Jan Alexander shares her career experiences and talks about working at the UEA Jan Alexander shares her career experiences and talks about working at the UEA

I came to UEA in 1996 and was promoted to Professor of Environmental Earth Science in 2009 (To link to Jan's Staff Page, click here). My work involves research (field work, laboratory experimentation and theory development), teaching (undergraduate and post graduate students), management and administration activity, and varies greatly in character from day to day and week to week.

What inspired you to pursue a career in environmental sciences?

As a child I was endlessly fascinated by the natural world around me and I am still. There is an endless variety of rocks, pebbles, insects, clouds and everything else. As a child, I enjoyed outdoor life not only because there was always something new to see, but also because there were lots of different things to do. For example I was happy building a sand castle and then watching the advancing tide knock it down.

I wanted to know more, and the more I learned the more questions there were popping into my head.

Who encouraged you along the way? (Who are your role models and heroes?)

My parents encouraged me by giving me freedom to do all sorts of things (and encouragement for some of them), not getting too irritated by endless questions, and being honest when they did not know the answers.

School teacher, Miss Mason, made a huge difference to my life by respecting my mathematical ability and enquiring mind when other teachers had regarded me as stupid because I struggled to learn to read and write.

What do you most enjoy about your job?

There are lots of things I love about my job. Having a new idea, finding out something new, or proving (or indeed disproving) a theory of mine or someone else's is intensely enjoyable.

There is nothing more satisfying however than seeing the enlightenment dawn on faces of a group of students you are teaching when they start to understand a complex issue or learn a new skill.

Walking through the countryside and understanding the things you see and knowing how they formed and will change adds layers of enjoyment to my work and private life.

What do you particularly appreciate or enjoy about working in ENV?

The School of Environmental Science is a fabulous place to work if you are interested in the natural world and have an enquiring mind. No matter what aspect of the Earth you have a question on there is likely to be someone who knows something about it and is keen to talk about it.

You don't have to go to a different department in a different building to talk to people in other areas of science, engineering or mathematics, they are around all the time. You might find yourself talking to an economist or ecologist one minute and an oceanographer or atmospheric chemist the next or indeed all four in the same discussion over coffee.

What advice would you give someone thinking about a career in science?

There are lots of different careers in science, and generalised advice may not be useful to all career paths. The most important thing is an enquiring mind – a desire to find out new things. If there is something you are really interested in try and find out more about it and keep an open mind about where that interest may take you.

I wish someone years ago had told me to remind myself often that criticism of my work is an essential stepping stone to improving my results it is not a personal attack on me. I still need to remind myself of this from time to time. Without criticism work is unlikely to improve.

What are some of the most memorable moments of your career?

The most memorable moments of my career involve field work: Standing in the ruins of Plymouth on the Caribbean island of Montserrat devastated by volcanic activity and understanding the full implications for the people of the island and the processes that caused the devastation; Walking on a large, dry Australian riverbed miles from any other human beings examining the evidence of extreme floods; Finding dinosaur footprints in Jurassic rocks in Yorkshire and "seeing" the environment in which those animals had lived, the list goes on.

Other particularly memorable events include giving my first talk at an international scientific conference (in USA), seeing the first students I taught graduate and in the late 1980s attending a staff meeting where for the first time after several years of such meetings, I was not the only woman present. (Now the gender balance in staff meetings is much much better)