Joy Aston

Joy graduated in 2015 and has subsequently followed a career in science communication. About to embark upon a new job as a Policy Officer, she reflects upon her career journey thus far. 

Why did you choose biology at Oxford?

I always loved biology before and throughout school, and because I was good at passing exams and lucky to have an amazingly supportive family and a well-resourced and clued-up school, university was definitely on the cards. I loved nature and was fascinated by diseases, and wanted to be able to learn about all the finer-scale aspects – the stuff under the microscope, the genetics, what you don’t really get to do at school.

Another honest part of the answer is to do with fees – I was in the first cohort of the new, higher fees. As soon as it was announced I decided I wasn’t going to go to university – I couldn’t comprehend the amount of debt I would be in and didn’t understand the system. Again, thanks to the well-resourced and clued-up school I had everything carefully explained to me, and 17 year old me essentially decided if I was going to be in that much debt I should try and get the best ‘value for money’ and apply to the ‘top’ Russell Group universities. I’d read up on the course, managed to get down for an open day, and the department just seemed friendly and welcoming – I remember Martin Speight giving a talk and saying that as long as you had three solid A Levels, he’d rather we kept up a hobby than take extra A Levels. That felt reassuring and really stuck with me. I chose Hertford because it seemed welcoming and friendly and they gave me a really nice pen.

What did you enjoy most about your degree?

I loved the breadth – I could have tutorials and lectures on animal behaviour one day and disease dynamics or proteins the next, and always with experts in those fields. I love that it really gave you the chance to develop a passion in one particular area, and I watched lots of my friends gradually get more and more specialised throughout, and many of them are now working on PhDs in those areas! But it also gave space for people like me, who weren’t really sure of one particular area or what I wanted to do, to try out all sorts of things.

What was your final project on?

My final project was on rates on parasitism in drosophila across a rainfall gradient – I was based in Panama at The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), working under Professor Owen Lewis.

What skill sets did you gain during your degree that have equipped you for where you are today?

Today, I feel confident approaching topics and subjects well beyond the borders of biology and I believe that’s partly due to the rigor of this course. The degree gave me an incredibly broad understanding of biology and science generally, and exposed me to a range of lab and field techniques. 

What did you do after Oxford?

After I graduated I was lucky to be in a position to move home to my parents, and spend some time recovering as in my final year I had developed mental health issues. During this year I did some volunteering and waitressed to work my way out of my overdraft and save some money. In the summer I spent three months cycling around Scotland and living in a tent, which I think were some of the best months of my life.

After that year, I started a part-time MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London - now that I’m not afraid of student debt and understand how it works it felt fine to just add another £10k on. As it turns out, I’ve absolutely loved my MSc. Alongside it I spent the first year waitressing, tutoring, I worked at Kew Gardens in the summer of 2018 as a Bee Explainer and more. I started my current job at in2scienceUK as an intern and they kept me on, which was amazing!

What do you currently do, and what do you enjoy most about it?

I have just finished my Masters, and I currently work for in2scienceUK, a charity working to improve social mobility and diversity in STEM. My work is mainly focused on comms and development (lots of applying for funding) but I’ve also been involved in developing and running workshops for students and much more. At the moment I’m helping students write personal statements, and I get given all the Oxbridge ones which makes it feel a bit like things have gone full circle! Recently, I’ve also done some freelance work scripting and voicing videos for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and am about to start a new role at the Royal Academy of Engineering as a Policy Officer focused on research and innovation policy.

What advice do you have for prospective students looking to apply for biology at Oxford?

Don’t be scared about taking a gap year before uni (and/or after) to save some money, travel, or get more experience before you apply. Oxford is an amazing place, but can also be incredibly tough and taxing on your mental health, so I would recommend (to everyone really, not just Oxford applicants) to spend some time figuring out what works for you and gaining awareness of the signs. If you’re still a year or so off applying, look out for placement schemes (obviously in2scienceUK is the best one!) and opportunities to gain experience in an area you might be interested in!

Get in touch with Joy: