The scientist: ‘Just keep working on it’

Ambition: Holly wanted to be a scientist because she “really likes knowing how things work”.

What does it take to be a scientist? In part one of our new ‘Careers’ series, research engineer Hollie Wright tells The Day about her life in the lab and how she achieved a childhood dream.

Hollie Wright has wanted to be a scientist for as long as she can remember.

“A while ago, my mum was moving house and I found this little folder of work I’d done in nursery. It was a questionnaire with my favourite colour and my favourite animal. It said there: ‘When I grow up I want to be a scientist’.”

That dream came true. Hollie works as a research engineer at Heriot-Watt University, where she is studying for an EngD in Applied Photonics.

Hollie went straight from school to study Physics at St Andrews University, but staying on top of the work didn’t always come naturally.

“There were times when I found myself really struggling with the courses, and feeling like I’d fallen behind.”

She says that, although physics has a reputation for being “too hard”, anyone can succeed with hard work and dedication. “Sometimes, you will be behind, but it’s okay as long as you’re willing to put the work in.”

It was at St Andrews that her dissertation supervisor suggested she apply to the Centre for Doctoral Teaching (CDT), where she is now studying for half an MBA in Business alongside her EngD research. Hollie says that the programme has helped her understand how her research will be put to use by industries.

Each day is different, but most of her time is spent in the lab. “At the moment, I’m trying to develop a technique to measure distances with lasers.”

“It can be quite frustrating sometimes. You solve a problem and then you’re on to the next problem. But, at the same time, it’s really exciting. I’m constantly thinking and trying to come up with new ideas.”

Is being a scientist different to how she imagined? “I expected there to be a lot more regular discoveries. In reality, it takes a lot of time and a lot of hard work to get to your result.” But the hard work pays off in the end: “Once you finally get it, it’s really satisfying.”

Looking ahead, Hollie is excited about finishing her Engineering doctorate. But her ultimate goal? To discover or invent something that will improve people’s everyday lives.

“I’m not sure what that will be yet, but I hope that one day I can eventually feel like I used my work to help people.”

What does it take to be a scientist?

Bright spark

“Never be too afraid or embarrassed to ask questions in class,” says Hollie. “Asking questions is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign you are taking responsibility for your learning! Besides, if you are unsure of something, there is most likely someone else who is unsure and they will be grateful you asked the question.”

“Learning to code is a fun hobby that will impress employers in the future. CodeAcademy, Udemy and RaspberryPi have free resources to help you get started. Plus, once you learn one coding language, it becomes easier to learn more!”

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be a scientist? Why or why not?
  2. Can anyone be good at science if they try hard enough?


  1. Make a list of three scientific discoveries that changed the course of history, or make an impact on your daily life.
  2. What skills do you think a scientist needs? Make a list of three. For each one, write down a way that you could develop that skill while you are still at school.

Some People Say...

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

Carl Sagan, US astronomer and science writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Women make up 22% of the STEM workforce and, as of 2016, just 11% of engineers. Hollie is on the Young Professionals’ Board of the WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) campaign, which aims to encourage more women into STEM careers. The number of women working in STEM has risen from just over 600,000 in 2011 to over 900,000 today.
What do we not know?
The best route into a career in science. Hollie’s place at a CDT means that she gets to learn more about the business side of research and how her experiments will be used in practice. Other scientists may prefer to focus on their academic research by applying to a traditional university.

Word Watch

An alternative to a PhD for students who want a career in industry. Students still complete PhD-level research. A PhD is the highest level of university degree. After completing a PhD or EngD, you gain the title “Doctor” (different, however, to being a medical doctor).
Applied Photonics
An area of physics research that involves finding ways to use lasers and other types of light beams in manufacturing, healthcare and other industries.
The study of forces and particles. It is a different to Chemistry (the study of chemicals) and Biology (the study of living things).
Dissertation supervisor
Academic teacher who supports a student through a research project.
In the programme, universities partner with different industries to provide training for PhD students.
A qualification awarded by business schools that covers areas like management, accounting, business law and entrepreneurship.
Another name for an EngD or PhD.


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