Catharina’s story

Catharina’s story

My expert field is amphibian ecology with a focus on acoustic ecology. I do a lot of programming and coding as well, both for analysis and when needed for software. My PhD was conferred in October 2018, and my post-doctorate in China just started. I am very excited and looking forward to this next part of my career I absolutely love my job; in very few professions do you have the freedom to let your creativity play out as you do in research. My main task is to come up with research ideas that should solve some (hopefully) great questions and then go and make it happen. I also get to hang out in nature a lot, often at night which is even better.

Seriously, rainforests come alive at night, they are full of sounds and animals everywhere, and on top of that who wouldn’t want to work with amphibians? They were here before the dinosaurs and each every one of them are in my mind evolutionary miracles, often with amazing adaptations to their environment. Every year there are new studies coming out reporting on some previously unknown behaviour or cool physical trait. 

I may be the first, but hopefully not the last

That I would aim for a career in academia was not an obvious thing, after high school I spent four years working customer service-related jobs in the UK and Ireland. When I told my dad back in Sweden that I was going to university in UK to study ecology he mostly seemed confused, I am very grateful that I come from a society where you are not bound by the socio-economic background that you are born into and even though my family have had very little understanding of what I am doing they have never stood in my way and have helped when they can. Even if my parents never really pushed me or encouraged me to go to university, society in Sweden and how it functions have a built-in lesson that you have the option of doing whatever you put your mind to. I am the first person in my family to get a PhD, hopefully not the last.

I decided during the bachelors that I wanted to work on amphibians, as despite the amount of work that is still required on this taxon, there are not enough people around to collect the data needed to prevent them from disappearing. I also realised that I like statistics and analysis and really like coding! I can do fieldwork and see the data come in and bring it the whole way to the end regardless of what is required – I guess it is one of my main strengths, figuring out what is needed and then learning how to do it even if this involves a new programming language or doing something I have no prior experience of and that pushes the boundaries of what I am comfortable with.

Giving up is not an option

I am forever grateful to the Singapore government for funding my doctoral training. It has been very tough at times, especially when my grandparents passed away and I could not go home for their funerals, or when I was spending months on end on my own in the field apart from my local field assistants. I had never been to Asia before I moved here and the PhD has exposed to me some fantastic cultures,  and given me experiences and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. Some of the things I have learnt is how to develop a research idea that is good enough to attract funding, navigate the paperwork process involved with permits (in multiple countries), I can organise fieldwork and a field crew, solder hundreds of wires efficiently and well, figure out how to analyse the data and I know how to communicate the information to others around me. Most of all I know how to not give up.

A PhD, and a career in academia, is mostly about resilience. Very rarely do you get told that you are doing well or are on the right track, if anything people will probably want you to think you are doing badly. You must stand steady enough to know when peoples comments are wrong and to know when you need to pay attention to criticism. Be honest with yourself, if you are bad at something and feel it is necessary for your career to do well – learn it! I just ignore the negative people, do my work and deliver the projects to a very high standard . It is for you to decide what you can and cannot do. Take support from the people around you that are offering sound advice and trust that gut instinct.

Master a skill

My other main advice is to figure out what skills are needed to get a job; this is a tough field to break into and get a position in. The ability to compete on an already crowded job market lies partially in your professional network and partially in having skills that are desirable – having “just” a degree in conservation or ecology is often not enough to land a job – the hard bit is figuring out not only what skills will be attractive in the future but also what you are good at and can get known for. People talk about passion and yes, it is hard without passion and loving the job, but it isn’t everything, it is the final thing on top of solid base of other skills that are required. Passion and love for the job is what keeps you fighting even when things are tough, that makes you give up one day and come back stronger the next.

I am not sure what I am aiming for in the future, the next two years will focus on my research on acoustics. I also just registered a company to work as a freelance data analyst, I mainly started it as I enjoy analysing data and figuring out exactly what analyses it needs, even if it isn’t ecology related. It will provide a small side income and something to fall back on if I have periods without contracts in academia, as well as backup career should it be needed one day. I of course hope that I can continue in research, it would be nice to get to the point that we have large amounts of data coming in from big areas of Asia and still be able to process it properly without being swamped. I think it will take a bit more time before we are there though–mostly I just see a lot of acoustic work ahead of me in the region, it is an exciting time to be here! I just started the next part of the journey as a post-doctoral fellow in China – continuing the research work on bioacoustics and amphibians that I started during the PhD in Singapore.

