Claire Benson is a fire scientist. Here she explains to us exactly what that involves and what its like ‘playing with fire’ for a living.
OM: Can you describe an average day at work?
CB: There isn’t one. I have a number of different roles, and even in my primary job the activities are extremely varied. I mostly work as a research scientist. That involves being hired by a university to research a problem someone has noticed either for knowledge sake, or because a company has a specific problem they need solving or safety issue they want to check out. That can be working in a lab with various machines, building new machines to explore new problems, or sitting for hours on end at a computer reading other people’s research or calculating and analysing data in excel. I also do some teaching and lecturing which is very hard work (especially to prepare) but really rewarding.
OM: Have you always wanted to be a Fire Scientist?
CB: Only since I heard that the job existed! I went to an OK school, but in a place where people didn’t really believe that education was necessarily helpful. People didn’t have very high aspirations, they just expected to do the same thing their mum or dad did. Because of that I think the careers I’d heard of, and the careers advice I was getting was pretty poor. Originally I wanted to be in the police but my parent s challenged me to use my skills in science in that investigative way. Because I was good at science it was suggested to me at school that I should be a doctor, or go into biomedical science (that seemed to be the common assumption).
It was actually one of those career computer programs that mentioned forensic science, which is very close to the health and safety science work I do. I went to an open day at London South Bank University and there was a Professor talking about the fire and explosion and incident investigation work his unit did and I was hooked. It sounded amazing. Investigating real life events and trying to stop them from happening again.
OM: What was the hardest part about becoming an Fire Scientist?
CB: I’m still becoming one. In this job you are never done learning. Ever. I think that’s probably true for a lot of science (and other) jobs but being up to date on the latest law, standards and scientific discoveries means that you can apply your work far better. Although to be honest that’s one of the best bits of being a scientist. There’s always something to learn. I also think research work is tough because it mostly works on short term contracts. So there isn’t a massive amount of job security when you start out.
OM: And what’s the best part of the job?
CB: I love solving problems and in this sort of work you get to think about all sorts of issues and applications, and to collaborate with lots of really clever interesting people. It can be really exciting, especially working down in the lab.
OM: Do you feel you’re treated differently in your industry because you’re a woman?
CB: No. I think I’ve been very lucky in that respect but I can only recall a couple of occasions where I had to consider whether a person might be treating me differently because I’m a woman. I think it helps that there are quite a lot of women in the applied science/ engineering area at LSBU (where I’m researching at the mo) but certainly in the Explosion & Fire Research Group (where I am the only woman at the moment) I‘m just another member of the team. Gender has never been an issue there.
OM: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given? And what other advice would you give to anyone looking to become a Fire Scientist? What qualifications and experience do you need?
CB: I think I was generally given bad career advice when I was younger. Now I think generally playing to your strengths is important, and knowing your limitations. Of course some of those limitations can be overcome with extra learning etc but knowing what I’m good at, and what I’m really not (and what I don’t enjoy) has helped channel me find a field where I really feel I belong.
If someone wanted to become a fire scientist there are many routes in. I started by doing a degree in Forensic science with a strong basis in analytical chemistry and fire science. In my office are a metallurgist, a physicist, another chemist and a chemical engineer. They all do fire science. The most direct route would probably be to get a degree in fire engineering. That would give you a great grounding in fire chemistry and engineering principles and if I were starting out again that’s probably the route I’d go.
OM: What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in the workplace or in your career?
CB: There are a few but I think the biggest is to not concentrate more on my own personal development. I have never missed a work deadline but haven’t made the most of training opportunities or pushed for more. I have also been doing a PhD part time and I have to say I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it that way. If you want to do a research degree then do it full time and don’t let your focus shift.
OM: What does success mean to you?
CB: Simply put, happiness, although I don’t think it’s a simple thing to find. For me it’s a balance of knowing I’m doing my job well, having a varied set of problems to solve, having a good relationship with my colleagues, whilst at the same time making sure I have time outside where I can enjoy lots of other things too.
OM: What’s your feminist wish for the future?
I hope that people just won’t have any preconceptions about what people have the capability to do, based on their gender. And that’s not just feminism, it works both ways. We program kids into gender roles continually throughout their youth and it never really ends. From the toys they play with, the clothes they wear, and the language that is used around them, boys and girls are told they not only are different, but should be. And then if you don’t fit into that ‘ideal’ feminine mould (which I didn’t) you end up feeling like an outsider. Like you are wrong. I hope someday no one will feel like that.