Dr Emily Grossman is a scientist, actress, presenter and science communicator. You may have seen her on ‘The Alan Titchmarsh Show’, Sky1’s ‘Duck Quacks Don’t Echo’ and during her TEDx talk called ‘Why Science Needs People Who Cry!’ In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from her love of acting, to her favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. It has been a pleasure to speak with Emily and we hope you enjoy reading about her adventures.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: Well… I’ve been a scientist, an actress, and a science teacher – and now I’ve finally found a way to combine these different parts of myself, as a Science Communicator. Basically, what that means is I get to spend my time talking about science, which I love, and showing people just how exciting and fun it is. I explain sciency stuff on the TV and radio – you might have seen me on the news, or as resident science expert on The Alan Titchmarsh Show or Sky1’s Duck Quacks Don’t Echo – I give talks in schools and universities and at fun places like The Science Museum and The Hay Festival; I teach science, and I’ve just written my first book about science. I also train people in communication skills and working with the media. It’s a pretty cool and diverse job and I love it! A lot of my work is about increasing gender equality and diversity in science, and raising awareness as to the value of emotions – I recently gave a TEDx talk called Why Science Needs People Who Cry!
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I was very lucky, I grew up in Hampstead, a beautiful leafy part of North West London with lovely old houses and a big park with duck ponds. It was full of hippy artists and writers when we lived there and everyone knew each other so it really felt like living in a country village – but with all the benefits of being near to the action and excitement of a big bustling city.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I absolutely loved maths and all the science subjects, they made sense to me as they were so logical, and my brain likes logical! So I worked hard at them and therefore I did well. I really enjoyed drama and singing too, and I got some great roles in a few of our school musicals – my best experiences were playing Sister Sarah in Guys and Dolls, and Oliver in Oliver! I hated Latin. Uggh. And history. I just couldn’t get my head around all those facts and dates. I find it really hard to remember things that I can’t put into some sort of logical order, to help me make sense of them.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: I really loved school, and I worked hard at all my subjects, so all I can remember really were teachers saying nice things. Oh, except the ones who told me to stop asking so many questions, which confused me. Asking questions is good! It’s how we learn and how we figure stuff out about the world. Although I do think I had a tendency to drive some people mad…
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Yes! I remember sitting on the stairs with my newest puzzle book and realising how excited I got about solving logic problems and figuring out answers to stuff, and that all I wanted for my birthday were more puzzle books! It seemed perfectly clear to me that this was what I wanted to do forever. I was probably about 5.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: My parents divorced when I was four and after that, I only got to spend time with my dad at the weekends. My dad was a doctor and a scientist and some weekends he would take me on long car journeys and we would have what he called “theory afternoons” – in which he would tell me cool stuff about the world. One time he told me how we all evolved from monkeys. Another time it was how, if we travelled really fast, time would slow down. My favourite was when he told me that he was colour blind but I’m not… but my children might be. This time we spent together was really precious to me and these stories really inspired my love for science. At around the same time, my mum inspired my passion for performance, self-expression and writing. It was a pretty great combo really. My dad also showed me that it’s OK for scientists to cry.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: I studied at Queens’ College Cambridge. My dad took me to visit there when I was making my university applications and I fell in love with it. So yes, it was my first choice.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I studied Natural Sciences, which allowed me to keep my options open a bit and study all three science subjects and maths in my first year. But I planned to specialise in physics, which I loved the most. In my physics tutorials though, for the first time in my life, I was one of the only girls, surrounded by predominantly male students and tutors. At first, I thought – hurray! But after a while, I began to notice that all the guys seemed so sure of themselves and I was convinced that they understood stuff far better than me. Sometimes they laughed when I asked questions or I got things wrong, and I started to really lose my confidence. Often I came out of my tutorials in tears. Within a year I’d decided to drop physics and switch to biology. Only later did I discover, to my immense surprise, that I’d done as well as the boys in the physics exams! I’ve often wondered what would happen if I had my time again and had some female role models or been supported and encouraged to stay in physics. Many of the girls I now teach have shared similar experiences of learning in male-dominated environments and have told me that even though they enjoy science and are good at it, they worry they’re too sensitive, too emotional or too creative to be scientists. This perception of what it is to be a scientist HAS TO CHANGE. There is an outdated stereotype that all scientists are cold, hard and unemotional – and of course male – and it’s immensely damaging. As part of my work, I try to encourage more young people, especially girls, to see a place for themselves in science – no matter what ‘type’ of person they think they are – as long as they enjoy it. For this reason, I also campaign to raise awareness as to the value of emotions in science. In fact, I’ve been massively attacked online for standing up for female scientists and for saying that it’s OK for scientists to cry. It was pretty awful, but it just made me more determined to talk about these issues and led to me giving a TEDx talk called Why Science Needs People Who Cry and recording a Story Collider podcast about my experience. I now give regular media interviews and talks in schools and universities about my experiences, and the challenges I’ve faced throughout my career, in the hope that my story might inspire others and show them that they are not alone.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: Yes! His name was Professor Ron Laskey and he used to lecture us in Cell Biology. He was always so jolly and his lectures were always a lot of fun, and then at the end, he’d pull out his guitar and sing and play funny songs that he’d written about science! He inspired me hugely because he showed me that science is a lot of fun and that I wasn’t the only scientist who also loved music and performing.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I was really interested in molecular biology and genetics, and in particular the process of cell division and cell cycle regulation. I liked how it all made sense and fitted together, just like a logic problem. It’s this process that goes wrong when we get cancer – your cells start to divide out of control – so it felt like a really important and exciting area to study.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I did my PhD at The University of Manchester and The Paterson Institute for Cancer Research. I chose Manchester because there was a great research lab there and because I wanted to spend a few years living in a really different city to Cambridge. I also knew there would be lots of opportunities to get involved with student theatre productions! Then later I went to Guildford School of Acting Conservatoire for a postgraduate diploma in Musical Theatre.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: “The isolation and characterisation of novel spindle formation mutants in the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe” It’s a bit of a mouthful isn’t it! Basically, I was using yeast as a model system to study the process by which cells divide in humans. Believe it or not, yeast cells are remarkably similar to human cells in this way… but much simpler and easier to study. The aim was to understand more about how the cell division process works and how cells normally regulate their cell division cycle, as it’s a lack of ability to regulate this process that leads to cancer. I went down an awful lot of dead ends and closed a lot of doors, but eventually, I identified a new gene coding for a protein that is involved in this process. It’s a tiny piece of a huge jigsaw puzzle in our understanding of cell cycle control and potential cancer treatments, but every piece is important.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: Quite early on during my PhD studies I began to feel a bit different and out of place in the lab, and I wasn’t really enjoying my research. I worried that as a creative, sensitive and emotional person who was really into theatre – and someone who often felt insecure about my abilities – perhaps I just wasn’t cut out to be a scientist. But what I know now is that I was simply in a lab environment that didn’t suit my personality, doing a research project that I didn’t really connect with, and I didn’t have the support I needed. All lab groups are different, just like all people are different, and all research projects are different. It’s about choosing a combination of both that work for you – with people you connect with and a research project you’ll enjoy. I wish I’d known that at the time. But having said that, I also didn’t especially enjoy lab work itself. I was always rather impatient and a bit clumsy – in fact one time I set fire to my bench! What I REALLY loved was THINKING about science, and TALKING about my experiments and explaining them to other people. But no one told me that there were careers in science where you could get to do this all the time! So, eventually, I left research to train as an actress and singer. If I had my time again I think I would have tried to seek out some female mentors or role-models who I felt I could identify with and who might have been able to support me during those difficult years, and perhaps to suggest other ways of continuing as a scientist that involved less hands-on “bench” work – such as science communication. Although to be totally honest, I wouldn’t change my time as an actress for anything. After finishing drama school I stuck it out in the professional theatre world for eight years – it was tough at times but I loved every minute. Those years gave me the confidence and experience, both on stage and in front of a camera, that I now use in my science communication work. My job now really is the best of both worlds!
