Victoria is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Lund University Sweden, where she investigates the evolution of moths and butterflies.
What do you do on an average work day?
Every day is different. My main project here in Sweden is to use genomic data (the complete set of genetic material in a living thing) to answer questions.
This relies on using computer programmes to analyse the data, which - because of the huge amount of data we get from genome sequencing technologies [which 'read' all the letters in all the DNA] - can take days, weeks or even months to run before we can use it to try and find answers.
The questions I ask are mainly focused on evolution. Like: what species are more closely related to each other? What differences are there between modern and ancestral butterflies? What patterns can we observe? And what changes are occurring in the genes that are associated with particular traits that we are interested in?
I also process samples in the lab, which involves extracting genetic material from an animal or plant, for example, and preparing it for sequencing. So each day is a different combination of lab work and data analysis, with some seminars, workshops, meetings, conferences and other activities thrown into the mix as well.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I studied a mixture of science, maths, English and accounting. After high school I completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in Biology and Physics at The University of Auckland. At first, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to study and switched degrees after my first year; I originally was doing a degree in medical physics.
I took courses in a variety of aspects of biology: cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, evolution, botany and microbiology. In the final year of my degree, I did a summer research studentship with Landcare Research. This was a real turning point in my career as I realised just how much interesting research is going on, and it solidified my interest in molecular genetics.
I followed this with a postgraduate diploma, again at The University of Auckland, where I focused primarily on genetics and biochemistry. After this I got another summer research project at Plant and Food Research, which furthered my interest in genetics and the variety of techniques available.
I then did a Masters degree in biological sciences at Landcare Research and The University of Auckland. I looked at the levels of genetic variation and evolutionary rates of reproductive proteins in New Zealand wētā.
I followed my Masters with a PhD in the same lab, working with a variety of genomics techniques to investigate the evolution, population genetics and speciation in New Zealand giant wētā. My PhD involved a mix of field work, wet lab work and bioinformatics. It’s a fun time to be working with sequencing technologies, as the technology is changing so quickly, and things that were viewed as impossible a few years ago are becoming a reality.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes and no. I use some of the things I learnt as basis for what I do today, but a lot of it has been learnt as I go, especially bioinformatics skills. The combination of my education plus the laboratory experience from the summer studentships that gave me a strong foundation for stepping further into a research project.
I am glad I stuck with the physics as that gave me a good grounding in maths, particularly statistics. At the time, I didn’t realise how important they would be in pursuing a career in biological sciences.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Stick to what you are passionate about, because you will be doing it for a long time.
Don’t be afraid to try something new or different, you never know it may change your carer direction for better.
Also, don’t be afraid to change your mind about the course you are studying or your current path, the best thing I did was change the course of my degree.
Take some risk and apply for opportunities regardless of whether or not you feel qualified for them, it can lead to some amazing experiences and open doors you never knew existed.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
When I first started university I never imagined that I would pursue a Masters degree, let alone a PhD. These have been significant personal achievements for me.
Other highlights include travelling to some unique places while collecting samples. One that sticks with me is a week-long trip to Little Barrier Island where we were looking for giant weta, and getting the opportunity to see kiwi in their natural habitat. I also enjoy having the opportunity to travel to both Europe and the US to present my work at big international conferences - it is a great way to meet new people.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
The world as we know it is changing faster and in more ways than we could possibly have ever imagined. As with any change, it brings new challenges - some of which will be unique to New Zealand. Having a good grounding in STEM subjects will help us to be innovative and creative when trying to solve these challenges.
You also never know when the information you learn will be useful. Although I work in a biological science field, I use a lot of maths and chemistry in my everyday work. You never know where your life will take you, and a good grounding in these subjects will ensure you are equipped with the skills you need, no matter what life throws at you.
STEM is a rapidly growing field and our participation and understanding is crucial so that we can keep meeting these challenges and make a positive difference in the world.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
We need more diversity in STEM subjects. Traditionally STEM was a male dominated field, and in some cases still is. The more women who work in STEM, the more our traditional views and historical bias will change and we can remove barriers to diversity in all fields.
Everyone has their own sets of strengths and variety in what they bring to the workplace. Having a diverse range of people in the workplace brings together a range of cultures, creative minds, and differences in how we approach problem solving - that is key to helping drive science forward.
Victoria Twort is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Lund University Sweden, where she investigates the evolution of moths and butterflies. You can follow her on Twitter at @VTwort.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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