Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Gwen Grinyer (#13)

This week on Postdoc Superheroes we have Dr. Gwen Grinyer who is a physics professor and a mum of 3 (!). In this interview, Gwen is sharing how it was to work with a woman scientist, travel for a postdoc, and how she marries her work life with family life.

Enjoy the read!

 Quick notes on Gwen:
NameDr. Gwen Grinyer
Countries she has an academic experience fromCanada, France, United States
Gwen in keywordsIntrovert, caring, compassionate, sensitive 
Gwen as a scientist/researcher/academicExtrovert, teacher, leader, ambitious
Currently excited about Book: “Without You, There Is No Us” by Suki Kim
Gwen’s typical day:        Wake up at 6:30, make kids lunches and get them to school,
work from 9:00 to 4:00,
kids home, make dinner, kids go to bed, work more from 8:30 to 10:30, bed by 11:30.
Contact Gwen at:Insta @gwendoesscience
Profile Assistant Professor Gwen Grinyer

Hi, thank you so much for agreeing to contribute to this project Gwen.

Could you introduce yourself briefly?

Hi!  My name is Gwen and I’m a physics professor at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada. 

I’m an experimental nuclear physicist and my research focuses on the study of rare isotopes, which are short-lived radioactive nuclei that are not found naturally on Earth. 

To be able to study these rare isotopes in the laboratory, we have to produce them using high-energy particle accelerators and then try to learn everything we can about them before they decay.

What kind of student/pupil were you as a kid?

I was one of those kids who got straight A’s in almost every class and even did extra homework just for fun.  Ever since I can remember, I have always loved math and science.

Things that I didn’t like about school included essay writing, dissecting frogs and gym class.

What was your experience studying in your undergrad program?

I really enjoyed my undergrad.  In Canada, you don’t have to decide your major at the start. You enter in a particular faculty (Science in my case), and then spend the first year taking introductory courses in all of the disciplines. 

When I began, I had no idea what I was going to major in and was thinking maybe biology. 

I had an amazing first-year physics teacher and just enjoyed physics so much more than any of my other classes.  I chose physics as my major at the start of my 2nd year and never looked back.  Special relativity was my favorite class!

Why and how did you decide to go into a MSc/PhD?

I worked the summer between my 3rd and 4th year doing nuclear physics research with the same professor who had taught my first-year introductory physics class.  My summer project was to optimize the geometry for a brand-new gamma-ray spectrometer that he and his collaboration were planning to build. 

When classes resumed in the Fall, I asked if he could supervise my 4th-year undergraduate research project too.  He proposed that we measure the half-life of 176Lu, a long-lived radioactive isotope, and that I would need to go on a one-week research trip to Vancouver to do this at TRIUMF lab (Canada’s particle accelerator centre). 

It was such an amazing experience and the results from this measurement ended up leading to my first ever publication in a scientific journal!  It was then that I decided to pursue an advanced degree in experimental nuclear physics.  

What was your PhD program experience?

In Canada, you can’t go directly from undergrad to PhD.  You first have to be accepted into a Master’s program. 

I began a Master of Science (MSc) degree, which usually takes about 2 years to complete.  Mine was research based and it had a written thesis component that had to be defended in front of a committee at the end.  So, it was basically just like a mini-PhD. 

I really loved my MSc research topic, and the plan for my PhD was to significantly extend this work so I stayed to finish what I had started.  In Canada, a PhD degree usually takes an additional 4 years to complete and thus most students spend a total of about 6 years to complete the MSc and PhD degrees.

Could you briefly describe what your research was and/or is about?

My thesis research was related to measuring, with extremely high precision, the half-lives of several exotic isotopes including 18Ne, 26Na and 62Ga. I was looking at a very special and relatively rare type of radioactivity called “Superallowed Fermi Beta Decay”. 

High-precision measurements of the half-lives of these decays can be used to constrain and test fundamental properties of the Standard Model of particle physics. 

When my thesis was first published, the result that I obtained for 62Ga was a world record for the most precise half-life measurement ever performed for any nucleus!

This so impressive!

The nuclear half-life is a fundamental quantity that tells us how long a radioactive nucleus will survive before decaying away.  Knowledge of the half-lives of radioactive isotopes is important for predicting how the elements were produced in the universe through supernovae, star collisions and other explosive astrophysical scenarios. 

On Earth, the half-life is important for medical applications like nuclear imaging, radiotherapy for cancer treatments, and safely managing nuclear waste produced in nuclear energy reactors.  

What advice would you give your younger self starting a PhD program?

Enjoy this moment.  Take more breaks, lower your stress level and appreciate just being a student.

What have you decided to do after your PhD and why?

I enjoyed research and found a lot of success doing it.  My PhD thesis was awarded the Canadian Association of Physicists (CAP) nuclear physics thesis prize and I had several offers to continue in the field as a postdoctoral researcher. 

