Dr Charlotte King is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago. She is currently looking at pre-historic South American dietary and health changes.
What do you do on an average work day?
I don’t really have ‘average’ work days because each stage of my project requires different skills. As an archaeological scientist I spend a lot of time doing fieldwork, or collecting samples from museums. My current project’s fieldwork is in the Atacama desert in Chile, and my days while I’m over there involve taking a bus out into the desert to study the mummies in the collections there and taking small tissue samples for my analysis. If I’m lucky I’ll be out in the field at the same time as excavations are happening so I get to be involved in those too.
When I’m back from fieldwork I spend a lot of time in the lab preparing and analysing my samples isotopically to reconstruct aspects of the people’s lives (e.g. diet or where they came from), looking at my data using statisical methods, and writing up my results into reports and journal articles. As an academic staff member I also teach and supervise students.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
At school I wasn’t really science-focused. I chose the subjects that interested me, which meant I did a weird mix of languages, history and chemistry.
At university I started out studying archaeology in an anthropology degree, but I kept chemistry in my degree as interest papers. In first year though I did a random geology paper and fell in love with it. I came out with a double degree in Anthropology and Geology.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes! I use pretty much everything I studied on a daily basis. My work now combines geochemistry (from my geology degree) with archaeology (my anthropology degree). I have to be able to communicate my science, and I spend a lot of time writing. Having studied arts alongside science really helps me to gets my points across. Even the languages I did in high school have come in handy for fieldwork – all my work in Chile is done in Spanish, being able to learn languages relatively easily has given me a real advantage.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
First of all I’d say don’t worry if you don’t have a traditional career plan – pick something you love doing even if it’s unusual. If you don’t love it, you probably won’t be motivated to be good at it! Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something - in my first year at university a guy I knew told me I would probably fail my degree because I wasn’t “sciency enough”. You know what you’re capable of, don’t let other people tell you otherwise.
Don’t panic if you don’t have a career plan when you finish school. There are so many things beyond school that will shape your interests - take opportunities to try subjects you’ve never heard of, things like “Hands on Science” are really good for this (I would never even have heard of geology if it wasn’t for a talk that I went to in year 13).
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Last year I was awarded a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, which has been amazing and allowed me to work with the oldest mummies in the world - pretty much a dream come true! My PhD fieldwork was based in Thailand, where I was really lucky to be able to go out and help on the excavation as well as doing my analysis. Being the first person to see something since it was buried thousands of years ago is always an incredible experience.
As well as my research, I have a lot of highlights that centre around teaching – seeing my students get excited about a concept, or understand it for the first time gives me a real buzz.
Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
We live in a rapidly changing world, and are being constantly bombarded with often conflicting information about scientific issues (such as climate change, conservation strategies etc). It’s important that people are science literate in order to engage with debates intelligently, and start making policies which are going to lead to a sustainable future.
We’re really lucky in New Zealand that we do place emphasis on our ‘clean, green’ image, we have a unique human history, and an amazing environment for investigating a whole variety of biological and geological processes. Kiwi research has real potential to make a difference on the world stage – but it won’t happen if we don’t raise up a new generation of STEM researchers.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Science is about looking at things from different perspectives - it’s really difficult to do that if all the researchers in a field have the same background! If a portion of the population is under-represented that introduces bias into research design, methods used and the way results are interpreted. If there aren’t enough women in STEM then female voices won’t be heard and issues which are stereotypically viewed as ‘women’s issues’ may be under-researched and underfunded. I think it’s important in terms of allowing women to reach their potential in science too. If STEM disciplines are percieved as male-dominated then girls who start out passionate about science start to question whether there’s really a career for them in those fields. In order to break that cycle we need more women to get involved.
Dr Charlotte King is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago. She is currently funded by a Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship and Marsden Fund grant looking at pre-historic South American dietary and health changes. You can follow her on Twitter at @showmethemummy.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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