Written by Catharina Karlsson

Morgan’s story

Morgan’s story

When deciding what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I struggled to find something that would be able to marry the two most important things for me in a career: my curiosity about the human mind and my undying spirit of creativity. Needless to say, I never imagined that I would be working in a STEM field. From a young age, I always pictured myself barefoot in a field of some rural countryside writing novels or moving to a big city to pursue a career in the arts. However, that wasn’t necessarily where the universe was taking me.

To give you a bit of history, I grew up in a mid-sized western Kentucky town. I was always a curious child and an avid reader and writer; my creative soul stuck out like a sore thumb until I learned how to use it to my advantage. Also, growing up as a transracial adoptee provided me with a more introspective aura than most of my peers. I questioned anything and everything more than the average kid, which I now know is a very natural thing for a child in my situation to do. High school theatre opened the doors to freedom for me; I could get on stage and transform into a completely different person within a matter of minutes. Choir was also my haven. Here, I gained the courage to sing in front of strangers.

Bridging the gap between science and creativity

However, as my childhood waned and adulthood slowly approached, I knew I craved something more than my beloved, rural-minded town could give me. I then began searching for colleges my senior year of high school. I settled on Georgetown College, a small private school in Georgetown, KY and three hours away from my hometown. Throughout my freshman year in college, I joined various volunteer and social organizations, still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Slowly, my perspective of barefoot, carefree writer evolved into a scientist. I yearned to contribute to the world that I thought writing could not help me achieve. After taking a few psychology courses, I finally found it: neuropsychology; a way to explore the human mind (my creative side) and find tangibility with it (science).

After graduation, I was offered a job at the Alzheimer’s disease research center I had interned with for the past two semesters. As part of a longitudinal research study, I administer cognitive testing (among other assessments) to older adults with varying levels of cognition. In other words, I see those who function as we all hope to when we get older, who hold onto their memories until the day they die; I also see those who have their memories stolen from them, their basic human abilities swept right out from under their feet. I also work on several different research projects including focusing on topics such as of cerebrospinal fluid levels and their effects on cognition, MRI data, neuropsychological assessments, and more. However, my main research focus is aging in minority adults, specifically how types of trauma (intergenerational, developmental, childhood, etc.) affects cognition and the overall psychological well-being of a person.

While I have the job of administering tests that place some in the most vulnerable of spaces, I also take the hour-or-so I spend with these older adults to learn about their history. I hear about their careers, their families, and sometimes their deepest darkest secrets – you’d be surprised to learn what people feel compelled to disclose while testing. A visit can unintentionally become very emotional, meaning that I must go into work each day prepared to be a listening ear. Although this role is found nowhere in my job description, I have found that people leave the clinic feeling much less defeated and frustrated with themselves if they trust the person they interact with, whether that be myself, a clinician, or any other staff member. Each time this happens, my faith in humanity is restored. While my role sometimes seems small, I’m learning that the effects of the assessments I give have a much larger impact than I realize that reach outside the realms of doctor’s office.

When career and passion come together

In conclusion, it is evident to me that I have found my niche, my haven. I am fortunate to work in a very diverse (academically, religiously, and ethnically) office – something that most early twenty-somethings in central Kentucky don’t get to experience. I am fortunate to have a job I am passionate about. I am excited each morning when I drive to work, rather than dreading another 8-5 day at the office. I am grateful that I have a passion and an environment that allows me to explore my ideas, no matter what they are. I am humbled by those I have met and am inspired by their lives.

To those who are questioning how to bridge this gap between science and creativity, know that it is entirely possible. To those women in STEM and in my field, I thank you. I strive to fill your shoes; I strive to show other young women the importance of following your passions, to bridge the gap between what society has deemed “a dream” – and merely such, a frivolous dream – and a career in STEM. It is possible to do both and so, so very worth it to try.

Written by: Morgan Bailee Boggess

4 Ocean – A surf trip that changed everything

4 Ocean – A surf trip that changed everything

Oceans are incredibly important. 2500 million years ago oxygen was merely a trace gas on Earth, and this planet was unable to support life. The atmosphere had high concentrations of carbon-dioxide and methane. Early life appeared in the oceans, such as the blue-green algae about 3000 million years ago (and it still flourishes in today’s world). This form of life is now able to photosynthesise, and therefore produce oxygen. This inevitably and slowly increased the oxygen levels in the atmosphere and ultimately created more complex life forms.

