On International Women’s Day we are delighted to publish an interview with NAG Placement Student, Heather Briggs, in which she speaks about her time at school, what led her to her degree choice, and the challenges and highlights she has experienced along the way. 

Heather, can you tell us a little about your school days – which subjects were you drawn to and did you receive encouragement from your teachers to continue with these into higher education?

It started quite early for me, I went to a very small rural primary school with 5 other children in my year. I was 6 months older than the rest of my year so I was moved up quite quickly. After 4 years in the higher year group I was moved down again because the local secondary school wouldn’t accept me early but I was allowed to continue doing maths lessons with the year above until they left the school. So I was definitely inclined towards maths over any other subject from a young age, although at secondary school I enjoyed science as well. I don’t remember any specific encouragement in science but in maths I was invited as a year 10 student to attend a ‘gifted and talented’ day of lectures at Portsmouth University. The top 5 maths students in the year were invited, I remember asking my teacher before accepting whether I was actually in the top 5 or if they just wanted to take a girl. She showed me the year rankings, where I saw that I was third. I didn’t really need extra encouragement to continue with both science and maths, it was obvious to me; they were by far my best subjects. I wasn’t creative; I wanted to understand how things worked. At A level I took Physics (how the universe works), Maths, Economics (how the world works) and Psychology (how the mind works). I didn’t get on with Psychology and dropped it after a year but in the other 3 subjects I had very enthusiastic teachers who made lessons interesting and fun.

Who or what influenced your degree choice?  

I watched a lot of science fiction growing up which heavily influenced my decision to do a Physics degree, I can’t remember ever wanting to study anything else. I wanted to be like Samantha Carter, a Theoretical Astrophysicist in Stargate SG-1. My school held a careers fair when I was in year 9 (age 14) and the University of Surrey had a stand. The course that caught my eye was ‘Space Technology and Planetary Exploration’ which I thought sounded brilliant. I later found out that it was a Postgraduate Masters course but decided I wanted to go to Surrey anyway and would aim for their Physics course instead. One negative experience during my time at school took place at a compulsory appointment with the school’s Career Advisor. I told her about the Surrey course that I intended to apply for and the required entry grades to which she replied “You’ll never get onto that course, you need to aim lower”. I left the appointment in shock and promptly decided that she clearly didn’t know what she was talking about and ignored her advice entirely. Fast forward 3 years to A level results day when I achieved exactly the grades I needed to get into Surrey on the Physics with Nuclear Astrophysics course.

Tell us about your time at University; the challenges and highlights? 

I started at The University of Surrey on an MPhys course, an integrated Masters degree with a research year between the first and second half of your final year. I decided halfway through my first year that research and labs were not for me, and changed to the standard BSc course. At the time of writing this I have only completed 2 years of my degree so I think the biggest challenge I have faced thus far was getting used to the sheer amount of work involved. The majority of my first year I started the week with 4 hours of lab time in the morning and 4 hours of lectures back to back in the afternoon. 9 hours solid on campus with a 1 hour break for lunch left me feeling exhausted and a little disillusioned with the idea of a physics degree. By the second year the hours were a little more evenly spread across the week so it became easier. I think the main highlight was being the first in my circle of friends to get accepted on a work placement. Also finding out I had averaged a first on a certain set of exams when I was sure I was going to have to explain to my tutor why I had done so badly compared to previous results!

Did you have any standout role models during your time at school and University? 

I don’t know about role models as such, but my first science teacher was my Headteacher from primary school. She taught years 5 and 6 science lessons once a week. Having Mrs Dalziell as a specific science teacher at that young age combined with watching Sam save the world using Physics on Stargate, normalised seeing women in science for me. I feel this made it easier for me to ignore the perceptions and continue with the subjects I enjoyed.

When did you begin thinking about your plans post University? 

I first started thinking about what I will do after my degree when my course leader began talking about finding a work placement during my first year. But I didn’t think about it seriously until just after Christmas this year. I am now half way through my placement year, working at the Numerical Algorithms Group in Oxford, and am thinking more about what I will do after my final year. Although at this stage I still don’t really have a firm idea of what I want to do.

How did you decide on a career choice? 

I haven’t yet as I’m only halfway through my undergraduate degree. Physics is not one of those degrees that leads you towards a certain job. Physics graduates have such a wide range of options available to them, which is great. The only thing I do know is that I don’t want to pursue Physics in academia. For now I'm planning a year of further study for a PGCE (teaching qualification) but I haven't made any longer term decisions.

How did you end up at NAG?

At Surrey you are strongly encouraged to try for a placement year, even if you don’t know what you want to do. It can be a great way to help you decide what to do after University, if only to rule something out! I spent a few weeks looking through the placement database looking for interesting sounding computing related placements. For the most part I was left disappointed. I understand that it is difficult to say what a placement student might end up doing in a workplace since they are there for such a short time but most of the job descriptions were so vague they didn’t compel me to apply. Many of them only listed what the company did or the values they were looking for in a student, and didn’t feature anything about what you’d actually be working on for the year.

In comparison, NAG had a detailed description of possible projects you might work on and directed those interested to a page on their website that showed an article written by a previous placement student about her experience working there. I thought it sounded like something I could see myself doing for a year so I applied. One of the great things about the work I am doing is that it involves Fortran, the programming language we are taught as part of the Physics degree.

I only applied for one other placement, and ended up declining their interview as NAG had already offered me the job. 6 months down the line, I believe I made the right choice. There have been a few hiccups along the way due to having to move to a new city (the other placement was based very near Surrey) but it has been worth it, I’m enjoying the job and can’t believe I’m already over halfway through my year here.

Describe your role at NAG? What’s a typical day at work like? 

I am a placement student in the software Implementations team, my role title Software Engineer. My typical day involves running example programs and checking results to test different versions of the NAG Library on different systems.

What can NAG and other technical companies do to encourage more women into technology careers? 

There was an after school computer club I attended briefly while at secondary school, the Computer Club for Girls, here is a direct quote from their website* “Computer Clubs for Girls (CC4G) – a fun way to inspire and motivate 9 to 14 year old girls with, and through, ICT. Featuring girl-centric topics like music, fashion and celebrity, CC4G develops skills through games and challenges.” For starters, organisations should avoid using language such as girl-centric topics like music, fashion and celebrity! To give the organisation some credit they do appear to have rebranded to ‘TechFutureGirls’ since then and changed the content to something less stereotypical.

Maybe companies could advertise to schools what kinds of job roles are available in computing and give practical advice about how to begin coding? In addition to this schools need to broaden their subject offerings, for example the sixth form that I studied at offered ICT but not Computing at A level. The computing assignments are the part of my degree I enjoy the most and are the reason I applied for the placement here at NAG.

I had been interested in coding before university and had looked up online courses like codecademy but if you google ‘What programming language should I learn?’ you get hundreds of conflicting opinions, mainly on personal blogs and it can be overwhelming trying to figure out where to even start. I expect I would’ve taken Computing in place of Psychology had it been on offer when I made my decision on which A levels to take. Hindsight is 20/20 and I’m not sure I knew enough about it at the time to have made that decision.

* http://girlsinict.org/program/computer-clubs-girls-cc4g

If you are interested in a work placement or internship at NAG see our 'Careers at NAG' pages. NAG is committed to creating a diverse workplace. We outlined our commitment in 2015 and continue to push on in this area.

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