Reading New Scientist paved Asel’s way from her home country, Kyrgyzstan, to a research career in the UK.
“I was born in Kyrgyzstan – a small country in Central Asia, which became independent through the break-up of the former Soviet Union while I was at school. My mother was always my role-model; she successfully built her career and independence despite many obstacles. She encouraged me to pursue my dreams and to believe that I could succeed, even though, when I went to study physical sciences at the Kyrgyz-Russian University in Bishkek, women were a very small minority and I was the only Kyrgyz woman on my course”.
Asel’s family mostly had arts and social sciences backgrounds, but from early on, she knew that wasn’t the path for her. “I guess in a way, going into science was my way of rebelling against my family.”
Her school science teachers were a powerful influence, especially her chemistry teacher. “She was very strong and later on she became the head of the school, which was very unusual in the former Soviet Union at that time. But my life is full of examples of very strong women.”
Next, Asel studied for a five year degree (similar to a natural sciences degree) at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University.
“I really enjoyed university. It was after the break up of the Soviet Union, just after the hardest time. It was the time when we all felt some sense of improvement and positive change in the society in general. By about my second year at the university, I knew I wanted to be an academic and do scientific research. I wanted to discover something new, something nobody had thought of before or seen before but at the same time, something practical, something which can change lives positively”.
In 1996, Asel won first place in the Republic Science Olympiad, in the area of “Strength of Materials” (soprotivlenie materialov). She was the first woman ever to win this prize. “This was a very proud moment of my life” she says, “for the first time, I thought that I succeeded in something very challenging”.
Reading “New Scientist” pays off
After completing the degree, Asel wanted to go to the UK to study. She applied for various scholarships but was not successful – she was made several offers from universities, but couldn’t afford the fees. Instead, she started volunteering part-time at the British Council in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The Council building received various publications, including New Scientist. Asel remembers “no one touched [New Scientist] in the British Council – everybody wanted to read the Economist!”
However Asel did read the New Scientist, found an advertisement for a Cambridge University scholarship, and applied. After some preliminary correspondence (in which she was asked if Kyrgyzstan was a real place and if she was a real applicant!), Asel was offered a place to study for an MPhil and then a PhD.
“As far as I know, I was the first Kyrgyz to receive a PhD at Cambridge. I hope there will be more after me.”
Postdoc and dancing
After Cambridge, post-doctoral work in Arizona State University followed:
“I took a post-doctoral position at the Arizona State University working with Prof Mike Thorpe and Prof Simon Billinge, after we had moved to Arizona when [my husband] Stephen was offered a post-doctoral position in Mike’s group. I think I was very lucky, as both Mike and Simon were great mentors. Stephen and I had a great time in Arizona, both professionally and socially. We started dancing, which was a great way of meeting people and socialising, keeping fit and having fun. We even competed in several amateur ballroom dance competitions. Professionally, this was the time when I found my academic identity. I decided that I wanted to study zeolites and I found that I have a unique set of skills and knowledge spanning mineral physics, crystallography, biology and chemistry - I think combining many skills and insights from different disciplines really works for my research”.
Asel’s next move was back to the UK, working as Glasstone Research Fellow at Oxford University: “I was lucky again with my new mentor Prof Peter Edwards, who has encouraged and supported me all the way. I started a new project on development of reactive nanoparticles inside amorphous silica and continued my work on zeolites. We have even written several articles and book chapters on energy and hydrogen economy, a completely new subject for me at the time”.
A daughter, Melinda, arrived in 2010, and shortly after, Asel received the Royal Society University Research Fellowship. Whilst on maternity leave, she came up with an idea for using silicas to protect and store vaccines. She explains: “For the first time in this project, I thought of protecting the vaccine from the environment for transport and storage, using a radically new methodology, and then releasing it for use as and when required. I believe that the idea is very exciting and have made it my top research priority, as the implications of such a project working can potentially make major improvements to health programmes worldwide.” Asel now continues her research on vaccines as a fellow at Bath University.
“I do research. This is my passion, my outlet for creativity, my pain (good and bad), my joy and my happiness.”
“I always get butterflies in my stomach when I am about to start experiments, but I am better now at hiding it in front of my students! The best feeling ever is getting the glimpse of the first results from the experiment. A lot of the times the data are exactly how I expected it, but still it makes me feel so good. Nothing else compares with this feeling.”
"There were plenty of times when I was commented on or bullied as a woman in science, most of the time by my colleagues. Sometimes, I brushed it off and sometimes it really affected me for a long time. I think the fact that I am where I am now shows that we have gone far in addressing the diversity issues, but there is still much to be done. I hope by the time my daughter grows up, the society as a whole will be more accepting of many personal differences and backgrounds."
Words by Jenifer Mizen
Images courtesy of Asel Sartbaeva