Haley Gomez, a lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy reflects on her past 11 years at the university
I’ve been at Cardiff University for 11 years. I am often asked why I haven’t moved elsewhere during my career with well-meaning senior academics suggesting that working in other institutions broaden your mind and horizons as well as helping your career. I think about this quite a lot. Should I move to a different institution? Should I leave Cardiff to get more world experience? Then I remember how much I love Cardiff, the city, the beaches, the mountains, my little house near the park and one of the best bakery shops ever. I think about the people I work with and I know that they are the best at what they do and then remember how lucky I am to work with them.
Life at Cardiff started off a little precariously. Firstly, I didn’t achieve the necessary A Level grades to get onto the Astrophysics degree course. Luckily, the admissions tutor considered students as individual cases. Then, in my second year I had a letter sent home by the Year Tutor for persistent absence, threatening to throw me off the course. It worked and I realized that I wanted to give Astrophysics a real go, I had nothing to lose so I started to work hard and the harder I worked, the easier it got. I soon relished the chance to study subjects I had dreamed about as a young child – the physics of black holes, the Big Bang and fundamental particles and being taught by some of the biggest names worldwide in the field made it such an exciting final two years.
It wasn’t a natural choice to stay on to do a PhD. I was the first person in my family that had a degree, we just weren’t used to thinking about things like studying as a full-time job or a career in academia – I wasn’t even sure what academics did! In truth, I just didn’t have the confidence to apply. The day before the interviews for PhD positions, the postgraduate tutor took me to one side and asked me to turn up to the interviews and give it a shot. He convinced me that I might as well enjoy the experience so although I was nervous, I went anyway and I got a place: supervised by one of the most charismatic, slightly eccentric and old-school professors in the department (wild hair and everything). He was a great mentor and working alongside him and with some of the younger staff and PDRAs was a fantastic experience. As part of my PhD, I traveled to the Rockies in Colorado and Hawaii to use some of the World’s best telescopes (all the while thinking, “how did a little girl from Barry get to be controlling a piece of equipment worth millions sitting on an extinct volcano on the other side of the World?”).
Afterwards I was awarded a research fellowship with the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, which came with invitations to various events at Buckingham Palace including an invite to the Queen’s Garden Party (I resolutely refused to wear a hat although I was forced to wear a skirt) and an invitation to present my research to Prince Philip and the prestigious eminent alumni of the 1851. After being told of all the strict etiquette rules by the official security to HRH (see Kelly BéruBé’s story), I breached every one; instead of curtseying, I shook his hand! I spoke to HRH before he spoke to me! Prince Philip was very nice although he did walk straight towards my husband (who I invited along as my glamorous accessory), assuming he was the one presenting the research. It was nice that he seemed really keen on promoting Science and I was just pleased to be in the music room in Buckingham Palace with my husband, drinking some very delicious wine.
After the fellowship, I ended being taken on to do some undergraduate teaching as well as research. A significant fraction of my time is spent on teaching and I hope that I’m the same as the academics who helped me get this far; the ones who listen to students and want to be involved with helping them learn and develop while they’re here. I love the interaction with students and my proudest moment was getting a medal for “Most Differentiable Lecturer” at our student society ball. I’m not sure I understand what that means but it was nice all the same. Although at times I yearn for a 9-5 job, I do really enjoy the spontaneity of the Astronomer’s life. The reason I’m here doing these things is because of the Cardiff staff who have encouraged and helped me along the way. People I now get to work with every day. I’d really like to thank them for taking this scrappy local girl on and making her feel that she can do this!