I really loved what I was doing, felt confident that I could make a successful career out of it and so I stayed. 

I went on to do my postdoc in the United States, worked as a staff scientist at a national lab in France and am now a university professor in Canada.

I look back on moving countries with mixed emotions.  On the one hand, I really enjoyed seeing new places, experiencing new foods and cultures and I even learned a new language! 

All of this has taught me so much and I am truly grateful for having had the opportunity to take in so many of these unique life experiences. 

But then there is the other side, which includes feelings of isolation, struggling with language barriers, and having to constantly deal with administrative challenges that are expensive and time-consuming. 

If you are considering spending a few years (or more) working in another country then overall I would definitely recommend it!  But do it early in your career because it gets much more difficult to move when you are older!

What PhD has given you and how you use it now?

A PhD is about contributing something new to your area of research, to your field or to society as a whole.  To achieve something that hasn’t been done before, you need to take all of the knowledge that you do have and fill in the blanks by yourself.  This is what my PhD gave me. 

The knowledge and the skill set to solve problems and the confidence to take on complex and challenging projects. 

I learned how to do things that haven’t been done, how to build things that haven’t been built and how to keep moving forward even when the outcome is uncertain or unknown.

I enjoy stepping outside of my personal comfort zone to learn new things.  It’s what keeps the job interesting!

What are your other superpowers?

My 3 children! I can’t wait to see where their interests take them. 

Balancing busy family life with a demanding professional one is definitely a major challenge.  Before COVID, I also used to travel a lot for work which made things even harder. 

Guilt would constantly pull me back and forth between home and office and finding the right work-life balance was always a struggle.  But it did get easier with time and I got to meet and share stories with other parents experiencing the same challenges and made some amazing friends along the way! 

One of the huge positives to being a professor is that I am my own boss and I make my own hours.  So, if I am running late or have to leave early, I have the flexibility to do so! 

It also seems like working from home during the pandemic has blurred the line between our personal and professional lives.  I see kids in zoom meetings all the time now (which is great!) and everyone appears to better understand that many of us have busy family lives. 

It has also made us realize that travel for work is not always essential and I truly hope that remote meetings are here to stay because of the benefits to so many people, including parents in academia.

What is the hardest in doing what you are doing and how do you deal with that?

Time management.  My job is a balance of teaching, research and committee work.  I lead a group of students and postdocs and am responsible for managing research funds, proposing new experiments, applying for grants, giving presentations, building connections, public outreach and publishing results. 

It is fast paced and dynamic and with so many things going on at once, it can be really difficult to find enough time to handle everything.  I used to work almost every evening, and on weekends, in a futile attempt to try and get ahead and it was so overwhelming at times. 

It took a while for me to navigate this but I am better at prioritizing everything, staying on task for what needs doing right now and have found it easier to say no.

What are you the proudest of?

Being true to myself and living my authentic life.

If you could teach people one thing, what would it be?

That physics and math aren’t scary. 

Who was/is the most influential person in your science journey, and how so?

There are really three people that come to mind. 

The first is my undergraduate physics professor who was really the main reason why I pursued a physics degree and went into nuclear physics in the first place. 

Second is my PhD supervisor whose meticulous attention to detail has certainly had the greatest impact and influence on my scientific career. 

And third is my postdoctoral supervisor who was also the very first female nuclear physicist that I had ever worked with.  She is such an amazing scientist and person and she was just such a huge inspiration and role model for me.  

Who are the people you follow on social media and enjoy they content?

I follow lots of other female physicists and STEMinists, physics related accounts like nasa and cern and any accounts devoted to promoting and celebrating diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM including @500queerscientists @blackafinstem @mothersinscience and many others!

Are there any tools, resources or software you are obsessed with at the moment?

A program that I absolutely love and one that almost no one in nuclear physics has ever heard of is called Igor Pro.  It is a powerful all-in-one data analysis program with a built-in programming language and random event generators for simulation work. 

You can build your own graphical user interface and it even has an excel compatible spreadsheet environment.  It was originally created for complex image processing and, in my opinion, it makes the most beautiful plots in 1, 2 and 3D.  I use it to make all of my figures for scientific publications!

What are your future plans, upcoming projects, what is next?

I am part of a collaboration that, over the next 5 years, wants to build a gas-filled time projection chamber (TPC) to perform nuclear physics experiments at TRIUMF. 

Longer term I would like to get into deep underground low-background experiments to search for neutrinoless double beta decay.  One of the best places on Earth to do this is right here in Canada at SNOLAB!

Where people can find you?

Insta @gwendoesscience

Profile Assistant Professor Gwen Grinyer

Thank you!

If you want read more stories of academic mums:

Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Linda May-Zhang (#4)

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