Meet the Scientist- Kirsten Hawkins

Hi Everyone!

This week I would like to introduce you to my little sister Kirsten. Unlike me, Kirsten went down the Chemistry route, and is now studying for her PhD at the University of York. As you will find out- the stuff she studies is amazing!

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Kirsten has defied teachers and mentors to get to where she is- after being diagnosed with dyslexia during her A-levels she was told that maybe science at university level was not the best path. She stuck two fingers up to this and ended up at the University of Reading where she did her MChem and is now well on her way to getting her PhD.

I do not always understand everything that she tells me about her work- but I do know that it is a very cool area of science! So lets hear a bit more about her science journey…

E: What are you studying?

K: I am a 2nd year PhD student studying Chemistry at the University of York under the supervision of David K Smith and Paul A Clarke. My project is looking into early Earth chemistry, known as prebiotic chemistry. The aim of my project is to create a medium similar to that of a prebiotic cell. To do this I have been using low molecular weight supramolecular gels (LMWGs) – they form gels by non-covalent interactions like hydrogen bonding. The LMWG molecules I’m synthesising and studying are very simple, made from amino acids, and have the potential to catalyse reactions through the free amine. This is how my gels relate to the cell. Having said that, as with all projects, its strayed away from that initial thought due to stumbling over a cool gelation system (which I am finishing up work on at the moment, and which should lead nicely into my final years work.)

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The ‘inversion test’ checking how good the gel is.

E: What made you want to study Chemistry futher?

K: When I was little I always said I wanted to be a science teacher. This then changed to wanting to become a doctor – the human body fascinated me. It was my Dad who suggested chemistry to me and I’m so glad he did! During my undergraduate I was always interested in inorganic and biophysical chemistry. These often have chemistry with direct applications in the real world both medicinal and environmentally. After doing a summer project in the third year of my degree I decided I wanted to study chemistry futher. This was the first time I was allowed to do what I wanted and do something novel. The other part that made me want to study further was hearing what my big sister was up to, which made me think yeah I want to do that too!

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The chemistry work bench!

E: I know that there are relatively few females working in your subject area- how is this, and why do you think this is the case?

K: Chemistry, for me at least, has always been quite male dominated- but I hadn’t really thought about it too much until it was pointed out to me. I love working with a group of males as it makes everything light hearted, and there is never a dull moment!

I think that chemistry is quite a put off for females at higher levels because they feel like they cannot perform to the high standard needed. There are also problems with being a female in chemistry. For example, if you get pregnant then you cannot work in the lab any more. This is quite a set back in your career and could be enough to put females off studying chemistry further academically.  Whereas in industry there might be some more flexibility, and a higher income at a similar point in time.

All that said, more females are slowly coming through into chemistry. I work in two quite different labs: in one I’m the ‘token’ girl and in the other I’m one of 5. The University of York is an Athena swan award holder so there is a lot of support and encouragement for females in chemistry. Although these awards are excellent to see- it does sometimes make you wonder if you were hired because you are female.

E: You have dyslexia- what does this mean for you, and how does this affect your everyday lab work/ written reports?
Also, do you have any tips for other scientists with dyslexia?

K: I remember being diagnosed with dyslexia and being so relieved that there was a reason for why I struggled with certain things at school. Because I was slightly late to be diagnosed with dyslexia I had already put in place tricks to help me out like using colours and using a ruler to help me read.

Mum and Dad did a lot for me once we knew I had dyslexia- I remember having a tutor for a short period of time. But the best thing we did was to go to the opticians and have my tracking done. My eyesight has always been pretty good, yet I wear glasses. Nothing is out of focus but I find it hard to concentrate on the words. I went to an optician who specialises in people with dyslexia, and it was was suggested that I have a tracking test done. I did the test twice once with no glasses and then a second time with a very very small prescription in some glasses. The change was huge, I wasn’t tripping over words so much and my reading speed increased!

More recently I had an irlen test. I found that the contrast of white and black could be too much for my eyes. I now have a coloured overlay to put over work and have an app on my computer called screen shades that puts a tint onto my screen – it is excellent!

Work wise, I don’t really notice myself struggling but when I see how others work I notice what I do to make up for it. In my PhD course I have to have thesis advisory panel meetings every 6 months, and each meeting has a written report accompanying it. This is quite daunting for myself as I find I need to have time to go through literature and transform it into a way I can understand it. I also have quite a few group meetings that require presentations to be made or literature to be read. So what I do is I plan ahead when I can. If I know my tap meeting report is due in January I’ll start it in October to give myself time to get things written down and for my study support tutor and supervisor to go though my work with me.

