As a child growing up in a small village in the north east of Scotland, Tania Johnston had access to some of the darkest skies in western Europe and this piqued her interest in the stars. But she never thought it would lead to a career in astronomy and to the job she is in now, managing the science centre of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), based in Germany.
“I was very lucky. I remember looking for Halley’s comet in the night sky and also changing my bedroom in to a space station at one stage. I was always interested in that and other environmental concerns, such as the Braer oil disaster. I collected all of the newspaper cutting around that. But I never would have said I’m going to be a scientist, for me it was always about Art at that time,” she says.
Tania is the perfect example of someone who could have taken many career paths through studying STEM. At secondary school she took a very broad range of subjects, as she wasn’t certain of the career she wanted at the time but she is delighted that she included science in the mix as it has ultimately led to her dream job.
“I have a Masters in Chemistry from the University of Southampton. When I finished I had no idea what I wanted to do in terms of a job but I got one in analytical chemistry in a lab in Edinburgh. I did it for a year, but it wasn’t for me. I started looking at PHD options when I saw that the University of Edinburgh was looking for a Science Communicator for their school of Chemistry. I thought, ‘I can talk and I’m a scientist, maybe this is for me’ but I didn’t know much about it. I got the job and for two years it involved travelling all around Scotland giving demonstrations, lectures, experiments and hands on workshops to schools, in town halls and old folks home. I loved it and it was totally the job for me. After that I got a job at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh– running the visitor centre. I was there for nine years, then the job came up in Germany. I always wanted to work in Europe and I had most of the skills required. There was a little bit of a baptism of fire in terms of speaking German in meetings but it was ok. I’m here five years now and am very happy,” he says.
While trying to keep her options open in school, Tania did Chemistry, English, German and Art. Until the year she started her Scottish Highers, she was contemplating going to Art School.
“In 6th year I did higher Maths as I thought I am going to do Chemistry. I also did Sixth Year Studies Chemistry and a module in Geology. They’ve all ended up being useful to me. Even Art is useful as I have to be creative in my line of work,” she says.
Tania now works at the European Southern Observatory, where they build and operate some of the largest telescopes on Earth.
“My job is to communicate or facilitate the communication about ESOs work; where they are, what they do, about the research. As manager of the ESO Supernova, my job is to put together the programme of activities, shows in the planetarium, public talks, temporary exhibitions, as well as to manage the budget and team. It’s a varied job which I love, and no two days are the same.
“I’m passionate about ESO and love sharing that. I love seeing visitors getting inspired and astronomy is something anyone can do, just look up at the sky and to the stars,” she says.
In terms of advice she would give to students, she says, “Science is so broad, and there are so many paths you can take. I just recommend you do something that you are interested in.
“At university, the experience meant I could do a range of subjects. I did modules in Maths, Environmental Chemistry, Environmental Biology and Engineering so dipped into so many subjects. I enjoyed Chemistry at school and knew having a Science degree would be helpful and ultimately, it’s led to my dream job.”