Government Research Scientist

What do you do for a living?

I'm a government research scientist. I do research on freshwater ecology, specialising in research on algae in lochs (especially toxic algal blooms)

How did you get interested in what you do?

I've always liked biology and had an inspiring biology teacher at school.  I didn't get a lot of careers advice at school (I think a 5-10 minute chat!), so I just chose to do "biological sciences" at University of Edinburgh.  I wish I'd been given more advice about the variety of subjects available at universities.

What was your journey to reach the role you are in today?

In my final year of my degree at Edinburgh I chose a course on lake ecology which I enjoyed and so I then chose to research this subject for a higher degree, a PhD at the University of Liverpool.  I spent 3.5 years doing this research on water quality and freshwater algae before receiving my PhD. After this I had two relatively short jobs (2 years each) at the University of Liverpool and then the Natural History Museum in London. 

I then applied for a "Lectureship in Environmental Change" in the Geography Department at University College London, and despite only having an O Grade in Geography, I got the job! (they wanted a specialist in lake ecosystems).  I taught there for 6 years and continued doing research on lakes in the UK, Europe and China (including expeditions to Tibet and Inner Mongolia).  After 6 years I was sent the job details for my current job at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, near Penicuik.  I decided to apply as teaching at university was taking too much time away from research and this is not good for a long-term academic career.  I got the job up in Edinburgh and now lead the Freshwater Ecology Group there.  There are a lot of training opportunities available to me (powerboat driving, statistics, science communication), and I was even allowed recently to spend 1 year in Italy working for the European Commission.

Talk us through a day in your life.

These days I rarely get to go and see a freshwater loch!  I spend most of my day in my office at the computer, analysing data from Loch Leven (our main monitoring site) and also large European datasets from about 1500 lakes across Europe.  I write this work up to be published in scientific
journals.  I also spend a lot of my time now managing several research projects, mostly funded by the European Union.  I still spend some time looking down a microscope identifying and counting algae (to assess the health of Scottish lochs) - although I mainly do this to train a new staff
member who is learning this rare skill!

Was this your planned career when you were 18?

Not at all! I just enjoyed biology.

What did your parents want you to do?

Medicine. They were disappointed in my choice of degree!

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

Try and get some voluntary work experience - the Nuffield Foundation organise work placements for school children.  Also read popular science journals such as "New Scientist" to find out about all the branches of science available - and also to read all the job adverts at the back to see the types of careers available.You can also follow science (or scientists) on Twitter or Facebook - try "Planet Earth Online"

What other career directions could you go in?

I could work for government departments (Scottish Gov.) or their agencies (SEPA, SNH), or private environmental consultancies (e.g. APEM).  I could alsogo back to teach (and do research) at university.