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Notes featuring lots of colours

Planning ahead can be hard to do at times especially when there is a lot of things going on like lab work demonstrating to undergraduates, group meeting etc. I do find that being open with all people about dyslexia helps a lot. The people in my office are quite use to me asking to check though the odd sentence, or spell something out, and even on the odd occasion read part of a paper out for me that I can’t make sense of because of the technical jargon.

One of the tips my study tutor gave to me when I said that technical jargon hinders me, or I find it hard to get across my point in the tone I want, was to right my own dictionary phrase book. I have done this to some extent.Its great to have a little book to use to put a complex paper in to “Kirsten speak” and to make a list of new words I haven’t used but I like the sound of.

E: What would you say to people with dyslexia either A-level or undergrad who thinks that dyslexia may hold them back

K:  I’ve been lucky enough to have people around me who will help me and to have DSA funding to provide me with the support I need. At A-level it was significantly harder as there wasn’t really any support apart from extra time in exams and your own room if a reader was required. Its not the same as people who might have been diagnosed in primary or middle school where they would go to study support sessions.

I think dyslexia can hold you back, but, only if you let it

It is something people don’t fully understand. For me, being dyslexic doesn’t mean I can’t read or write, it means it will take me longer or I’ll need some help. In a way this is why a STEM subject can be great for people with dyslexia you can do practical work alongside the written and there are numbers involved, aswell as image mechanisms (essentially drawing). These aspects of STEM help make the more difficult parts easier to complete.

The other thing to look into is the way in which a course is structured. I did my Mchem at Reading university, and in my undergraduate I did very little written work aside from lab scripts. Most of the exams we did were short answer questions – I also had a fluorescent sicker to put on my exam papers and any written work so I wasn’t penalised for grammar and spelling.

Don’t be ashamed of asking for help or letting people know you have dyslexia the benefits outweigh everything else.

E: For those of us who don’t know that much about chemistry labs- what are some of the big differences you know about, vs biology based lab work?

K: The hazards in chemistry are quite different for us chemists! Solvents like DMSO are not really hazardous, where as in biology it is because it lets things in though the skin. I don’t know about biology- but we do all of our work in a fume hood, and sometimes even a glove box when air sensitive compounds are being used. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is slightly different. We have two types of gloves: marigold and nitriles depending on what you are using.  You must wear safety specs in the lab no matter what and a lab coat should be worn.

Modelling fancy safety specs (complete with prescription lenses), and lab coat outside the chemistry fume hood.

How you dress in chemistry is also important microfiber fleeces are a no no as they are flammable, also open top shoes, shorts/skirts/dresses are a big no. Hair should be tied up out of the way – this can also depend upon what you are doing in the lab – the lab I work in is quite non-hazardous.

We have quite a lot of different storage systems for solvents flammable, non-flammable, halogenated this is also reflected in the waste system we have which is split into aqueous, flammable and halogenated.

The other difference is how we clean glassware – we use methanol, water and acetone, and sometime an acid base bath system is set up to make sure its completely clean – unlike biology we don’t need to keep things alive and we don’t have to sterilise things.

E: What is your favourite thing about your area of work?

K: One of my favourite things about my area of work is seeing my work working! Gel chemistry is fantastic – there is nothing more exciting or satisfying than making a gelator then carrying out the protocol to initiate gelation and then turning the vial upside down to see that you have a gel and it worked – especially when you’ve been working on it for a long time.

I also like that with what I do you can see there is an application – this is also what I love about my supervisor David, you can show him something cool that happened unexpectedly and he shares your excitement and his brain goes into overdrive thinking about all the different possibilities because of what you have found out.

I do also love the people I work with there is never a dull moment, you can have a strop and they will have a good laugh with you.

E: When you aren’t busy in the lab what do you get up to?

K: Outside of the lab I play as part of the graduate squash team and I enjoy going to the gym. I’ll often go to pub for the pub quiz or play board games with my friends from work. I also love baking and cooking in my spare time. The other perk of living in York is being able to go out and explore the beautiful city and countryside.

Thank you so much to Kirsten for this great insight into the world of Chemistry, and also talking so openly about dyslexia. I hope this can be inspirational to many people who may think a subject like Chemistry, or science in general is out of their reach!  You can follow her on twitter @Mirsten where she shares chemistry and general life pieces!

If you would like some more information about dyslexia and find out about resources available check out Also make sure you talk with university support services to see if they are able to provide any additional resources such as computer programmes, and tutors- and even prescription safety spectacles such as those Kirsten uses in Labs.

One thought on “Meet the Scientist- Kirsten Hawkins

  1. I found your interview fascinating….I now know a tad more about the valuable work you are undertaking and the battles you have overcome to achieve the high levels of success. Also thanks to Erica for her excellent interview and highlighting the achievement of females in high profile reasearch work. Well done both of you ! ☺


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