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Once a physicist: Leonor Sierra

Leonor Sierra is international science and policy manager at the London-based charity Sense About Science, which aims to help people make sense of scientific and medical claims.

Leonor Sierra

What sparked your interest in physics?
Curiosity has a lot to do with it, and there was also a very special teacher at my school who was really inspiring. When it came to choosing university subjects, I originally thought I would do chemistry or maybe engineering, but thanks to that teacher I decided to go for physics. He also encouraged me to leave Spain and apply to the University of Cambridge. When I was at Cambridge, I really wanted to be a researcher so I could keep on learning. I also liked the idea of teaching, a skill I acquired while still at high school, when I taught maths to younger students. I thought that becoming an academic physicist was a good way of combining these two interests.

When did you start leaning towards science policy?
During the last year of my PhD I realized that what I loved more than anything was learning about the science that other people are doing. That made me think that I wanted a career that dealt with much broader aspects of science, and this became even clearer to me when I was writing my thesis. Most people don't like doing this, but it was probably my favourite part of my PhD because it gave me a much broader understanding of the research I had been doing. Then, just as I was finishing my thesis, I saw a position advertised at Sense About Science for a scientific liaison role, which involved putting scientists in touch with the media and other civic groups. I applied because it looked like a great opportunity to work with scientists and keep learning from them, while at the same time mediating between the scientific world, the public and policymakers

What skills are needed in your present job?
You need to be extremely flexible in how you react to a wide range of external events – something that most scientists don't have to do. You also have to really enjoy talking to people and finding out what they are working on. Having a broad understanding of the debates that are happening in the wider world is crucial, and this means that you have to keep up to date with the news. Finally, you need to have a bit of a thick skin, be willing to roll with the punches and not get easily frustrated.

Has your background in physics helped you with your job?
The crux of what Sense About Science does is to encourage people to think critically about things, and I think that doing physics has taught me how to do just that. My physics background also allows me to look at source material such as scientific papers and understand what is important – this is a very specific skill that is quite useful to me right now.

Which Sense About Science campaign are you most proud of?
Of the campaigns that I have been personally involved in I am most proud of our efforts on the principles of the independence of scientific advice. This followed a UK government minister's decision to dismiss the chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, David Nutt, in 2009 because the minister decided that Nutt was "a campaigner against government policy". What worried Sense About Science was that Nutt's dismissal was a response to statements he had made in scientific papers and academic lectures, and therefore was a threat to the independence of scientific advisers and their academic freedom. We joined forces with the academic community to create a set of rules and principles on how scientists and governments should engage, and these were signed by about 100 very senior scientific advisers. Then we worked to get the principles into the ministerial code, which happened during the change of government in 2010. It was amazing to see something that we had long been pushing for actually happen.

What are you working on now?
My main focus at the moment is expanding our activities in the US. We are extending our Voice of Young Science Network, which encourages early-career researchers to play an active role in public debates about science. My role is to develop the network, find partners and get scientists energized and out speaking publicly.

Any advice for today's physics students?
I don't think that you have to decide on a career on day one. When I was a student, I assumed that I was going to be a researcher and I couldn't envision doing anything else. It is best to have an open mind and aim to do what makes you happy. Physics is a great way of developing skills such as critical thinking and gaining a good understanding of the world. You should do it not because you can see a career at the end of it, but because you love it.

This article appears in the May 2012 issue of Physics World

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