When I grow up I want to be a… | Biologist

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Remember careers advice at school? When they’d roll out some old, unrelatable, “teacher” to tell you what to do with your life? Well, we’re doing careers advice – the Athena way! In our weekly feature, we’ll spotlight one of our members – what they do and how they got there. Let’s go smash those glass ceilings, shall we?

QNameMary Westwood.

Q1Neil deGrasse Tyson has this quote, “the great thing about being a scientist is you never have to grow up.” I think this is entirely true – especially for biologists. When I was little I spent all of my time outdoors, and as an adult, I’ve done a lot of the same. I haven’t lost the curiosity I had for nature as a child, I’ve just honed my skills as a scientist throughout my education.

I’m not sure I had a firm grasp on science as a potential career when I was young, but I did know that if I could explore the world like the people I saw on National Geographic, I wanted to pursue that. My goal has shifted a bit as I’ve gotten older in that I would ultimately like to become a professor.

Q2I am a biologist who is interested in the evolution and ecology of vectors and vector-borne diseases (a vector is an organism, such as a tick or mosquito, that can transmit pathogens). Currently, I’m working towards a PhD in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Edinburgh.

Q3I get to think and read a lot about evolution and ecology, create hypotheses, test those hypotheses, and interpret the results. For my Masters, I focused on the disease ecology of ticks in the upper-midwestern United States. For my PhD, I am working towards understanding the evolution of biological rhythms in malaria infection.

As a postgraduate student, I get to attend scientific conferences which allow myself and other scientists from around the world to share, discuss, and critique each others ideas. I have also had the opportunity to teach freshman biology laboratory courses as a graduate assistant, which can be a lot of fun.

Q4I am just starting my PhD this fall, so I haven’t been working on this project for long. I completed my Masters, which took two years, this summer. Before that I completed a BSc in Biology.

Q5The long answer would be that I’ve been working towards this point essentially my whole life. But, for the sake of brevity, I completed a Bachelors in Biology and a Masters in Biology, then was accepted into the PhD in Evolutionary Biology program here in Edinburgh. As a Bachelors student I involved myself in numerous research projects and worked as a tutor for biology courses, which helped to set me up for my Masters and Doctorate. Generally, it is not enough to simply complete coursework to become a successful postgraduate researcher; doing undergraduate research can really give you a leg-up with applying for Masters or Doctorates and will give you insight into whether or not research is something you actually want to pursue.

Q6If you want to be a scientist, you have to be truly passionate about the research you are pursuing. Otherwise, the likelihood of your success is really slim (plus, if you don’t love what you do, don’t do it!). Academia is a really long and hard road to go down. It involves years and years of school with minimal pay and a lot of long nights in the lab or long days in the field. I’ll be 30 when I finish my PhD, and I’ve likely got another few years as a post-doc after that before I can obtain a professorship.

On the flip side, there are a myriad of perks to being an academic. You get an honest opportunity to follow your passions, be creative, and create your own schedule. As a scientist you are constantly challenging yourself to grow and learn new and exciting things. It is so cool to realise that at the end of a project, you may have made a discovery that, for a short time, you are the only person in the world who knows.

Q7.jpgI would do exactly what I am doing right now. I feel comfortable in saying I am working towards exactly what I want in life. My long-term goal is to become a professor at a University and be involved in both teaching and research. It is a good idea to consider careers beyond academia (because professorships can be really hard to come by), however, I have to admit I haven’t put much time into thinking about other career paths.

Q8To clarify what the heck is going on, I am using forceps to remove a tick from a tick drag (a tick drag is a white cloth used to collect ticks in the field)!

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