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Once a physicist: Caroline Harper

Caroline Harper is chief executive of the Sightsavers charity and was awarded the OBE for services to the gas industry in 2000

Caroline Harper

Why did you decide to study physics?
It was fairly straightforward. I did maths, physics and chemistry at A-level partly because they were my strongest subjects, and partly thanks to the influence of my father, who said that science would always get you a good job. Then, when it came time to move on to university, I was just better at physics - I can't say I had a huge desire to study the subject!

How did you get into the energy industry?
I had done a "science and society" project on future energy issues as an undergraduate at the University of Bristol, so when I saw that Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory had a research group devoted to energy studies, it really attracted me. As part of my PhD in the group, I studied the residential energy market, so it seemed logical for me to move into the industry after I finished. Initially, I didn't get the right job - I misread a job advert and thought it was more senior than it was - but I tried some different ones and eventually I moved into commercial negotiation for British Gas. My career really took off from there.

You became the first managing director at Amerada Hess Gas. What was that like?
I'd been doing commercial negotiation around gas purchasing and transportation, so when I was headhunted to start Amerada's retail gas business from scratch, it was a big jump. Initially I was going to turn it down; I spoke to my father about it and he said he wasn't sure I could really do it. But then, just as I was about to say "no", my father died, and it was one of those moments where you think, "What am I afraid of, here?" So, oddly enough, his death sparked a flame of ambition in me, and I said yes.

How did you get to be chief executive at Sightsavers?
After we sold Amerada Hess Gas, I did some travelling and I decided that I would like to get into the not-for-profit sector. I thought it would be difficult to do that with my private-sector CV, so I applied to be a non-executive director of my local housing association in Notting Hill, London, because I thought it would give me useful experience (which it did). Then a few years later, Sightsavers advertised for a chief executive role and it was just one of those things where, very occasionally, you see something and you think, "That's what I want to do." I had blindness in my family (my father and uncle were both blind before they died), so it had some personal resonance for me. I didn't actually think I'd get the job because I had so little experience either in international development or in the charity world, so I was hugely pleased when I got it.

That's the second time you've mentioned feeling unqualified to do something. Are you prone to impostor syndrome?
I think so, occasionally. You sort of think, "My goodness, am I really doing this?" But since my father died, one of the things I have consciously done is that even if I think, "Oh, they won't want me, I couldn't possibly," I make myself do it and that's stood me in good stead. And I think women are particularly prone to it - there's that classic story of how women will look at a job advert where there are six requirements and think, "Oh, I can't do that because I only meet five of them," whereas a man will say, "I meet three out of six, I'll give that a go." I've seen that in some of the women I've worked with and I've encouraged them not to be held back by it.

What are you working on at the moment?
We've got a very big push on tropical diseases, particularly trachoma, which is actually chlamydia in the eye. People get infected as young children, over and over again, and their eyelids start turning inside out. Then the eyelashes scrape the cornea, which is absolutely agonizing, and they go blind. We are aiming to eliminate blinding trachoma from all the countries where we work by 2020. That's probably our most exciting project, and certainly for me, personally, the idea of helping to eliminate a disease from the world - and it's not just trachoma, there's several that we work on, including one called river blindness - I can't really think of anything more exciting in terms of a legacy.

Any advice for today's students?
Keep your options open and don't assume that you have to follow an obvious treadmill, or that the first job you get is the one you have to do for life. And there's one other thing, particularly for women. When I was studying physics, we were very much the minority, and I remember being really quite intimidated when some of my male classmates would go around saying, "Oh, these exams, they're so easy it's an insult to my intelligence." I found the exams quite difficult, and I remember being really worried - only to discover that a lot of the guys who had been going around boasting actually didn't do very well at all, whereas I did fine. So don't be intimidated if you're in the minority. You're just as good as they are.



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