Proactively promoting science
Rebecca Ballantyne – a senior technologist at Sellafield – recently became a chartered chemist. She spoke to us about how the process opened doors for her, challenging her in new ways and allowing her to use her chemistry background to give back to the community.
Rebecca is part of the Technical and Strategy Team working for Analytical Services Programme at Sellafield Ltd– the nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear decommissioning site in Cumbria. Her role encompasses many aspects of Analytical Chemistry from technical guidance for instrument method development and validation to technical studies identifying new opportunities and efficiencies.
Rebecca has had an interesting and varied journey to her current position at Sellafield Ltd. She originally graduated in forensic science, which she says gave her a broad understanding of science and a variety of career options.
"I had always loved science from a very young age, but wasn't sure which route to pursue when it came to deciding on my degree subject. I did some research and I realised that Forensics was a great broad science degree that explored many areas of science – from pathology and toxicology to ballistics and entomology and everything in between! The degree also covered criminal law and court room modules so it was a great introduction to critical analysis and problem-solving. As a standalone degree, I felt that I had a lot of options and opportunity after graduation, I wasn`t just restricted to a role working within Forensic Science."
Rebecca became a Chartered Chemist (CChem) in November 2018. One of the requirements for CChem – Attribute E – involves making a contribution to the chemical sciences outside of your normal role.
Having a young daughter herself, Rebecca became even more aware of the importance of inspiring the next generation to pursue a career in a STEM based role. “Many of the areas that I have worked in have a noticeable lack of female graduates. I'd like to encourage more girls to explore the sciences as possible career choices. STEM subject choices at school and university, can lead onto fast paced and challenging professions”. She also went on to add that “STEM careers often offer brilliant job prospects with higher than average salaries when compared to other non-STEM careers. These careers drive growth and push the boundaries of life as we know it. STEM areas must be made up of a diversified crowd if we are to continue to push these boundaries. As a female working in a specialist scientific field, I feel it is essential that I am both visible and vocal about addressing such issues”.
“My goal is to challenge the gender-stereo type that scientists and chemists are often placed in”.
Rebecca chose to focus her STEM activities in and around Carlisle in Cumbria, which is her home town. “Sellafield has a big presence in West Cumbria via outreach STEM events through Inspira and the Primary Business Partnership so there are some fantastic opportunities for local children to get inspired and involved in STEM, so I decided to focus my efforts in North Cumbria around the Carlisle area.
Rebecca has strong links with the University of Cumbria, which has its main campus based in Carlisle. Although Rebecca has no experience of teaching, she has previously produced and delivered a guest lecture in Analytical Chemistry at the University and taken part in careers events to both promote Sellafield Ltd and the RSC to undergraduates. "The University of Cumbria offers a wide range of courses in both modern facilities and beautiful locations throughout the Lake District. I have now taken part in several events with the university to share workplace experiences of life after graduation and working in the chemical sciences."
Rebecca added that at one event in April 2018 she was thrilled to see so many female graduates at a scientific careers event. "It really felt as though there was a change in momentum and direction, with so many attendees being noticeably driven and assertive. Many already knew where their degrees could take them after graduation and what was required to get there. There was a real sense of empowerment."
Goldilocks and the three bears
Rebecca was keen to work with children of all ages and not just those at graduate level. She approached some contacts at the local nursery school that her daughter attended and offered to draw on her original training to run some age-appropriate sessions on forensics over the summer. Rebecca wanted to use a well-known nursery story to encourage a questioning attitude to encourage the children to think a little deeper than just accepting the story at face value. She designed an interactive story session to encompass some basic problem solving and critical thinking.
"I decided to base the lesson on the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears – I set up a series of scenes from the story and clues so we could look at the evidence and follow the story as we moved from one area to the next."
"We used UV lights to look at fingerprints on bowls and spoons. I borrowed one of my young daughter’s boots and we did some footprint analysis looking at the tread – we compared bear paw-prints as well! I had left some fibre evidence on a broken chair and finally I set up a mock bed and put a bit of blond hair from a wig in it and let the children search for the evidence. They absolutely loved it."
Rebecca has since delivered this session at other local primary schools and has featured in two school newsletters promoting science and the RSC by providing accessible science activities for children of all ages and abilities.
Rebecca's career path
- 2007: Graduated in forensic science with particular interest in toxicology and analytical chemistry
- 2007: Began work straight away after graduation as a trainee analyst at a pharmaceutical company in Carlisle
- 2007–2009: Progressed to senior analyst.
- 2009: Began working as an analyst at Sellafield
- 2009–2018: Progressed through the plant control laboratories. Became a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry (MRSC)
- 2018: Complete Chartered Chemist (CChem) assessment. Part of the assessment included an equivalence form to demonstrate masters level working.
- Early 2019: Promoted to senior analytical technologist on the technical and strategy team
- Currently working towards Chartered Scientist (CSci) – expected to complete this year
- Also working towards Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry (FRSC)
Pupil referral unit
Encouraged by her success and keen to ensure that children of all abilities could gain from her passion for the sciences, Rebecca offered her services to the Gillford Centre, a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) in Carlisle for children who are not in mainstream education. "I really wanted to involve children who weren’t currently getting access to additional STEM support", she says.
"The PRU was really keen for me to produce some forensic workshops for a group of three children with autism." As Rebecca has had no teacher training, she spent time researching and developing a bespoke session catered around the children’s specific needs and learning styles.
"In designing the session, I ensured that the content and teaching style was appropriate for the children", says Rebecca.
One child loved to read out loud so she ensured that there were pauses in the presentation to allow the opportunity to read out loud. Another child liked making notes, so Rebecca produced summaries of the session content to enable the child to populate the blank areas. Another child was incredibly artistic so Rebecca gave her a spider diagram at the beginning of the session and asked them to continue adding to this throughout the session. By the end it was populated with everything the group had covered. Rebecca included several "breakout" practical sessions, covering thin layer chromatography, pH testing, UV light and fingerprints.
Rebecca also worked with a larger group with behavioural problems. She further developed the forensics theme by basing the session on a "who-done-it" concept. "The children thoroughly enjoyed these sessions and it gave me a real sense of achievement and pride to watch both the confidence and curiosity of the groups grow throughout the sessions."
Engaging disengaged pupils
After these successes, the head teacher at the PRU asked Rebecca if she could also work with a group of Key Stage 4 girls who had become disengaged with science.
"I have a real drive to encourage children to pursue science and other STEM subjects regardless of background, age and ability. In some cases the children involved don't always understand the relevance of science and they can often feel as though it doesn`t apply to them."
After meeting with the girls to determine which topics interested them, it became apparent that all had a real interest in the beauty industry, with many expressing an interest in pursuing this as a career option after secondary education. "We discussed the skills needed to work within the beauty industry and began to cover specific treatments."
Rebecca then designed two sessions for the group based on this initial discussion. As Rebecca had no experience working within cosmetology, she spent a considerable amount of time researching and producing the sessions.
"I designed two sessions based on the science behind the beauty industry. The girls were a bit quiet when the session began, and it took a bit of time to raise their confidence, but by the end they were a lot more engaged and actively participating."
"We looked at popular treatments – such as nail varnish, shellac, peroxides, fillers and Botox – and the chemistry behind them. We also looked at makeup and contouring and how it is all based on light reflection and absorption with some basic light and colour chemistry."
"Finally we looked at employability skills – what attributes were needed to work in the beauty industry, like being able to converse and speak with people and being able to explain how the treatments work and what they actually do on a physical and chemical level."
Rebecca also covered careers in the development of new techniques within the scientific field of cosmetology.
She added: "Rather than performing the techniques, the girls were really interested in the development of these procedures and other possible career options, which was brilliant! It gave me confidence that I had bridged the gap in terms of making science feel relevant and of use to the group."
Hard work pays off
"I received fantastic feedback from all of my STEM activities and I was thrilled to be nominated for an award through the STEM programme, as the most outstanding new STEM ambassador, 2018."
"I was also nominated for an RSC award by my CChem mentor, as the most inspirational member, 2019 for my STEM work. This was also supported and endorsed by the Senior RSC co-ordinator at Sellafield Ltd who has actively encouraged my efforts to improve diversity within the chemical sciences."
This kind of in-depth, tailored support for different groups has required a great deal of work, but Rebecca has found it fulfilling to see it pay off and has been incredibly proud to be nominated for several awards.
She says that the key to balancing the extra work with her day job, whilst maintaining work-life balance, is to be extremely well-organised.
"I’m a full time working mum, and I commute about three hours every day for work, so I’m already quite organised. I am lucky to have a really supportive husband who acknowledges the importance of the additional work I undertake to promote STEM in our community. He believes that our little girl should have the same options and opportunities as any other child growing up, so he fully supports this work (even though our kitchen can often turn into a mini forensic lab when I`m preparing for a session!)."
In addition, Sellafield Ltd has supported her and others by allowing employees to take five days a year to take part in activities that support STEM. Rebecca has now taken on an additional role as a member of the succession board of Women in Nuclear, Cumbria section. In this position Rebecca is the STEM co-ordinator for North Cumbria and she has already begun working to align STEM events in the area. "There are a lot of amazing STEM projects ongoing in Cumbria, but I have found that they can sometimes be limited in terms of impact and outreach due to issues with advertisement and distribution lists.
"We are all working towards the same goal, whether it be a chemical sciences, mathematics, engineering or technology orientated event, we all want to encourage children and young adults to pursue these subject and career choices. By working together and co-ordinating our events we can have the maximum impact and lasting influence on the younger generation. We need a diverse group of people to tackle the problems of today and tomorrow with creative and innovative problem solving – we won`t achieve this if our STEM industries are comprised of a small demographic within our population."
Rebecca says that doing CChem has brought her out of her shell. "I’ve really enjoyed it", she says, "and it’s made me look at doing things I wouldn’t normally consider doing. I’ve always been actively interested in promoting science, but I’ve never been as proactive as I am now. It’s a great feeling to take back control and start organising my own events, but to also take a lead role in the co-ordination side of STEM events and to have an input in future collaborations."
"I achieved my CChem in November, and it feels fantastic", says Rebecca. "There’s a real sense of pride. I’m very proud of the achievement and my contribution to the work the RSC does to promote diversity in science."
"I think the fact that you’ve been accredited speaks volumes, and really adds to the potential in your career. It opens a lot more doors and it’s been excellent for networking as well. It has really boosted my confidence."
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