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: I hope my professional legacy will be an increase in the number of young people, especially girls, who see science as an exciting and possible career option for them – and who feel confident enough to pursue it. I’d also like to have helped to change the perception of what it is to be a scientist. Anyone can be a scientist, no matter what type of person you are. You just need to be excited about understanding the world. And if you are, then science is for you. In fact, science NEEDS you! Not just even if you cry, but ESPECIALLY if you cry.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I’ve got lots of talks coming up in schools and universities, and at literature and science festivals across the UK and in Dubai, Zurich and Denmark. I’ll be talking about various cool topics such as stem cells, regenerative medicine, gut bacteria, the use and abuse of statistics in the media, x-rated science facts about mating and dating (!), women in science, online abuse, and the value of emotions in science. I’ll also be doing some fun shows for kids on Dr Emily’s Weird and Wonderful Science Facts, and some motivational science careers talks in schools. In British Science Week in March, I’m hosting a cool event at the National Theatre about the science that goes on behind the scenes in a stage production – and how studying STEM subjects can lead to careers in theatre. Over the spring I’m going to be travelling to Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Australia to run masterclasses in science communication and working with the media for finalists of Famelab International (an international science communication competition) – as well as running my own communication and media skills training programmes in several universities across the UK. I’m currently writing some scripts for a new educational science app for pre-school kids that I will be presenting, and I’m just starting work on my second book – it’s going to be about weird science facts for kids and grown-ups. And at some point, I’ll get some sleep! It’s going to be an insanely busy few months but I’m really excited about it all. I’ll be making sure I don’t go bonkers by reminding myself to meditate and do yoga every morning.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Don’t hide who you really are, be proud of your uniqueness, and embrace all the parts of yourself. Know that it’s OK to be creative, emotional and analytical all at the same time, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have a career combining all the different aspects of yourself and all the things you love. Be honest with others, and with yourself. Be kind, listen, but also stand up for what you want and need. Seek support. Never give up. And trust the process. “Everything will be OK in the end – if it’s not OK, then it’s not the end.” Haha, sorry, that’s more than one, isn’t it?!
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: If you want to be a science communicator just get yourself out there and show people what you’re passionate about and what you can do. Be brave, take risks, try stuff out, do shows for kids at your local school, volunteer your expertise for your local radio station or news programme, make some videos of yourself and start a YouTube channel, create your own website, write a blog about your interests and your views, talk to everyone you can, meet as many people as you can, contact TV production companies, science institutions and science festivals and tell them about your area of expertise and what you’re passionate about. Grab any opportunities you can. My motto is “Say yes, panic later.” There’s also a great scheme run by the BBC Academy called Expert Women – apply for that! I was on the flagship scheme in 2013 and it launched my broadcasting career. I wrote a blog about it for them.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan stayed with me for a very long time. I’ve always been really passionate about the importance of self-expression and communication, and that book, like his other haunting masterpiece Atonement, reminded me how vital it is that we talk about our thoughts and feelings to those around us, and how devastating the consequences can be when we don’t. Ian McEwan is also really interested in science. I also love The Little Prince and I re-read it every now and again. It makes me smile and it makes me cry.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Playing Big by Tara Mohr. It’s about stepping up, being brave, and taking risks – and becoming the fullest version of yourself. It’s written for women, but I think the messages in it can be equally helpful and powerful for men too. Over the past few years my science communication career has really taken off, and I’ve been getting opportunities to challenge myself pretty much on a weekly basis. My motto is: “Say yes, panic later!”
It’s so important to challenge the status quo, to be brave enough to try to see things differently.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: It’s so important to challenge the status quo, to be brave enough to try to see things differently, even if the world around you seems to be telling you that you’re crazy. Sometimes that’s how I feel. But I believe that’s how true change happens and how humanity progresses.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: A large glass of Merlot, please! Oh, or perhaps a Gin and Tonic. Hmm. I’ve never been very good at having to choose… please, can I have both?
If you’d like to find out more about Dr Emily Grossman you can check out her Twitter page, TEDx talk, YouTube channel and personal website.
Feature photo © Susan Grossman.