• NATURE CAREERS PODCAST

Working Scientist podcast: Switching scientific disciplines

Diverging paths in field

Credit: David Madison/Getty

Anna Lappala and Stuart Higgins tell Julie Gould how they transitioned to, and from, physics.

In the penultimate episode of this six-part series about physics careers, Julie Gould talks to Stuart Higgins, a research associate at Imperial College London, who switched from solid state physics to bioengineering, and Anna Lappala, who moved from biochemistry to physics.

How easy were these transitions, and what is their advice to others planning similar moves?

Higgins says: "It's important to ask yourself why you want to make the transition. Do you want to apply the same skills or to learn new ones? Give yourself time to understand your motivation."

Overall, the transition was "liberating," he adds, allowing him to ask "basic, silly questions" of colleagues, who were very supportive of his situation and the learning curve he faced.

Lappala, a postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, describes how she was initially terrified of people discovering she was not a "real physicist" and worked hard to learn about general physics, quantum field theory, and soft matter, among other things.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-02500-z

Transcript

Anna Lappala and Stuart Higgins tell Julie Gould how they transitioned to, and from, physics.

Julie Gould

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. This is the fifth and penultimate part of our series on careers in physics where we’re hearing stories about transitions.

Now, we all know a career in science isn’t easy – it takes gut, perseverance and a passion for a subject beyond anything else. So, deciding to switch fields in the middle of a career doesn’t make it any easier, and in this episode, I speak to two people who transitioned across disciplines – one away from physics and the other towards physics. Stuart Higgins started out as a physicist at Imperial College London where he worked on large-scale beamline experiments during his undergrad years – imagine running around large warehouses with a spanner – and also on the smaller solid state physics experiments during his PhD. Now, imagine cleanroom clad, small movements and delicate electronics handling. But his transition from physics to biophysics came when a postdoc position in solid state physics he’d been contracted to do with Cambridge University was coming to an end and there had been a time limit on producing the product as he was working closely with industrial partners. Here’s his transition story.

Stuart Higgins

So, I spent just over eighteen months at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, using broadly the same skills but applied to a slightly different area. So, where I’d been working on bendy computer screens, I was now working on wireless tags for things. It was a very applied project working a lot with industrial partners, and so that kind of gave me a taste of okay, here’s what companies want when they want technology. Here’s what they’re looking for.

Julie Gould

And did that taste make you think a little bit more about what was going to happen in your future career?

Stuart Higgins

Yeah, and especially because I knew what I was signing up for but there was a finite amount of time on this project to get a product working, and I realised that while I really enjoyed the kind of application areas, I really enjoyed the goal-orientated perspective of working in industry, I also now wanted to do something a little bit different because I’d been doing the same thing for quite a while at that point. And I don’t know what it was, whether it was just having done the same thing for a long time and wanting to find something new and shiny or what it was, but it just felt like I want to carry this on but I want to be more closer to the more fundamental side or closer to the more kind of academic science side.

Julie Gould

When you were looking for a new role after your postdoc at Cambridge had ended, how did that particular job search feel? Was it an exciting time or was it a stressful time?

Stuart Higgins

To some extent, it’s nice in hindsight to look back at it and think, okay, idealistically, I looked at this and I thought this and I was inspired by this, but a big part of it was also the stress of that period and the anxiety of fundamental questions – who am I trying to be, what kind of career do I want, and all this kind of stuff. And so, yes, I was looking around and seeing other things and yes, I was really happy when I saw something that brought together an interest with a set of skills I already had, but maybe now I forget that actually it was a very stressful period and I was very much just trying to find something, a space, where I could be and where I could fit into all of this.

Julie Gould

So, what did you do?

Stuart Higgins

So, I moved back to Imperial College, which was never, ever planned and was just partly personal circumstances – I wanted to live in London and work in London and there are only a few universities in London. It was in the materials department at Imperial and they were looking for somebody to work in bioengineering-related projects who had the same skills that I’d been using in my previous two roles. I just thought that looks interesting, do you know what, I’ll just go and have a chat with somebody. I went and had a chat and it just grew from there.

Julie Gould

So, tell me a little bit more about that transition and how you moved from doing solid state physics to working in bioengineering because that seems like quite a big jump?

