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.

Non-essential essential oils

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There’s a lot of things that are essential in our lives. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. 

Food provides us with essential vitamins and minerals – nutrients that we need, but can’t make ourselves. It also provides us with essential amino acids – building blocks for proteins that our bodies can’t synthesise.

There’s plenty of things that are essential in life. But, despite their name, essential oils aren’t one of them.

Essential oils are solutions of concentrated volatile compounds extracted from plants. Volatile means they evaporate easily – so steam is often used to distil these compounds from the flowers, leaves, roots or seeds of plants. The resulting products contains the “essence” of the plant – hence the name. 

The process isn’t new – essential oils have been extracted and used by many ancient civilizations, including Chinese, Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Most commonly, they’re used in aromatherapy, where these oils are inhaled, or mixed with oils or lotions and applied to the skin. Supposedly, these treatments will improve both your psychological and physical well-being.

Essential oils have really taken off in recent years, thanks to the rise of multi-level marketing companies. They promise that there is an oil to treat just about anything that ails you – whether its skin problems, stress, digestive issues, insomnia or even the common cold. These oils are going to make us look good, feel good, and make sure we’re all out there living our best lives.

Research into whether essential oils really work or not is still pretty thin on the ground. We do have good evidence, for example, that tea tree oil has antimicrobial properties – lab testing has demonstrated that it can kill bacteria and some fungi. But when it comes to most claims around essential oils, the evidence simply isn’t there. 

You can find some studies that have explored essential oils in reducing stress and nausea, and for pain management in hospitals. Most of these have been unable to find any real evidence that essential oils are effective. Some have suggested that the oils seem to improve patients moods, but found no evidence that they do anything else.

Although most people see essential oils as being pretty harmless, there are some serious safety issues associated with their use, particularly as distributors are often claiming that they’re same to consume. Many oils are toxic (to humans and animals) and cause severe poisoning even at low doses. Undiluted oils applied to skin can cause allergic reactions and rashes, while inhaling them can cause breathing issues. They can also have negative interactions with other medications you might be taking. These might sound like isolated or extreme cases, but the problem is big enough that government health departments have issued health warnings around essential oil use.

There’s no doubt essential oils smell lovely – if you’re looking to add some fragrance to your home, go nuts. But if you’re experiencing some sort of health issues, physical or mental, maybe ditch the oils and go see your doctor instead.

This story was first published online in the Armidale Express, July 26 2019