The presence of more oxygen allowed multicellular life forms to develop, and fungi, animals and plants appeared on Earth. Later on, about 550 million years ago marine animals with hard skeletal parts and shells appear (these are what we know today as fossils). After the first major mass extinction and ice age life finally emerged from the ocean. And that is how we colonised this planet. Essentially life has risen from the ocean. Destroying what gave us life will change everything, without a doubt.

The founders

Alex and Andrew took a surf trip to Bali, Indonesia. The tonnes of plastic they saw floating on the surface of the ocean made them think. They loved the ocean, but they didn’t know how could they help. How could they fund ocean cleanups? And that is how the 4 ocean bracelet was born.

The bracelet available in their webshop can be purchased for $20, and this is enough to remove 1 pound (0.45 kg) of trash from the ocean. In 2017 they set up their company, and since removed almost 4.5 million pounds of trash. According to their bio on their website they now have a network in several countries, and employ more than 150 people .

4 ocean is continuously improving its technology to be as effective as possible. They educate about plastic impact on our biodiversity, and advise corporations, and governments as well. Their bracelets are dedicated to different species every month, such as manatees, sharks, turtles, whales, even for sustainable fishing. Today it is not just bracelets you can buy, but reusable water bottles, and cleanup kits as well. Their product range slowly widens, however they didn’t lose themselves in all the success. It is still the single most important thing to protect sea creatures and their habitat.

Truly, as Alex and Andrew said in one of their YouTube video, this is not just a bracelet, and this is not just a company. It is a movement now. I own several bracelets today and I still believe I couldn’t have spend that $20 on anything more important. It not just gives you the feeling that you have helped to achieve something magnificent, but it sort of makes you feel that you belong somewhere. You belong to a brilliant community. Each and every one of them fights for something much greater than we could ever imagine. The founders, the captains, the cleaners, bracelet owners, and many more. We all work together in a way. Be the change!

More on plastic pollution:

Bruna’s story

Bruna’s story

There is something special about knowing your robots so well that you can tell what is wrong by the noise it makes. Initially it feels like learning another language and with time, it becomes second nature. It is not just the noise, but the movements, the delay in responding to a command from the RC/Computer. Quite magical experience when over time the robot changes from a cold piece of hardware into a machine capable of communicating what it is wrong.

Funny is, if you had told me when I was a little girl that one day I would be soldering, coding or giving a machine the ability to see and comprehend its surroundings, I would probably laugh. You see I was not passionate about maths at all. I always loved coding but maths was my terror.

Somehow I realised that I could not code a robot without putting the effort to learn maths. You see, it is perfectly possible to code loads of fascinating thing without doing or understanding the maths behind it. After all, in most cases someone already worked that out and turned into a library that the only thing you need to do is to include the library to your code and that will make it work. But when comes to make a machine moving from A to B and interacting with the environment. There is no escape, no easy solution… you just need to get down the bare bones of the equation and find out how its is going to connect with the rest of your code.

Often when I visit schools to present a demo or aid STEM activities there are always students that feel demotivated by the bumps they had on their grades. I usually take a copy of my grades with me, and play a little game… guess how bad I was at your age in maths? Quite often they laugh and guess a grade way better than my grades. So, I pull a copy of my report from a pocket and surprise them. The thing is, it does not matter how many bumps you need to overcome to get where you want to be, what matters is to keep pushing. Because, at the end of the day, you learned something important and over time, that knowledge accumulates and before you even notice, you are an expert in all the wrong approach to solve a problem, leaving you not only with more experience than those who got wright the first place, but also with the correct answer.

Is then when I remind each one who I met… if I managed to overcome my lack of maths and learnt it to the point where my maths skills brings me to where I am now, you are going to do so much better than me. All you need to do is keep pushing the barriers as far as you can.

Today I am finishing a PhD in Computer Vision and Robotics were I work developing algorithms that allows a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) to autonomously navigate in challenging environments such a forest. These AI algorithms are currently learning to understand their surroundings. My hope is that in the future they can be deployed in search and rescue operations where drones play a vital role in assisting search teams in areas of difficult access.

So, that is how I become a scientist. Not because it was written on the stars or because it was a childhood dream, but because I could not accept defeat by the challenges life brought on my way. After all science and more specifically robotics are fascinating, how could anyone ever give up or even worse not even try it?

Regardless of where you are in the world of how old you are, if you want know more about robotics and computing, get in touch. You can find me at: