Dr Nicola J. Day is a scientist in ecology and a Postdoctoral Fellow in ecology, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.
What do you do on an average work day?
Every day is different! My main project here is investigating impacts of wildfires on boreal forests in the Northwest Territories, Canada. During the summer months I do field work in the boreal regions of Canada. This involves camping in remote places and sometimes flying in to areas by float-plane or helicopter. We also have a few boat-access sites, and I have quite a bit of interaction with members of Canada’s indigenous communities. We go into areas of forest that burned recently and establish permanent monitoring plots to be able to assess changes in the forest in terms of plants, soil carbon, and soil microbial communities. I am particularly interested in the soil fungi, because these can have huge impacts on the successful regeneration of forests.
The rest of the year is spent processing the data and samples from the field work, and planning for the following season. I spend time in the lab doing DNA extractions and sequencing to look at soil fungi, and also culturing and identifying fungi from the soil. Data analysis is another key part of my job, so I do a lot of statistics and work with people on this. We write reports for the government and publish articles in scientific journals so that other people can see our results. Another way that we tell people about our research is by attending conferences and running workshops to show people the useful things that we’ve learned. I also teach lectures and supervise students in their own work, so it’s a very busy but rewarding job!
What did you study at school? And after high school?
When I was about 16 I took biology for the first time and I absolutely loved it. One of my teachers at Hillmorton High School, Christchurch, could see how interested I was in ecology and the environment so she enrolled me in a youth enviro-school conference. That was really a turning point for me, because I got to meet other people who were interested in the same things I was into, and also to meet older people in environmental or conservation-related careers. I continued to make biology a priority when I was choosing high school courses, but I also really loved geography and history.
After high school I went to the University of Canterbury (UC). I wanted to do a double-degree of Biology and History, but there were too many clashes with courses and lab times. I chose a degree in Biology because I could imagine a career in it and because I still found it all so interesting. I took courses in all aspects of Biology: cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, biological diversity, ecology, evolution, physiology, botany, and microbiology. I stayed in ecology because I loved the field courses and being able to go outside a lot. I also took statistics because you need this to do ecology, and chemistry and some biology. I got a Bachelor of Science in Biology.
While at UC I did a summer research scholarship, which was another pivotal event in my career because it made me realise how interesting research is. I got to do both field and lab work, so it was great hands-on experience. I ended up going to Lincoln University to do my Master of Science in Conservation and Ecology. For this I did courses in advanced ecology, conservation, and more statistics, as well as a research placement at Landcare Research; it was great to work with world-recognised researchers. My Master’s project looked at vegetation patterns in tussock grasslands, so I got to travel all around the South Island high country and talk to farmers and conservation workers while re-measuring vegetation plots that were established in the 1980s. I also got to do a lot of four-wheel driving, tramping, and camping, which was a lot of fun!
After my Master’s I did some contracts for Landcare Research and Lincoln University for a couple of years. I realised how much I still enjoyed research, and decided to do a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy). I spent many months talking to many people about what kind of project I could do and where. I wanted to do something a little different from just looking at plants, so I decided to research interactions between plant and soil microbial communities, with a focus on fungi because they are important for supplying nutrients to plants. I applied for a position posted at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and I got it! So I packed my bags and moved to Canada to do my PhD looking at fungi that associate with an invasive plant, and how they could be causing it to become invasive in Ontario. This involved a lot more lab work, particularly with DNA sequencing. It’s a fun time to be doing this kind of work, because technology is changing so quickly! I got my PhD in Environmental Biology.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, I use a lot of the things that I learned as an undergraduate in my everyday life. I am particularly glad that I worked hard at learning statistics, because I didn’t realise how important that was at the time. Maths was never a natural thing for me, but I worked hard and now I am quite good at it and enjoy it.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Science is important in our everyday life, so take time to look at all the options and try lots of different things. Do something you love and also try to plan for the future in your career. I love my job and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t read or do something that inspires me and reminds me why I work so hard. Also, work with people who inspire and help you to reach your maximum potential. Have realistic goals but don’t be afraid to adjust them and also have a plan B.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
This is a tough question! Most recently, I got my work published in the Journal of Ecology, which was one of my goals because it is a hugely prestigious journal. But really, whenever my work gets published in a journal I am so happy and it makes all the hard work worthwhile.
Other highlights are all the travel that I’ve been able to do while working in ecology. This is particularly true when doing field work, because I am rarely in the same place two days in a row and I also get to see places that very few people in the world can access. I have done fieldwork in remote locations in New Zealand, Canada, Australia, and the UK. Conferences are another way that I get to travel and talk to other scientists. My most recent conference was in California, and I got an award to travel there and present my work. Generally meeting people and collaborating are my favourite aspects of my career.
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?
You don’t know what you don’t know! There are so many ways to study the world around us, not just in biology. We are facing challenging times in terms of global change and this may start to impact how we live. We need an understanding of how things work so that we can develop effective solutions and technologies.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
I have been fortunate enough to have many women scientists be my mentors throughout my career; even my current boss is a woman! Having other people around that you can relate to is important, so I think diversity in general is important for this reason and that we should all do everything we can to remove barriers to diversity in all fields. Everybody has their different strengths, but it is always good to have a mentor that you can relate to and ask advice.
Dr Nicola J. Day is a scientist in ecology, and a Postdoctoral Fellow in ecology, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. She started her studies at the University of Canterbury and Lincoln University. You can check out her website here.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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