A plant scientist working at Norwich Research Park, Samantha Fox is a passionate champion of the next generation and believes you don't have to fit the stereotype of a 'traditional' scientist to work in STEM, as Stevie Smith finds out.

Eastern Daily Press: Samantha's research centres on the question of how a ball of cells transforms into a complex leaf or flowerSamantha's research centres on the question of how a ball of cells transforms into a complex leaf or flower (Image: Archant)

What made you want to be a scientist?

My parents didn't go to university, but I was inspired by my uncle who was a scientist, and everyone seemed to look up to him. I thought 'Maybe that's something I could do.' I studied Biological Sciences at UEA and I was really excited by the lectures held by world-class scientists from the John Innes Centre - who I now work with today!

What does your job involve on a daily basis?

Eastern Daily Press: Samantha set up the Youth STEMM Award to inspire a wider range of young people to realise their potential and consider a career in STEM.Samantha set up the Youth STEMM Award to inspire a wider range of young people to realise their potential and consider a career in STEM. (Image: Archant)

I'm a research scientist at the John Innes Centre at Norwich Research Park, researching how plants grow to create their amazing shapes. I'm asking "How does a ball of cells transform into a complex leaf or a flower?"

This is a fundamental question in biology that has fascinated scientists for many years. Plants are vital to life on Earth, so it's really important for us to understand how growth is coordinated so we can potentially develop better, more efficient plants in the future. We think there's an underlying system of polarity - a bit like a magnetic field or the way hairs go in one direction when you stroke a cat - within each cell that tells the plant which direction to grow in.

As well as your research, you're also working with the next generation of young scientists - why is that important to you?

As a youth aspiration champion for the John Innes Centre, I want to inspire a wider range of young people to consider science and STEM careers and help them to realise their potential. I co-founded the Youth STEMM Award and run the annual Women of the Future conference, which is attended by over 250 Year 10 schoolgirls from across Norfolk.

Science needs different types of people with different types of ideas. There are lots of routes you can take for a career in STEM and there are hundreds of thousands of jobs involving STEM - I meet lots of young people who want to be a vet, doctor or forensic scientist, but there are so many more careers that they might not yet know about.

They might think they can't go into sciences if they're a 'creative' person, but that's not true at all. At school I loved both biology and art. In fact, problem-solving, thinking creatively and outside the box is really useful.

The Youth STEMM Award follows a similar model to that of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award - why did you create it, and what does it involve?

There's a huge STEM skills shortage in the UK, so I wanted to set up a scheme based on the Duke of Edinburgh's model, to help 13-19 year olds develop their knowledge and skills in STEM by completing bronze, silver and gold awards.

It's not just about showing academic brilliance; it's about sustaining effort, hard work and showing initiative. Students design their own path - they can learn to code, start a club, visit museums, watch Blue Planet, make posters at school or interview their local dentist.

They log hours as they go, creating a portfolio of experience - one girl told me about how it had helped her during an interview to successfully achieve an apprenticeship with the National Grid. We have schools across Norfolk and the wider region participating and even a couple of international schools - and children can complete the award independently of their schools too.

What's it like working at the Norwich Research Park?

I work with really bright people from all over the world who've chosen to come here because it's one of the best centres in the world for plant sciences. I love being able to walk down the corridor and swap ideas and work on projects with experts in their fields; it's no good staying inside your own little office - you have to get out there and stay engaged.

It's the same at big organisations like Google or Apple, which have really creative environments. That's what Norwich Research Park wants to achieve.

What do you like to do when you're not peering into a microscope or working with future scientists?

Because I'm a PHD student at UEA, I recently joined the Surf Club and went surfing in Morocco. I like going to the coast because creative ideas often come when we're immersed in the environment - we've got big skies in Norfolk, and it allows your brain to just be free.

To find out more about the Youth STEMM Award visit ysawards.co.uk or follow Samantha on Twitter @sambrownfox