‘We make sense of the world through stories’: Tim Gregory (PhD 2020) on life as a scientist, writer and TV star

Tim Gregory (PhD 2020) is a man of many talents. At any moment you might find him teaching children through BBC Bitesize revision classes, presenting BBC4’s The Sky at Night, or hosting online stargazing events for Bristol alumni.

Since graduating from the University of Bristol last year with a PhD in Cosmochemistry, Tim has worked as a postdoctoral research associate at the British Geological Survey, published his first book Meteorite: The Stones From Outer Space That Made Our World (2020), and started a new job as a nuclear chemist. He’s achieved an astonishing amount, no doubt helped along the way by his infectious enthusiasm and passion for his subject.

“I’ve had lots of interests in my life, but two of the longstanding ones are space and rocks,” says Tim. “While I was an undergraduate student I learnt you could study both – meteorites! It was like an epiphany. I thought, I have to learn more about this because it is amazing.”

An undergraduate at the University of Manchester, Tim started out as a Physics student before switching to Geology. “When I was applying to university, I had no idea what I wanted to do,” Tim explains. “A few months into starting my degree I realised that I had made the wrong subject choice. I only had a few days to decide whether I would switch to Geology. It was a bit of an ordeal, but I changed degree subject and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. It was an example of why we should always be honest with ourselves. It was a very valuable lesson.”

In 2017, Tim was a candidate in a six-part BBC series Astronauts: Do You Have What it Takes? which involved hazardous challenges – including hovering a helicopter and escaping an underwater capsule – as part of an intensive astronaut testing process. A finalist on the show, Tim credits the experience as his initiation into science media, and he has since presented on BBC4’s The Sky at Night and BBC Bitesize Revision.

“I’ve always liked talking about science,” he says. “I gave my first talk in my reception class, when I took my rock collection in to show and tell. That interest has never really left me, although I quickly learnt in high school doing a talk about amphibians is not going to get you any street cred! Fortunately, I had a few teachers who indulged me and I never lost my curiosity for science.”

“I love asking people what they do because their eyes light up. We love to talk about what we love to do, whether it’s a job or a hobby. And some people can do it in front of big audiences. I know it’s not for everybody, but I guess I have the personality to do so. As an undergraduate I volunteered at the Manchester Museum, and when I was a PhD student I used to go to schools in and around Bristol with a fellow student in my research group, Ana Samperiz. We took hundreds of kilograms of rocks and fossils with us and made geological timelines on washing lines and prints of fossil and rock classifications. It’s the greatest thing in the world, to see a young person pick up a rock and see it for the first time.”

“We all look at lots of different things, but we don’t necessarily see them. To watch a young person pick up a rock and actually look at it and point out all the different crystals and hear them talk about how this one is purple and this one is black and white and this one is shiny… it’s just ‘wow’. It’s a real honour to be able to do that and it’s what drives me; it propels me forward.”

It would be easy to think, at 27, that Tim’s career has evolved the way he planned it to. Was establishing a portfolio career as easy as Tim makes it look? He suggests otherwise.

“It is actually just a combination of chance and hard work. You can make a plan but I don’t believe it will always go the way you want it to. When I accepted my PhD offer, I had no idea what else would happen – my work in the media, the book, an eventual career change out of academia. Opportunities come along and if you condition yourself to take to things enthusiastically, and with a bit of spirit, it can go a really long way. Forming a career for yourself is like picking your way through a forest – you’re walking along a path in the dark, you have a head torch on and you can just about see what’s in front of you but not too far ahead, it gets a bit vague after that. You have to keep going and see what happens. That’s what I’m doing now; the exploratory nature doesn’t end.”

For Tim, moving out of academia has allowed him to consider other priorities in his life too.

“I really like my new job. It is endless surprising. But it was a big decision to leave academia – it was my whole life, my work, my research. To leave that behind was a massive risk and it wasn’t a decision I took lightly.”

“I come from a strong working-class community in West Yorkshire. And so I found the academic career structure, where you have to move around a lot, really difficult. Having a strong support network around me is important to me; it’s how I grew up. I love academia and there are things you can learn within it that you can’t learn anywhere else. But I needed something more stable, and to be somewhere where I can establish some roots.”

“Living in Cumbria, it’s amazing. I’m half an hour away from where I used to come on holiday as a kid. I come out of work every day and I can see Scafell Pike – literally the top of the Scafell Pike, right up Wasdale Valley to the summit of the highest mountain in England. As a hiker, it’s unbelievable. So many mountains to climb.”

Tim’s book is available to buy now

Ever humble about his success, Tim attributes his productivity to a lot of hard work and good fortune. In October 2018 he started writing his book Meteorite, while also beginning to write his PhD thesis, which was submitted in May the following year.

“It was the most productive time of my entire life. It had to be. When you turn the dial up on one thing, you have turn it down on other things in your life. So for short periods, being really single minded is a good way of getting what you want done, and getting where you want to be. As a PhD student with no dependants, I had a lot of freedom. My life at the time was such that it was possible to be productive, and I really took advantage of it. Not everybody can do that.”

Meteorite has been lauded as ‘a treasure’ by the Wall Street Journal and Tim’s ‘scientific delight contagious’ by astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was the first Canadian to walk in space. Tim is candid about his newfound love of writing.

“Writing has become an incredibly powerful tool for me to get my thoughts in order and become more articulate. I only learnt its value later on in life. Since I started writing regularly, my public talks have got so much better. As a scientist, no one tells you why you should write; it’s a really underrated process in my discipline.”

“I realise more and more that we are storytelling creatures. We make sense of the world through stories. The prologue to Meteorite is called ‘Written in Rock’ because it is the perfect metaphor – as human stories are written down, so too is the geological history of the Earth written in the language of geology. If you learn how to read rocks as a scientist, this wonderful story presents itself to you. And that’s the hook that the whole book hangs on, that rocks are storytellers, and we use the tool of science to understand them.”

Tim remembers a particularly special teacher early on in his academic journey who inspired his love of words.

“My form tutor in high school was an English teacher and she was really into Shakespeare. She spoke about Shakespeare the way I speak about meteorites. I thought Shakespeare was some old thing we had to do for English. It wasn’t until I heard her speak about him that I thought, ‘gosh, Shakespeare is actually amazing’. She gave me the complete works of Shakespeare for my 18th birthday and we are still in touch. I look at the book every day as a reminder to myself – stay interested.”

To watch Tim’s presentation to Bristol alumni as part of our Digital Events Programme, click here.

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