Women in STEM: Dr Helen WIlliams

Dr Helen Williams is a Reader in Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences and a Fellow of Jesus College. Here, she tells us about using rocks as pieces of forensic evidence, what it’s like hundreds of kilometres below the Earth’s surface, and why Cambridge brings out the best in her.

My research has taken me all over the world. I have been lucky enough to work in remote places like Kohistan in northwest Pakistan, Tibet, Iceland and Greenland, collaborating with a wide spectrum of great people and experiencing many interesting cultures and places.

I use rocks as pieces of forensic evidence. They help me to understand how the chemistry of the Earth and other planets has evolved since their formation more than four billion years ago. I work on a range of problems, including trying to understand how the plate tectonic processes can help cycle elements like iron, carbon and sulfur between the Earth’s surface and deep interior. I am also trying to find evidence for the Earth’s earliest internal melting events in 3.7-billion-year-old rocks. My work involves analytical lab work and plasma mass spectrometry as well as sample collection and fieldwork.

I’m an Earth Scientist with a very broad scientific background. I read Natural Sciences in Cambridge as an undergraduate and leaned towards the biological sciences initially. I took earth sciences to broaden my scientific horizons and found I loved it, so switched to this in my second year. After my PhD, I held a series of postdoctoral research positions and fellowships in the UK and abroad. There are so many people in Cambridge who are enthusiastic and passionate about research and understanding the world around them, and I find this uplifting, motivating and intellectually stimulating. I feel this environment brings out the best in me.

I’ve always wanted to have a career where you have a sense of real discovery. I remember when I made my first major scientific discovery during my first postdoc position at ETH-Zurich. When I looked at the emerging data patterns, at first I didn’t believe what I was seeing, then I was so excited I felt almost physically sick. For me, these rare moments are worth the sacrifices (and there are many) that are needed for a career in academia. Another really exciting project involved carrying out experiments that simulated the conditions of the Earth’s lower mantle (about 720km below the Earth’s surface) and using isotope tracers to understand how reactions taking place in this part of the Earth could have governed the chemical evolution of the Earth’s surface, and made our planet habitable.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to turn every decision you make into the right one. If I were to offer any words of advice I would like them to be “don’t give up” – but that is rather simplistic. Everyone feels like giving up at some point but, realistically, I think it’s a case of being proactive and making continued forward progress however tough you are finding things. It’s easy to get discouraged by situations or by comparing yourself to others. It’s also easy to find everything overwhelming – but a lot of small steps can take you where you want to be. I also feel it’s always important to ask advice and heed it, but ultimately you have to make your own decisions and stick with them. Occasionally you have to be prepared to take risks and sometimes you have to decide between difficult options.

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