in STEM around you to share knowledge and remind you that you are not alone? If so, how did you go about creating that network?

I suppose I do have a support network, but it has grown organically. I also wouldn't say that my support network is specifically women in STEM. There are challenges faced by scientists of all identities at all career levels. With a diverse network, there is support for a bit of everything. I think the challenges facing early career researchers of any gender can be overwhelming, so the network of peers from my PhD and post-docs and been particularly valuable.

If you could go back and change one thing in your STEM path, what would that be?

I don't think I would change anything. I'm pretty happy with where I have ended up :)

Do you have any plans for the future, both in your academic and personal life, and do you feel that there are any barriers to these plans?

Having a family certainly complicates things. It is a lot easier to follow the jobs when it is just you to worry about. The two-person-problem can be a barrier, and with a kid, it can be even harder to move if the job requires you to. We are all settled now, but if things change and we have to move, I imagine the challenge will be great.

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