Australia's Chief Scientist

Getting amongst nature: Following a science career outside the lab

However, such a stereotype is far from the actual lives of most  young scientists, some of who travel the world in pursuit of their studies. One such person is Stefanie Oberprieler, who is in the second year of her science degree at ANU, majoring in Zoology and Ecology.

“I took a year off after finishing college because I wanted to see a bit of the world, and most importantly, have time to think about what I wanted to do with my life. During that time I worked in an animal rehabilitation centre in South Africa. This was really great for helping me decide, because I knew I wanted to work in either science or become a vet and the rehabilitation centre gave me some real hands-on experience. In the end, I decided that whilst it’s really great that there are people to care for sick animals, I personally prefer being out in nature and I guess that equated to being a scientist.”

Stefanie has spent a surprising amount of her career so far out amongst nature, both undertaking scientific studies and also participating in volunteer work. She recently completed a project with Volunteer Eco Students Abroad (a volunteer organization that aims to provide university students with the opportunity to do community-based volunteer work.)

“As opposed to just being a tourist you get to do hands-on stuff – in this case helping build schools and bathroom blocks in Ecuador.” She says.

Of course like any good scientist, Stefanie rarely passes a good opportunity when it comes her way. So whilst she was in South America she decided to visit the Galapagos Islands.

“Since I was so close, I just had to visit the Galapagos Islands. You can’t be a biology student without hearing about the Galapagos islands in just about every lecture so I figured I’d like to have a look for myself. It was an amazing place with animals you don’t find anywhere else. It’s something I just had to see.”

Even when at home, Stefanie likes to focus her studies outdoor where possible and her enthusiasm has on occasion paid dividends. A study she did on paper wasps yielded some interesting results and has lead to her first scientific paper published in Entomological Science co authored with her study advisor and Canberra’s wasp specialist, Dr Philip Spradbery. “This publication really helped the inspirational processes of learning while travelling through Africa and aided my decision to chose to pursue a career in zoology rather than become a vet,” She says, “I really enjoy discovering new things – and such research shows just how many aspects of the world remain unexplored and how much research can still be done.”

Overall, Stefanie believes that enthusiasm for your subject is one of the keys to success in science or almost any other field of human endeavour. “If you end up studying something that doesn’t really interest you it will be too much effort, if you follow what you’re passionate about it’s more fun than it is work. Science is such a broad field and so you have to make sure that you follow a path that really interests you and take any opportunity that comes your way.”

Image: Stefanie Oberprieler on the Galapagos Islands

This article was originally posted in Sciencewise, the Australian National University’s science magazine