The Journey to becoming Jurassicgirl
Updated: Jun 2, 2021
I was about eight years old when I knew that I wanted to put on a spacesuit and fly on a rocket into outer space. The year was 1984, four years before the 1988 Education Reform Act which would introduce a National Curriculum and completely change the way children would be taught in schools. Prior to the National Curriculum, teachers had the freedom to choose topics that interested them and base essential aspects of learning (like English and Maths) around subjects like the Romans, pets and food. However, in my Primary school, it turned out that Space was a very popular and recurring topic. As I progressed through the school years, I must have been taught Space as a termly topic at least three times.
This had a profound impact on me and after a visit to the Science Museum to see a model of the Lunar landing craft, I was convinced that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had seen NASA launch space shuttle missions on the television and watched in wonder at how human beings were propelled into another world far away from my home in Slough. But here was my problem, I too existed in another world. A world which was at odds with my ambition.
I grew up in a traditional Rajasthani Indian community that had very specific views about the choices that girls and young women had available to them. This was a time when even looking at a boy across the street could set tongues wagging and angry parents waiting on the doorstep to haul you in for questioning. This was not a time for a 10 year old to dream of becoming an astronaut and literally leaving Earth when I was not even allowed to join the Brownies. So, I continued to dream of what my life could be. My plan was to work hard at school (I had passed the mandatory 12 plus to attend a local Grammar school) and show my parents that I was worth more than just girl who needed to be married off.
I would describe my childhood as complex. I grew up in a house of eight people which included my grandparents, two aunts, an uncle, my mum and dad and my sister. We were raised by my grandparents as both of my parents worked. My father worked as a Signwriter for the local council and my mother worked at an industrial laundry. My father was a very stressed and overworked individual. Later in life, I would learn from my father where that stress, frustration and anger came from and it would in some way help me to explain how his horrific experiences of racism in 1970’s Britain impacted on my childhood.
Our family had come to England from Kenya and before that, Rajasthan in India. I grew up with a strong connection to Kenya through food, language (Swahili was commonly intermixed with Marwari which we spoke at home) and even home furnishings. In most East African Asian homes you would have been presented with a range of brass metal depictions of animal safaris, animal skin rugs or Masai wall art. But it was about the age of 11 when I went on holiday to Kenya with my family that my Jurassic Journey began.
Whilst travelling from Nairobi to Mombasa, we stopped to stretch our legs at site known as the Shetani lava flow in the Tsavo West National Park. It was an experience that would change my life forever. As I looked across the vast landscape and felt the sharp craggy rocks through my thin rubber plimsolls, I began to wonder why this was all here. At school I had learnt that lava burst out of volcanoes as a bright orange fountain of boiling hot molten rock. It horrified and fascinated me to think that if I was walking across this kind of lava, my legs would have melted away! As we went back to the van, I picked up two small pieces of the lava rock, testimony to that pivotal moment that changed my life.
As the years went on, my passion for geology and geography grew and the few holidays we went on afforded me opportunities to continue collecting rocks. They accumulated in dusty, cobweb covered piles on my windowsill that infuriated my Mother who struggled to understand my growing fascination with such things. But it was not just my rock collection that was causing friction with my parents, it was also my choice to go to University and study Earth Science. The discussions were already beginning about our future and this did not include leaving home to study rocks for three years. After many arguments and promises made to the family (such as returning home at weekends) I began my degree in Earth Science at Kingston University. Any hopes I had to study Physical Geography at Aberystwyth were dashed early on. It was simply too far and I couldn’t be trusted.
Studying Earth Sciences at Kingston was a glorious experience. I was able to delve into new and unexpected worlds such as the life of minerals in petrology to interpreting past climates in micropalaeontology. But it was engineering geology and Quaternary science that would capture my imagination and lead me to begin writing proposals to study for a PhD. Studying for another three years on a subject that seemed so abstract to my parents went down like a lead balloon. My father who had applauded me as a child for passing the 12 plus exam now argued that that no one would want to marry me with a PhD. For what husband would want a wife who was cleverer than him? I felt that I was living in a parody of a Jane Austen novel, only with an Indian twist! So it came to be that I decided to go my separate way and pursue my career rather than a good marriage.
As the years passed, I was awarded my Ph.D. and then travelled to the US to pursue my postdoctoral studies. All the while, my parents and I remained estranged and this would continue for another four years. When I returned to the UK to take up a position as the Jurassic Coast Education Co-ordinator, I made contact with my mother. It was an emotional reunion and I discovered that not only was she proud of my achievements but she now welcomed the choices I was making in my life.
I spent 15 years at the Jurassic Coast developing an ambitious education programme, cutting my teeth on Mesozoic geology and developing a real talent for science communication. In 2008, I was invited to appear as an expert contributor for a BBC2 series called Fossil Detectives and as a result I began pursuing an onscreen presenting career. In 2012 I was selected by the BBC Academy Expert Women programme and Diverse Voices initiative to be trained in on screen presenting. I ended up expert contributing to numerous programmes, but BBC 4 Beach Live was my big break to reach a mass audience. Live television gave me an opportunity to shine and my subject knowledge and ability to warm an audience to geology was finally recognised. But despite my extensive knowledge, obvious passion and talent for presenting science stories, my face often “did not fit the stories” I was being pitched to present. In addition to this struggle, I would go onto experience a significant injustice and trauma related to racism and discrimination which today remains unacknowledged by the perpetrators. This trauma could have been the end of my journey but instead I used it to empower and educate others to do better and be better.
Now in my mid-career phase, I am carving a new pathway for myself. I am mentoring and platforming other young diverse voices in the sector who need guidance. Organisations approach me wanting to learn from my lived experiences and how they can change structures and processes for the better. Remarkably, I also seem to be reviving my on screen presence through some opportunities to reach mass audiences on shows like ITV’s This Morning and Love Your Weekend. By leaving the toxic past behind me, I have opened myself up to new opportunities and new directions. This is a new journey and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.