It’s National Science Week here in Australia, so I thought I’d do a little post to commemorate this.
I’ve written a lot about my background as a scientist (please see the last little index post I did for more details and in-depth posts), so I’ll boil this little nugget down to the one, key event that made me get into science.
For context, I had very, very little interest in science as a career when I was in high school.
I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I still don’t.
But I think, bare minimum, I wanted to be a teacher… maybe in P.E. (because I was quite sporty back then).
But definitely not something related to science. I just thought it was really boring at the time. 😅😂
And I guess that’s mostly because of the resources we had available to us in the classroom. Speaking from personal experience, most of year 7-9 science was just burning strips of magnesium with Bunsen burners. Like, it’s fun… but only to an extent. I enjoy burning things (within reason), but I find explosions alarming (which is what most students wanted to do), and the rest of it was leaning more towards engineering. I didn’t know that this was only a teeny snippet of the world of science, so I just thought- this isn’t for me.
In year 9 there was more opportunity to involve basic chemistry, where we would conduct soil and water testing for some gardening modules in our curriculum. This was better, but it still wasn’t quite… right. For me, anyway.
Year 10 was when they started introducing careers advice and Work Experience opportunities for us. For those that aren’t familiar, ‘Work Experience’ is usually a week or so that a student can spend actually working in a professional environment. The overall steps involved are to contact a potential employer (of your choice), request time to do work experience in a certain week, and see if they accept. Given it’s part of most school curriculums, it’s relatively easy to get a place to host you. You even get paid ($5 a day, minimum), which is nice. 😂
Our school had allocated a fortnight for this, and had given us the option to either spend the whole two week-period working in the same spot, or do one week in one workplace and the other in a different place.
At this stage, I had some interest in some science-related careers, so I opted to do one week at a local pharmacy, and the other at the vet clinic where our first pet cat used to go.
Because who doesn’t love drugs and animals?
Funnily enough I actually now need drugs (anti-histamines) for animals (cats, predominantly), so… *sob*
The pharmacy was busy, but it was mostly just a good place to get experience in retail. I did spend a small amount of time with the pharmacists as well, but you can’t really teach pharmacology to a (non-genius) 16 year old in the space of half an hour. I recall doing a lot of vacuuming, as well. 😅
The second week at the vet clinic was much more to my liking. The clinical stuff was just so fascinating. The cleaning was laborious (pet litter, poop, pee, blood, saliva, discharge, etc), but being able to watch surgery (including one for pyometra/uterine infection in a large husky) was just the best thing ever. I didn’t find any of it gross (well- except dog saliva 🤮), which gave me confidence that I might be okay in this line of work.
However, by year 11 I’d realised that I couldn’t possibly work with animals as a career, because I was super allergic to them. Now I know it’s not severe enough to be diagnosed as allergic to cats, but the numbers I got back from a skin prick test was definitely ‘borderline allergic’, and the specialist recommended I stay away from them. 😭 I feel like it peaks to coincide with hay fever season (when I’m already hypersensitive), but I can’t work while sneezing constantly and having puffed up, runny eyes.
So, I started considering other options, and a few popped up. Forensic science was really cool (this was peak NCIS popularity season), because I’d always loved the ‘whodunnit’ type mysteries as a child, and I could marry it with the slowly growing interest in science.
But what really solidified it for me was the opportunity to go to the Gene Technology Access Centre (GTAC) in year 11. I want to highlight this facility because I’d like to stress that this type of educational facility is critical in STEM engagement.
What did I love about this particular event?
- It was a trip into the city (ROADTRIP/Maccas run)
- Get out of class (🥳)
- AGAROSE GEL ELECTROPHORESIS
I can’t remember the whole program that they ran, because it was so long ago (over 12 years ago now, actually 😳), but I distinctly remember the feeling of pure joy as I held a micropipette in my hand for the first time, ever, and aliquoted samples onto a gel.
Now, for those that don’t know, an agarose gel is used to separate strands of DNA according to size, using some buffer and an electrical current.
I think it was the sense of accomplishment and the dexterity required to load the gel that made me feel quite happy with myself, initially, but what really influenced me was when the prac demonstrator actually said that I was good at this.
All she did was ask me whether I’d done the technique before. When I said this was the first time I’d ever even seen or touched a micropipette, she just remarked, ‘you’ve really steady hands- you’re good at this’.
And this started a chain of events that has lead me to where I am today. Obviously there’s a tonne of other stuff that happened in between, but I still remember that day as being like a turning point. Hence why I remember it over 12 years later.
I had fun, I was interested, I was engaged, and I felt confident.
So, if you’re a student, I hope you find something that makes you feel like that- even for a second.
If you do, hold on to that feeling, because you never know where it’ll take you.
If you’re a teacher, regardless of the environment that you teach in (classroom, lab, online), please remember that one small remark like the above can change the course of someone’s entire life.
Your words matter, a lot. Even if the student wasn’t initially engaged- they might end up pondering on it later.
It’s something I have to tell myself, every time I teach.
So, happy National Science Week, everyone, and do please check out the rest of the blog for more in-depth posts on all things science related! I’ll add a link here to the official National Science Week Twitter feed, which showcases a lot of events that have been happening this week. Enjoy!
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