Stuart Higgins

Yeah, I really enjoyed the atmosphere. I mean I hate to say it but it was like the first time I’d been outside a physics lab and realising there were different ways science could be done and different kinds of interactions and the kinds of conversations I was having with biologists and chemists were different to the kinds of conversations with physicists, just in terms of the language and it felt a lot more open. It was very liberating in the sense that there was very much no expectation that I would understand much about the biology of the work I was doing because that wasn’t my background. My background was in making things and engineering things in the nanoscale, and so things like imposter syndrome weren’t really there. It went away because I was very much an imposter. I wasn’t expected to know these things and so weirdly enough, that was quite freeing and I could just be myself and ask lots of silly questions about what’s that and how does that work and not worry too much about it because there was no sense I should know that.

Julie Gould

You mentioned that the conversations were more open in the bioengineering department compared to the physics departments that you’ve been in. Can you tell me a little bit more about that and what that means?

Stuart Higgins

I think it’s more how I felt rather than an objective description of how the conversations were. So, I think if I were sitting when I was in the physics department, I would be sitting in a group meeting and kind of watching everyone and there’s always a little voice in the back of your head saying you need to understand this, you should understand this, this is what you do, this is close to what you do, you should be totally over this, you should be able to answer all these questions about this thing and you should know exactly where all this stuff is. Whereas here, again it was just something about sitting and having a conversation and saying actually, I don’t know how cells do that. It almost allowed me to ask quite basic questions that I would have otherwise been afraid to ask in a physics lab, but I could really question people on the fundamentals and full credit and respect to my colleagues for putting up with it because I imagine at some point it was probably a bit frustrating for them. And then every now and then you come across a really fundamental question that you thought was basic and actually made everyone think, and that was quite fun in itself because you’re pulling apart the basics of an idea and the fundamentals of an idea.

Julie Gould

One of the things that I hear a lot from people in academia is that networks are incredibly important. So, you moved into a completely new area of science, so how did you go about building up a network for yourself to help support you through your career and develop your science?

Stuart Higgins

I was lucky enough to go on a couple of really good conferences that were really targeted at the particular area I was interested in and they were a great way of meeting people and just having to put myself out there a little bit at the start and kind of really just start to talk to people. We’re quite a large research group so I was lucky to be able to form a network through the people in the group as well and start to know who they know, meeting a lot of collaborators. Basically, getting involved, I think, was the main thing.

Julie Gould

So, what advice do you have for any other physicists who are interested in transitioning out of their particular field of expertise into something completely new, just like you’ve done?

Stuart Higgins

I think – I mean, who knows – but it’s probably important to ask yourself why you want to make the transition. Is the transition because actually you love the science and want to do something different and interesting and if so, do you want to apply the same skills or do you want to learn new skills? For me, it was a little bit of a mixture of both, but I started off by applying my microfabrication background and then over time I picked up new skills. It’s giving yourself a little bit of time to understand what your motivation is and I guess being aware of your options because there’s lots of great stuff out there as well.

Julie Gould

Thank you to Stuart Higgins. Now, I really like the note that Stuart finished on, especially his advice on really being sure about why you’re making a transition, and Anna Lappala, she knew exactly why she wanted to make a transition. She decided to change fields because she discovered a deep-rooted love for physics and maths during her undergraduate studies. Now, Anna started out on the undergraduate natural sciences course at Edinburgh University, with the hope of becoming a neuroscientist, but along the way, realised that maths and physics were more her thing. Now, as a result of the subjects that she had chosen during her undergraduate years, Anna actually came out from Edinburgh University as a biochemist, but she refused to believe that she couldn’t be a physicist. She had made sure to study physics in all her spare time, determined not to let her degree get in the way of her passions. So, when she was looking for a PhD, she wrote to several physicists to see if they’d support her towards her goal – a physics PhD – but sadly, she received no responses and she started to question herself and the way she was applying for positions.

