My STEM Journey

My whole life, I’ve spent my time reading books. Learning as much as I can about the world. Science has always been an area of interest – well, not so much mechanics. I have loved to research quantum physics, astronomy, computer programming, all in an attempt to understand the world. I’ve had so many questions from such a young age, things many people wouldn’t even think to care about. In short, I have always desired to understand why. Why things exist, why things work, why we do things the way we do. And I found my happiness in studying such things at school. However, one thing stood out to me during this time. I was one of two females in my A-Level computer science class and the only female in my Physics class. This was so confusing to me, why wouldn’t other females want to study STEM? I think even in this day and age, where we are becoming a lot more progressive, science is seen as a lab-coat and glasses with a lot of bald spots kind of subject, engineering is seen as oil and dirt. They’ve always been seen as a masculine career. So I’d like to tell you about my experience instead.

During my first three years of Sharples School, I studied astronomy. A small group of us started off attending astronomy classes with the deputy head teacher (and best biology teacher in the world!) after school on a Thursday night. We learnt about the history of astronomy, starting off with Ptolemy in 140 AD, right the way through to Galileo and Kepler. We learnt equations about the sun and all the objects in the sky, even about time, finding out that our town was actually about 4 minutes behind GMT. We even were trained in using an observatory – that we as students had fundraised for. We were building up to taking out astronomy GCSE in July 2017, which was the first proper exam I would ever do. During this time, my deputy headteacher had a brilliant idea. She set up a group made up of me and two others – the Astrogirls. We were all female (and actually the only females in our astronomy class) and we went to local primary schools, teaching astronomy classes to year 5 and 6 students. This was the first time that I’d ever really considered the lack of females in the science industries. In secondary school, science is mandatory, so classes were a big mix of males and females. This ignited a passion in me to want to inspire younger girls and pursue a scientific career myself – which was exactly what the point of our Astrogirls group was. We did very well, making local newspapers and even were invited to a meal with Bolton Astronomical Society. We were so proud of all we had achieved.

Later on in secondary school, I was proud to be a part of a Girls Who Code team. When I was about ten years old, I read a book series by H.L.Dennis – Secret Breakers. Long story short, it was about a group of young code breakers who solved puzzles left throughout history by some of the world’s most famous literature authors and music artists, even spies. In the end of the 6 book series, this group of children managed to solve the Voynich Manuscript – a coded book that to this day has not yet been read. It fascinated me! I spent so much time afterwards learning Vigenère ciphers, Baconian text, anything I could find. As well as my cipher knowledge, coding had always been something I excelled at, my computer science teacher usually had to provide me with extension work as I would often fly through tasks in Python. I enjoyed the puzzle solving and seeing the result of my hard work run as a basic game or a drawing line. This made me a perfect candidate. Girls Who Code competitions are run by Cyberfirst – a cyber security organisation affiliated with GCHQ, the country’s Cyber Security headquarters. I worked to solve cryptography, coding and logic puzzles with a few other girls, even getting my dad involved to help me when I got stuck. Although we didn’t actually get very far, it deepened my interest in cryptography and the cyber world.

I’m pleased to say that I passed my GCSE astronomy exam at the age of thirteen with a Grade B. Astronomy was one of my biggest interests and due to that, I decided to opt for Physics A-Level at Runshaw College. Along with physics, I took Computer Science, Maths and AS Further Maths. Physics at college was so vastly different to secondary school. it was so much more complex with a lot more content. I figured out a lot of my strengths in that class (hence my dislike of mechanics). Anything involving particles, quantum, astronomy, I loved. I can’t say I was too keen on the rest. Having breezed through secondary school, I was in for a shock to find that college was actually quite difficult, especially given that most of my classes were online due to Coronavirus. I did however still love astronomy. And my love for the subject was what prompted me to apply for Astrophysics at University.

I chose my five university applications and was working towards the high grade requirements when I discovered an opportunity. GCHQ were running a degree apprenticeship. I hadn’t really heard that much about a degree apprenticeship before, but I spent a lot of time researching. I applied for a cyber security degree apprenticeship with GCHQ, just to see what it was like. I genuinely loved the application process. The lab testing tasks were so fun, I enjoyed spending hours trying to complete them, using different encryption and decryption tools, learning Linux commands. I unfortunately did not get the position with GCHQ, however having enjoyed the process so much, I looked for more. the idea of university became less and less appealing. A degree apprenticeship position would give me not only a full time job with a great annual salary, but also a fully funded university degree. I loved astronomy and computer science equally, but there weren’t any degree apprenticeships available in astronomy and i felt that the best choice for my career would be the degree apprenticeship.

I applied to a few different companies, passing interview and assessment stages before I got a position at EDF Energy. I can honestly say that the whole application process was very enjoyable. I performed online tests, an interview and an assessment day that consisted of group work, a presentation and a long interview. Everyone I met was so lovely and likeable, my interview actually ended up being an hour long conversation where we talked about various different topics that strayed quite far from the job at hand! I was over the moon to have been accepted and was thrilled to be able to withdraw my University applications.

So in September of 2022, I moved out. It was the best decision I could’ve made. I now hold the position of a Cyber Security Degree Apprentice Engineer, working on nuclear power stations. (Which actually very much combines my love for physics with my love for computer science!) I attend Gloucestershire College – supported by UWE Bristol, which is one of only two NCSC certified places in the UK, completing a Cyber Security Integrated Technical Professional Degree. (NCSC is one of the most highly regarded degree certifications for technology).

I may still be the only female in my branch at work and one of three at my university, but at least I’m progressing towards being an advocate for women in the STEM industries.

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