Camilla Penney - SHHS alumna in STEM

I had the great pleasure of speaking to alumna Camilla Penny. After graduating from SHHS in 2010, Camilla completed MA, MSci degrees in Physics and a PhD in Earth Sciences, both at University of Cambridge. Currently she is a Junior Research Fellow in Earth Sciences at Queens’ College Cambridge where she conducts research from how the earth's continents move and change shape over time, to using fluid dynamics to model how mountains are affected by gravity. Through our conversation, Camilla’s contagious enthusiasm and great sense of humour shone bright whilst still being a serious scientist. Speaking to Camilla was inspirational and personally reinforced my desire to pursue a career in Science. She is a great role model for budding scientists at SHHS and has that recognisable South Hampstead spark. Here she reflects on her fond memories of South Hampstead, experiences at Cambridge and current research.


What was your most memorable experience at SHHS? There was no particular moment, it was really all of South Hampstead. I remember the atmosphere and the everyday walk down the brick corridors and through the walkway between the science department and the other buildings. But I remember the overall impression of South Hampstead and can picture it, with the first thing coming to mind: the yellow shirts and the friendliness.


Were there any teachers that inspired you in SHHS to pursue science? I went to the Junior school and was first exposed to science there. Mrs Bilderbeck taught year 5 science and her catchphrase was ‘it's not magic, it’s science.’ She did a lot of experiments and my first one was looking through calcite, and you’ll find that it duplicates the image. There is a geological reason behind why, but at the time of course I didn’t know that. In secondary school, I had several excellent Physics teachers, including Dr Walgate, Mrs Arundale and in Sixth form Mr Keeler, who had degrees in philosophy and psychology as well as physics. My interest is in physics and geophysics but also in how science impacts people, so having him as a teacher was really helpful in realising it allowed me to be interested in many dimensions of topics. (Camilla was also inspired by several of our current SHHS teachers, including: Mr Arundale, Mme Raitz and Mr Harkins.)


How was the transition from secondary school to University? You become completely in charge of your time. At Uni I found it difficult to learn when to do things, as you have more time available and have to choose how much of it to dedicate to work. So it took me a while to find my feet and to find out: What do I want to learn? How do I learn best? I also learned that whilst there are still some right answers in science, you may still not be able to do all the questions; and it is acceptable to go to a supervision, which is what we call a small group teaching here, and not have answered everything set that week. Also, if you feel lonely during freshers week, so does everybody else. It took me a little while to realise you had to put yourself out there and go make friends; but also just because you’ve asked someone what their A-levels were it doesn’t mean you have to be best friends.


What hooked you onto getting a PhD in Earth Sciences? I turned up at Uni not expecting to do Earth Sciences at all. My course gave me a flavour of what the different sciences might be like. It was also good because I had to choose one subject that I hadn't done before, and Earth Sciences was one of these options. I turned up thinking “rocks are boring, I’m not doing that one” and “I'll probably do biology,” but within ten minutes of meeting the person who was there to help me decide, I was like “Oh I’m taking geology, ok well let’s see,” and it turns out I really enjoyed that, and it’s still what I’m doing today. I also had a lecturer who became one of my PhD supervisors, who was really engaging and made Earth Sciences really interesting. To me it was all new and I love learning new things so it was all really exciting. What also appealed to me was that you could do interesting physics but it might actually help people too.


In your YouTube video on ‘Tibet is like Treacle’ you mention that the Earth’s mantle is a solid, but in physical geography we are taught it is classed as a liquid, how does this work? It’s a solid that flows, it has crystals that move past each other very slowly. It has to be at a certain proportion of its melting temperature to make sure there is enough energy for the crystals to move past each other. It's similar to crystals in metal - Have you ever bent a spoon backwards and forwards and then it snaps? The reason why it does that is because there are little defects in the crystals and at one point you manage to line those up and that's when it breaks. In this case you're putting in the energy to move them around, but if you imagine something that hot and under high pressure, it will have the energy to do that. Geologically, it can flow over long periods of time but is not in a liquid state.


How would you describe the typical week as a research fellow and are you able to yet see the impact of your research? I’m currently working on 2-3 projects and I try to work 9-6, five days a week. I also run several seminar series, so spend a lot of time on zoom calls making things happen. Then, I do what I consider my real work, which is running computer codes and pulling information together from different sources. The aim of my research is to use physics to stop people dying in earthquakes. How much I've succeeded in that so far is debatable, but that's what's driving the questions I try to answer. Some of the work I did in my PhD, studying a subduction zone in Iran, showed that there could be bigger earthquakes there than people had previously thought, which is important for helping people to prepare. What I've come back to most often though is the importance of connecting science to the people who need to know about it - it's no good saying there could be a big earthquake if people don't have the money or capacity to do something about it!


As a woman in science, what obstacles did you have to overcome? There is still a lack of awareness and for some reason, people thinking we shouldn’t be able to do this (science) stuff. I remember when I was in Sixth Form helping with a Visitor's Day, when a mother asked “How does it feel to be doing all boys' subjects?” That was the first time it occurred to me that someone might gender subjects. There are not enough women in Science, and we need to find ways to encourage more women to study Science.


Do you have any parting advice for SHHS girls interested in doing STEM? Just Do It; wait that's Nike I can’t say that.’ You are definitely good enough and you should go for it, and I think we need more South Hampstead girls in STEM. I think SHHS trained me to look out for what was right and wrong and call it out. There was an advert for SHHS someone sent me that said: ‘ An SHHS girl is seen and always heard’, and I think that seems about right and that's how we change things. That does seem accurate, we’re all very loud!

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