An accidental scientist?

When I chat to other scientists about careers and why they chose science I hear some pretty amazing stories. Some had parents who were scientists, and were inspired to follow in their footsteps. Others became interested in science through some twist of fate – an encounter with a disease, perhaps, that set them on their way to try and find a cure. Some have always just had this drive to find out how stuff works – you know, those kids who are always pulling things apart and putting them back together again.

My story is, well, a little different.

I became a scientist pretty much by accident.

I was (and it’s hard to write this without sounding like I have a massive ego!) a pretty clever kid. I did well at school – not just in science and maths, but in English, and art, and business. I also loved animals, growing up on a hobby farm with horses and sheep and dogs and chickens. So it seemed somewhat natural that I decided at an early age to become a veterinarian. This seemed like a great plan, but there was a bit of a hitch. Finishing school, I realised that, if I really wanted to be a vet, I would need to leave the country and move to the BIG CITY to study. I was a small town kid, no-one in my family had ever been to University, and this leap was just too big for me. So, after some careful assessment of the situation (and watching way too much CSI on TV), I decided I would instead become a forensic scientist – something I could go and study at a much smaller, regional University. So off I went.

The degree I chose was a double degree in science and law. I flew through the first three years with very little problem. Those first years were mostly science subjects, with a few law subjects thrown in. I was in my fourth year when I hit a little snag. Or kind of a big snag. I discovered that I really, really, really did NOT like studying law. At all. I managed to struggle through my fourth year, and then realised that, having technically completed the requirements of a Bachelor of Science, I could take a break from law and complete an Honours degree in science instead. Fortunately I found a willing supervisor, and soon embarked upon a year of lab-based research. And I LOVED it. I’m not saying it was easy, but I really did enjoy the time I spent in the lab, and all too soon the year came to an end.

What does one do with an Honours degree?

I had two choices. One, I could return to my law studies and finish my original degree. Not my idea of a great time, but what else could I do? Well, I could get a job! Earning a bit of cash seemed like a much better prospect, and so I started the great job hunt of 2009.

It turns out that finding a job in a small city, when you have zero work experience and a science degree, is not as easy as I thought it would be. Shockingly, no one had ever prepared me for the idea that it might be difficult to get a job after studying at University. I was applying for anything and everything, but with no luck.

But then, by chance, fate struck.

Flicking through the local newspaper, I saw an advertisement for a PhD scholarship at our local branch of the CSIRO (our national research organisation). Desperate for an income, I put in my application. Much to my (and I’m sure everyone else’s!) surprise, I was awarded the scholarship. Having gotten that far, I madly Googled “what is a PhD” and “How do you do a PhD”, and prepared to head back into the lab. Fast forward three years and I was finishing up my thesis – about to become a doctor – but still not having any real idea of what I was going to do with my life.

Two weeks after submitting my thesis I gave birth to my son (how’s that for timing). Adjusting to motherhood was hard, mostly because I was SO BORED (sorry kiddo, I do love you I promise, but after working on a thesis 24/7, a newborn a bit of an adjustment). When he was 5 months old fate smiled on me once more. One of the academic staff at the University had resigned, and someone was needed to fill in as a lecturer – and I was offered the gig. I jumped at the chance, and headed off to begin my adventures in academia.

My first academic contract was a short one – but as it ended, one of my colleagues received some funding, and asked me to stay on and work as a research assistant. Again, I jumped at the chance. Somehow one short-term contract turned into another, and another after that, and two years after I started working I found myself applying for, and getting, a continuing appointment at the University.

And so, by a serious of fortunate accidents, here I am. A scientist. An academic.

So why am I telling you this story? I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter how you get where you’re going. Whether you plan every move, or just wing it, if you follow what you love, and take the opportunities that come your way, you can end up somewhere great. Looking back 10 years, 20 years, I never could have guessed where I would end up – but I am glad I’ve ended up here.

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