Audrey Macleod completed her PhD in Physics in 2014. For her thesis research, she developed a Compton Imaging detector for imaging gamma radiation. Today, she is a Research Officer at National Research Council Canada.
Q: To start off, what made you interested in doing a PhD in physics?
I did my undergrad and my Master’s in physics. At that point, it seemed like an obvious continuation, but what interested me in physics originally was that I found it to be pretty difficult. It was probably one of my worst subjects and I really wanted to understand it. I made an extra effort to really understand it and, ultimately, I did enjoy it and continued.
Q: What drew you to McGill and towards your specific supervisor?
I’m from Montreal and I was taking care of my mother at the time, so leaving Montreal was not a possibility.
My supervisor was actually one of my teachers during my undergrad and I did my final graduate lab with him. I liked working with him and I liked him as a teacher, and he hired me on for the summer of my last year. He asked me if I wanted to do a Master’s with him—actually in astrophysics—so I said yes. At the end of my Master’s he came to me and asked me if I was interested in this other project for my PhD that was in a field related to astrophysics and I said yes again.
Q: Apart from switching to a new field, was there anything particularly different or new about being a PhD student compared to being a Master’s student?
In my Master’s I was working in a large collaboration where I was completely unimportant. But for my PhD, it was a small group and there weren’t very many of us.
In our group, there was my supervisor, Dr. David Hanna, and a research associate Dr. Jojo Boyle. We partnered with my current supervisor, Dr. Patrick Saull at the National Research Council and my previous supervisor, Dr. Laurel Sinclair, at Natural Resources Canada who led the project. So there were four seasoned scientists and myself who started the project from scratch.
The difference between my Master’s and my PhD was the difference between feeling like you’re on your own and you don’t matter versus feeling like you actually matter, you have stuff to do. All in all it was a really good opportunity.
Q: That sounds like an awesome way to start a PhD project, having a clear goal defined within the group and not just being thrown into something by yourself.
Exactly. We had a project where we were developing these things called Compton Imagers to see radiation—for first responders, for example. The tie to astrophysics was that in the past there have been satellites that use this technology to image gamma rays in space, and we were going to do it on Earth. It was cool because it was extremely applicable. It felt like it mattered, and that was important to me.
Q: It can be hard to take on a project that was proposed to you and run with it. Was there a moment when you felt that you’d taken ownership of the project?
I would say I felt that way near the end. Once we built the apparatus, we were supposed to go to Ottawa to test it, and it wasn’t working. I felt that if we were bringing it all the way somewhere to have it tested, it should be working, so I put a lot of effort into fixing it. I remember lots of days and evenings working alone in the laboratory trying to troubleshoot.
Q: What was the transition like for you from the PhD to your first job?
When I finished my PhD, my collaborator from Natural Resources Canada, Dr. Laurel Sinclair, had contacted me and wanted to know if I wanted to do what’s called a visiting fellowship—it’s basically a postdoc in the government—for a year. I tried to finish my PhD fast enough so I could do it. The project also included the National Research Council, where I am now.
By the time a job opened up I had a good chance of getting it because I had a lot of experience in the project. They don’t often hire people, so it was just excellent timing, really.
Q: During your PhD, had you ever considered becoming a professor? How did your career outlook develop over time?
Once I partnered with people that work for the government, it opened me up to the idea that you can be a researcher outside of academia. That seemed like a good fit for me because I thought it would involve more of what I liked—which was research and development—and less of what I didn’t like—which was applying for grants. I wasn’t too fond of teaching either and I liked the idea of having a job and having a family and maybe being able to balance those things better.
Q: You mentioned you didn’t care for teaching—did you have bad experiences as a TA?
I actually really enjoyed TAing. It’s just that I find that I’m the type of person who spends a lot of time preparing anything before I present. I might spend three days preparing to present something that’s just 15 or 30 minutes long. The idea of presenting material on the fly was intimidating for me and something I didn’t think I would like as a career.
Q: Looking back on your PhD from your position now, is there something that you wish you knew before graduate school or advice you would give to a beginning PhD student?
I remember a family friend who had a PhD told me “Do not do a PhD. Go get a job instead.” and statistically, he was right. I’m glad it worked out for me, but I’ve heard of countless stories of people doing their PhD because they want to become profs who never get that opportunity. It seems like a gamble with very poor odds where the outcome is greatly affected by where you are willing to move or whether you have a family, etc.
In terms of getting a physics PhD just to get a specific job, the return is not great, but, funnily enough, to do the job that I have now, you do need a PhD. And it’s a wonderful job where I get to work on really difficult problems. If you don’t have your heart set on continuing in your exact field of research, there are many doors open to you because of the skillset you built during your PhD.
Many thanks to Audrey for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in September 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.