Dr Christina Painting is a behavioural ecologist with interests mostly focussed around the evolution of weaponry in insects and arachnids.
What do you do on an average work day?
The best part about my job is that I don’t really have an average work day, as it all depends on what projects I have going on at the time. In my current position in Singapore I spend a lot of my time in the jungle trying to collect the spiders I am working on, which is the highlight of my job. Other days I am in the lab running behavioural experiments with the spiders, feeding and looking after them, or puzzling over a piece of equipment that I’m trying to learn to use. Although I love the field and lab work, I also enjoy finding a quiet spot to make plans for new experiments or analyse the data from a current project and a lot of time is spent writing papers and meeting with students.
One thing I didn’t realise until I started my PhD was just how time consuming and repetitive collecting data for a project really is. You can spend a whole day out in the field and collect a single data point! This requires a lot of patience and a real passion for the project.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I studied a mixture of science, humanities and social science. I dropped maths in my later years of school and really wish I hadn’t as I had no idea how important it would be for a career in science! I did a Bachelor of Science with Honours degree at Lincoln University, majoring in Ecology and Conservation. At first I was keen to focus on organic horticulture but got hooked on ecology in my first year as an undergraduate and didn’t turn back.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, my research interests in ecology have remained throughout my career, although I didn’t really focus on animal behaviour until I started my PhD. In my third year as an undergraduate I took an entomology course (study of insects) which hooked me into focussing on little animals. I also did a couple of small independent research projects with some fantastic mentors in my third year which is where I really discovered my passion for science. I haven’t really left academia since, other than a break to travel abroad and a small detour as a lab technician, I went on to do my PhD in biology and then several postdoctoral research jobs.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
If science sounds like an interesting career choice for you, then go for it! It’s important to have good mentors throughout your career, including early on during undergraduate and postgraduate study. Find good role models, and talk to lots of people about their career path. You’ll probably find that nobody had a linear journey and there are lots of ways to put together a satisfying career.
If you can, get involved with volunteer or short-term internships that take you into the lab or out in the field so you can figure out your true interests. Ask postgraduates or scientists lots of questions about what their jobs entail as this can guide you towards finding the right options that suit you.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
My favourite part of my job is the opportunity to travel to the most special parts of New Zealand and other parts of the world to spend time observing animals and formulating interesting hypotheses about their morphology and behaviour. I feel very lucky to include regular travel and field work as part of my job. I am also proud of the small contribution I’ve made to my field and get a huge sense of achievement when I publish my work or get asked to talk publicly about my research.
A major career highlight was hosting a crew from the BBC Natural History Unit several years ago to film the giraffe weevils that I did my PhD research on. It feels very rewarding to have your research recognised beyond the immediate scientific community. I also recently co-organised a symposium on animal weapon evolution and contest behaviour at a large international conference and it felt very rewarding to bring together so many great people to talk about our shared interests.
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?
I think it’s important for all New Zealanders to have a solid foundation in the STEM subjects, even if it isn’t clear how useful that information will be at the time of learning. Although I am a biologist, I am required to use knowledge from other areas of STEM, such as maths and chemistry. You never know where your life will take you and what knowledge learnt early on in your education will help to serve you later on! I also think all New Zealanders should have a good understanding of their surrounding natural environment and how our lifestyles affect it. This helps us to have opinions about how our government makes environmental policy as well as informing our daily habits.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
It’s important to have more women in science for the simple reason that we make up half of the world’s population and science would be missing out on many talented and clever people if we make it difficult for women to enter this field. Having a diverse range of people in the workplace also brings together a range of creative minds and approaches to problem solving which helps to drive science forward.
Dr Christina Painting is a behavioural ecologist with interests mostly focussed around the evolution of weaponry in insects and arachnids. You can find her on Twitter @cpaintingnz and check out her blog to find out more information about her research here.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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