Why is science about the people you meet?

 It is a tough time for everyone at the moment, but for me, the one thing getting me through the hard days of finishing a PhD during a global pandemic, is the friends that I have. The wonder of science is not just in the tasks I get to do but the people I get to meet. Environmental science hosts an especially diverse bunch of people, all with incredible reasons for undertaking science degrees. I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend, colleague and roommate to discover what inspired her to not only do a PhD in conservation genetics, but to move halfway across the world to do it.

Colette Blyth

Colette Blyth is a Scottish lass, she grew up in the UK and Scotland, and decided to move Down Under after completing a degree in conservation biology in Aberdeen. This move was a spur of the moment decision (having already decided to leave science to work in a hostel and bar on the west coast of Scotland). The University of Western Australia advertised for two Aberdeen University students to come and intern for them, offering flights and accommodation and Colette was lucky enough to get a spot. The project investigated how restoration of native plants can enhance ecosystem services- those attributes that are beneficial such as carbon capture (you can read up on the project here). From there, she travelled to Israel (amazing!) to work for the University of St Andrews on a pollination network project, investigating the flowers bees visit and how much pollen they deposit (you can read about this project here). Bees are the most important pollinators in the world for human food production, so understanding the mechanisms of pollination is vitally important. 

Colette and her friend graduating
Colette and her friend working in Western Australia

Gathering all her experience, Colette then moved to Adelaide where she had the pleasure of meeting me (not really, the pleasure was all mine) and here she started her PhD. Colette has one of the most fascinating PhD projects, she is using genomic analyses to identify breaks in gene flow, levels of inbreeding and genetic diversity, and adaptation to climate and environment in native Australian plant species. She can then directly use this to provide practitioners with seed sourcing recommendations by selecting seed which has a greater chance of survival in the future. Pretty cool hey! This kind of work is exactly what we need right now as climate change is really being felt worldwide. We don’t have time to make mistakes or take chances with restoring native vegetation, we need to do it now and we need it to work. Colette’s PhD project is working towards enabling us to do this (you can read her recent paper here). 

Colette on a field trip in South Australia
Graphical abstract of Colettes PhD research

Colette has had a very interesting scientific journey, but where did it all start for her? Well, from a young age she was interested in the natural world, drawing inspiration from the likes of David Attenborough. However, she wasn’t always focused on science, she was a high school dropout who was on a self-destructive path. In order to change the trajectory of her life she got an education, and never looked back. An education opened up so many doors in her life and gave her the opportunity to change her story. While fascinated with the process of research during her honours project, it took a few years of travel and working as a research assistant to decide to do a PhD. She knew that if she was going to do research then it would need to focus on conservation and applied science.

Colette teaching a friend and volunteer helping with her fieldwork

It is from her own experience of pursuing a scientific career, despite seemingly from a disadvantaged background, that has instilled in her a desire to inspire others. She wishes to get her PhD and travel back to her high school to speak to the young women there and tell them that it is possible overcome hurdles and to turn things around. To pursue those dreams…and use education as the key.

Colette already is an inspiration to me, I feel very fortunate to have met her and have learnt so much from her journey. When I asked her if she would change anything about her career so far, she said only that she would have liked to have been more confident. She walks into a room and immediately thinks she is a fraud. I think many people early in their science careers can relate to this feeling.  Both Colette and I agree that we need to challenge this belief and it can start within our own community of PhD students. Colette has so much to offer this profession and is knowledgeable about her research field, she is not a fraud but an intelligent, strong woman in science. We need more people like her in the world. 

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