If I said to you that viruses, bacteria, seahorses and whales are very similar, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that I am completely and utterly crazy… but bear with me…
Biologically speaking, viruses, bacteria, seahorses and whales are all quite different and, naturally, whales are much, much bigger than microbes.
But from my perspective, what links them all is my career in science so far.
Let me explain…
I went from studying tiny viruses and bacteria for my PhD, to a postdoctoral position researching seahorses, to now studying whales in the Southern Ocean.
I want to tell you a bit about what I’ve learned along the way, and give you my top tips about following a career in science.
Don’t be afraid to take chances
When I was an undergrad studying environmental biology in the UK, I dreamed of working in the Daintree studying some of the largest plants on the planet, trees, by day, star-gazing by night and snorkelling on coral reefs in my spare time.
I also vividly remember enjoying a course on Polar Ecology but watching episodes of the BBC’s Life in the Freezer as part of that course and thinking to myself that I could never, ever work in Antarctica!
But would you believe it? That’s exactly where I ended up. Almost immediately after graduating I found myself in Antarctica, just 22 years old, starting a PhD studying some of the smallest plants on the planet, algae, plus those bacteria and viruses mentioned earlier.
26 years on, I’m still working in Antarctica, but have since managed to work in the tropics and on coral reefs too!
So did I go wrong? Did I lose my way?
No, I didn’t, I took a chance and seized an opportunity that challenged all my preconceived ideas about what I thought I wanted to do, and I went for it.
And that’s a key lesson: don’t be afraid to take chances, as you may never get those opportunities again.
Skills are transferable
It is also important to view every opportunity, however different, however mundane, however challenging, as a chance to learn new skills that can be used to steer your career in directions you do ultimately want it to go.
My Antarctic opportunity allowed me to develop skills that are transferrable to practically any setting: fieldwork, laboratory work, data handling and analysis, writing scientific papers, communicating with people from different walks of life, how to run my own projects and manage my own budgets.
Plus the fact that anyone who works in Antarctica will tell you about the “A-factor” – if anything is going to break, it will break, just when you need it and likely in the middle of a blizzard! Having to trouble shoot and fix gear in extremely cold, windy conditions taught me more than I could ever have imagined and has helped me overcome equally challenging, albeit not so cold, situations since.
Let your passion take you anywhere
It’s also important to let your passion take you anywhere… and I mean anywhere.
Some of my most successful colleagues are those that took a particular skill, technique or method, for example statistics or genetic techniques or stable isotope analyses, and applied it to lots of different scientific questions literally from Antarctic microbes to hippos in Africa.
In that sense my career has been no different, by letting my passions and skills be my guide, I was able to comfortably move from a PhD working on microbes in the Antarctic to working on seahorses in the tropics, and more recently into working with whales in the Antarctic again.
Walk away when you need to
Of course some of the chances you take may not turn out well.
If you’re truly not happy or inspired by what you are doing never feel the need to get locked in.
Don’t be afraid to change tack completely. Know when to walk away. And then learn from that experience.
Knowing what you don’t want to do is as valuable as learning what you do!
Find a mentor
To help with making big career decisions like taking a chance or walking away, it is really useful to find a mentor.
Everyone needs someone they can talk to about their work and their career choices.
You may in fact end up with several mentors whom you approach about different things at different stages of your career.
Later on you may even be able to return the favour and mentor someone else as they embark upon their own scientific career.
The importance of other people does not stop at mentors.
I can’t stress strongly enough how important team work and a willingness to collaborate with other scientists is… and how much fun too!
One of the best aspects of my current job is that I work closely with scientists from all over the world in a huge collaborative network.
We achieve far more working collaboratively than we would so alone, pooling our collective brain power to tackle big problems and sharing resources that are not necessarily available to a particular individual or institution.
Those collaborators will also be your inspiration and your support network.
Believe that you can make a difference!
I have also learned it is really important to keep believing in yourself and believing that you can make a difference. The human race is facing a number of huge challenges that need the input of scientists: climate change, finding a vaccine for coronavirus to name only two.
I’m not saying that everyone is going to win a Nobel Prize for their scientific endeavours to tackle these problems.
But I am saying that every piece of science that we do fits another tiny piece into a huge and often complex, jigsaw puzzle.
And your tiny piece of that puzzle is absolutely critical to the whole picture finally being revealed.
What’s more, your tiny piece is likely to make it possible for other people to slot their pieces into the puzzle too!
You will get there in the end…
Finally, whichever seemingly unrelated opportunities that you seize along the way, know that you will get there in the end… or somewhere equally as interesting.
When I was younger, never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be working on whales in the Antarctic, but I did know that I loved the oceans and that I cared deeply about conservation and about finding ways to help threatened species.
In that sense I am right where I want to be. That might not be the Daintree studying trees but I am researching magnificent whales, in an extraordinary place, the Antarctic, with amazing people from all over the world, and using my research to influence the choices that governments around the world make about the management and conservation of these creatures.
And along the way I got to play with viruses, bacteria and seahorses as well, and had a lot of fun!