Career Profiles: Tania Johnston

What is your name?

Tania Johnston

Where do you work and what is your role/job title?

European Southern Observatory (ESO), near Munich, Germany; job title Head of ESO Supernova

Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Yes, on the whole. I’m lucky that I really enjoy the job I do, so am normally happy to go to work. At the same time, I have enough free time to do the things I like.

Questions about your current Job

How did you go about getting your current job?

I got into science communication about 20 years ago now, almost by chance, and fell in love with the career. For 2 years, I built up experience in the field, sharing chemistry and biology with a range of different audiences across Scotland.  I also worked for a brief time in the National Museum of Scotland, presenting science shows, and in a primary school as a classroom assistant to enhance my understanding of the education system. Then, a job came up at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, in their visitor centre. I’d always loved astronomy and thought this would be a great opportunity. I was there for 9 years, eventually leading the outreach and education programmes. I’d always wanted to work in Europe, so when the position became available to lead the brand new ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre, I just had to apply. And I was lucky enough to be given the job.

Describe a typical day.

Difficult one…there is no such thing as a typical day. Overall, I am responsible for the smooth operation of the science centre. I manage my team, which involves having meetings with them and overseeing their workplans. I also have to handle the finances of the centre, and submit reports on our progress throughout the year.

But, I’m not in my office all the time working on those top-level managerial tasks. I still have a lot of interaction with the public. I still present planetarium shows or lead guided tours on occasion, and generally engage with our visitors, ensuring they feel welcome and answering any questions they might have.

In addition, I often deal with email enquiries from other companies wishing to use the building for some type of event. This could be a band who will come and give a concert in the planetarium, or a company who want to host a reception for their customers or staff. Occasionally I also coordinate temporary exhibitions in the building.

I also have to be thinking long-term a lot of the time, and doing strategic planning for the future of the ESO Supernova.

What’s the coolest part of your job?

Experiencing the reactions of our visitors is still very cool and I don’t think that feeling will ever get old for me. To hear the comments between families after a planetarium show, knowing they’ve enjoyed the experience or to see some child’s eye get wider as they ask more and more questions is very cool.

Questions about education and training

What subjects did you take in school/college and how have these influenced your career path?

I took quite a variety of subjects: the core subjects, Maths and English, and alongside these I took Art, German and Chemistry (at Scottish Higher level), I also did a module in Geology in my final year at school. I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do as a career when I left school. I decided to go to University and study chemistry, since I enjoyed the subject but it also challenged me. I wouldn’t have thought it at the time, but my subject choices were pretty perfect for the job I do now: creativity from Art, science from Chemistry, Geology and Maths, and, as luck would have it, German was my main foreign language throughout high school, which has served me quite well since moving here 🙂

Questions about yourself

What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?

Without a doubt, one of the most rewarding projects I was involved in was a project which sought to make astronomy more accessible to the Deaf community. Working with a combination of astronomers, Deaf scientists and linguists, we created over 90 new British Sign Language signs for astronomical terms. It was an amazing process and really made me think more about accessibility and the barriers there could be to science for certain groups. It was also a fascinating process in terms of thinking about language.

What is your dream job?

I think I’m already doing it 🙂

Advice for people thinking of this job as a career choice

What advice would you give to someone considering this job? Are there important personal characteristics, or good work experience they can undertake for example

For this particular type of job, you need to enjoy engaging with people and have a definite passion for science. I wasn’t the top student in my science classes, nor at university, but I found it interesting. In terms of work experience, you could consider getting a part-time job, an internship or volunteering in a science centre or museum. But there are other career options in science communication which don’t involve presenting in front of audiences, like science journalism. So if you’re not so confident speaking in public, but want to share your passion for science, there are other routes you can take.