Anna Lappala

I started thinking about what to really write in the letter and I wanted to clarify in my cover letter that really, I have studied a lot of physics but that I had to do that on my own. I studied quantum mechanics, did a lot of just really basic equations and I had to really understand that, and I had to make sure that all that is clear to someone who was looking at my application. So, I wrote a really, really long email and researched who might be interested in that and I found a professor at Cambridge University, Eugene Terentjev, who was a theoretical polymer physicist, and I met him to talk about what I wanted to do. And I had a very clear vision of how I wanted to connect my knowledge with his expertise, so it was really exciting for both of us, I think, that in these three hours of my interview we were able to talk about all possible areas that could potentially be of interest, and that was how it started.

Julie Gould

So, Anna as a biochemist started her dream of becoming a physicist at Cambridge University. Yet even though she was elated to be doing what she had dreamed of and worked so hard for it, it still wasn’t a very easy transition.

Anna Lappala

And when I came to Cambridge, I was terrified because everyone was coming from a pure physics degree. They were very talented students who studied theoretical physics and knew a lot more than I did, and so I had to be kind of cautious but also aggressive to make sure that no one points out that you don’t even have a degree in physics. So, it was a very interesting time but I got so much support from Eugene who guided me from the beginning till the end, and he made sure that the concepts that were not clear to me, that I learn them and understand everything that I’m talking about, and it was just an exciting time really, one of the best times in my life.

Julie Gould

You’ve hinted at this concept of imposter syndrome – feeling like you didn’t quite belong given that you didn’t have the same background and expertise as everybody else, so how did you deal with that? How did you deal with this imposter syndrome?

Anna Lappala

Honestly, it was quite simple. The first day I came to Cambridge, I had my computer and it was running Ubuntu instead of what normally people use, either Macs or Windows, and Ubuntu is something that’s kind of techy, and I thought no one will find out that I’m a biologist if I’m using Ubuntu and that was just the operating system I was used to because I had to run my simulations. So, the first thing I did, I take out my computer and start running simulations and this was the first week, so I remember other PhD students who came in that year were kind of terrified because they thought, she’s really smart, she’s doing all these things that we don’t know about, she must be really something else, when I thought that they were that. So, it was a lot of fun. But also, another way of coping with it is just never telling anyone that I did have a biology degree, and probably the first time I kind of faced difficulty was after my first year when I had an exam and even though I knew everything about my topic, I was asked a very kind of random question outside of my area of expertise and this was then I realised that people will understand that I’m not a real physicist and I was terrified of that. So, after this experience, I made sure to learn more about general physics, so I went to all kinds of lectures on physics, for example, quantum field theory. I went to both courses of quantum field theory that were extremely advanced but also highly engaging. I went to courses in soft matter that Eugene was teaching and so I did immerse myself into the subject to make sure that even though there might be some parts of it that I was lacking knowledge on, that mostly I would know what other people around me know.

Julie Gould

Why was it so important to you to hide your biology background?

Anna Lappala

There’s a very strong hierarchy in the system where physicists really feel that they’re somewhere higher up there with probably somewhere close to pure mathematicians who know everything about the Universe. So, coming from biology, I was seen as someone who’s doing soft sciences, so I could not really, it was not an option. I was going the opposite way. I was not one of those fish that just kind of swam with the flow. I went against it and I had to jump many times. I had to go against really even myself and because of my interest, which I wasn’t able to control, I just had to really become aggressive to the point that I would ask difficult questions.

Julie Gould

So, for anybody who may be in a similar situation that you have found yourself in in the past, someone who is an outsider to physics and who’s keen to transition into physics, what advice would you have for them?

Anna Lappala

Well, they have to be sure that this passion is really something real, that it’s not something that’s driven externally and it really has to come from the inside. It’s not a natural one.

Julie Gould

Thanks to Anna Lappala. Now, in the very final part of this series, I speak to Gaia Donati. She’s an associate editor for the physical sciences team here at Nature, and I wanted to get her inside view on what is happening in the world of physics. Here’s just a little preview.

Gaia Donati

And I think that this is something that is characterising physics more and more, this willingness to reach out to different fields, different areas and see if the so-called physics mindset can somehow collaborate, can help, can bring insights into other areas.

Julie Gould

Now, don’t forget you can follow the Nature Careers adventures online on Twitter, Facebook and on the website at www.nature.com/careers. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing