Teenage ideas about future careers sometimes do not become reality. In this video clip, Professor Kate McGrath, Director of the MacDiarmid Institute, describes herself as a teenager who wanted to become a pilot and then a soil scientist who became a physical chemistry professor. These changes were the result of multiple influences.
PROFESSOR KATE MCGRATH
Most people when they think of chemists, they think that they synthesise new molecules, so I don’t do that. So what a physical chemist does is they sit on the physics end of chemistry and what they’re trying to do is to understand the properties of materials from a chemical point of view.
As a teenager, actually I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Being a pilot sounded really exciting to me when I was 15, so I had this grand plan of becoming an accounts clerk, because I was really good with numbers, and paying for myself to become a pilot. That didn’t happen obviously. When I was finishing high school, I really had no clue of what I wanted to do, and I was thinking – and again, I think typical of teenagers – I wanted to save the world. So then I was thinking, well being a pilot’s not going to save the world, being an accounts clerk’s not going to save the world, so I decided that I was going to become a soil scientist and I was going to save the world by feeding the world.
So I went to university, and in fact, at that time, you couldn’t do soil engineering, but working with a few people, we came up with a way that maybe I could make something work. So I was enrolled in an engineering intermediate but I fell in love with chemistry, and that was all to do with one lecturer in first year – a guy called John Blunt – and he was amazing and he just made me see that by focusing on molecular functionality would allow you to actually understand so much.
So in order to really understand systems, at some point, you have to get down to what chemicals are there, and that’s true of physics or biology or medical science or geology. It doesn’t matter, you have to understand what chemicals you have in your system and what they’re doing. But I was still really good at numbers. Combining all of those things together meant becoming a physical chemist.
Dr Jens Greinert, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)
Dr Natasha Munro