Case study - Tracy Aze

Tracy Aze onboard a research ship

Marine micropaleontology lecturer, University of Leeds

Tracy chose to do her NERC-funded PhD because she wanted to be a research scientist - "simple as that" - but her path to becoming a lecturer in marine micropaleontology at the University of Leeds has been anything but simple.

In Tracy's own words, she has had a very convoluted route into science. She initially undertook a fine art degree, because she was good at art and others thought she should pursue it, but it wasn't really where her interests lay. What really interested her was how the natural world works.

So, after deciding to end her fine art degree early, she enrolled on an Extended Science foundation programme at the University of Plymouth. After successfully completing the year-long course, she could take any science degree course at Plymouth. She chose geological sciences, informed by her interest in the natural world and also by one memorable geoscience module she completed on the foundation course.

The degree included a mapping fieldwork project, but unfortunately a broken leg meant she couldn't participate and was assigned a lab-based project on marine microfossils. This was where Tracy became fascinated by micropaleontology and ultimately was the start of her route into her PhD on the subject.

During her masters degree, Tracy had a baby and found the University of Plymouth very accommodating, allowing her a year's break during her masters of research programme. As a single parent, Tracy has a very positive message for women and people with families considering a PhD. "It doesn't have to hold you back, and I have seen first-hand a lot of success stories," she says. "You can still have a family and a life outside science and get that faculty position everyone looks for."

Tracy's PhD looked at a group of marine microfossils called planktonic foraminifera, which are important because they have a very good fossil record and record the chemistry of the water around them in their shells, providing a window on past environments.

There have been real impacts from the PhD Tracy completed, including publications; a key one being a family tree of planktonic foraminifera. The tree itself was an important publication and is well cited. Other publications appeared in Science, demonstrating key drivers of speciation and extinction and links with climate change.

Tracy has also been invited to present at symposium, and all the research she does comes out of that tree she originally created, which even made the national press!

Describing her PhD, Tracy says she had "an amazing time, the best supervisor, who was inspirational and had an incredible overview of the relevance of this field to real people."

She also won a place on a summer school in Santa Barbara involving working with paleobiological data, and her NERC PhD helped cover the cost of attending.

Tracy undertaking fieldwork with her students

Other major highlights of Tracy's PhD included a research cruise in the South West Indian Ocean for five weeks, which she describes as an incredible experience, involving coring and seismic surveys, she summed up by saying she "had an amazing PhD experience".

Tracy has been lucky enough to have been continuously employed since finishing her PhD. She is currently working as a lecturer of marine micropalaeontology at the University of Leeds, where she can still work on her area of research - how climate change effects biodiversity - but also teaches an undergraduates module in Earth history.

Tracy's advice for potential PhD students is to "find something that fascinates you and you are really interested in. Towards the end, it will exhaust you and feel like a long hard road. When you look back it isn't, but when you're in it, it can be tough getting through the final few months, so studying a subject you are enthusiastic about makes things a lot easier."

She adds that PhD students looking for a career in academia after completing their thesis should avoid not being disheartened by having to take some fixed-term positions, because there is light at the end of the tunnel; permanent opportunities do come up. "Don't be afraid to ask for advice at your university and from your peers. If you want a career in academia you need to get the postdocs and fellowships, and there's loads of support out there for you to succeed."

Tracy thoroughly enjoyed her PhD and loves her job. You can't really ask for more than that.