Dr Senga Robertson-Albertyn
Part of Women in STEM
Who are you and what is your job?
Hi, my name is Senga and I'm a scientist at the University of Dundee. Specifically, I'm a microbiologist and I study the microbes that live on and around plants, particularly around the roots. This is important because some microbes can do very helpful jobs for plants like helping them to defend against pathogens and helping them to get nutrients from soil that they can easily get themselves.
What do you research, why and how does this help people?
My research focuses on finding microbial alternatives or complementary treatments to traditional farming techniques that could be harmful to the environment and also expensive. My research could also help to improve the nutritional content of some of the food that we eat. So I suppose, put simply, I work on food sustainability.
What is a typical day like?
In my job there's no such thing as a typical day. I can be doing lab work, attending conferences, training students, performing analyses or sharing our research and seminars or in videos like this. And I really enjoy the diversity and flexibility of my days, particularly at the moment are in early 2021 where a lot of people are working from home and I'm lucky that I can do most of my work from home just now. So that's great.
What do you like least about your job?
Now with all jobs that are some things that we love and some things that we don't like quite as much. So I'll start with I'm not quite as keen on and that's the fact that most research is based on funding from different organisations. And that normally means that a project will be funded for a set number of years, and that's how long your contract will last. So it means it's quite rare to get a permanent full time position. So you might find yourself changing job every few years as your contracts end. That being said, there are also gives you the opportunity to explore new research ideas and institutions and just broaden your own skills.
What do you like best about your job?
I love everything else about my job. I love contributing to research that can genuinely help current global concerns. I love that during normal times we get the opportunity to travel to a lot of amazing places for conferences or lab exchanges. I get to manage my own time so my work and my home life can be balanced quite well. And that's important for me because I'm a parent and the science community is very close and supportive. So another part of my job that I really enjoy is actually being part of that community that works really hard to make a difference.
Tell us about your career journey so far – how did you get to where you are now?
My career journey has been a little bit non-standard. So I was raised in a family where no one had been to university. So one I didn't think of as a type of person that would go to uni. And two, I actually had no clue on how to go about doing it anyway. So long story short, I left school when I was 16. I started working, but then in my 20s I really regretted not going to uni. So I managed to get a place on an access course at a local college. And then when I completed that, I was able to apply to university and I applied to Dundee. Now, it wasn't all plain sailing when I was doing my degree. I had to resit a year after royally failing some exams, but I got there in the end and it was in my final year where I decided that I wanted to continue with scientific research as a career after I was inspired by a project that I worked on all about bacterial communities living in our guts and the importance that they play in health. I applied to do a PhD looking at how bacterial communities help plants, and that was still here at Dundee Uni. They can't seem to get rid of me! I think of a PhD as a little bit like an apprenticeship, you know, when you're taught how to be a scientist. And I loved almost every second of my PhD, obviously it came with its challenges. And I think looking back on it, I would recommend doing a Masters before a PhD because it is quite a jump to go from a degree to a PhD straightaway. So when I finish my PhD, I was absolutely delighted to be offered a job in the same research group doing similar research to what I had been doing during my PhD. And that's actually the job that I do just now and I absolutely love it.
What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?
I think if you want to pursue a career in science, one of the first things I'll say is that not all science jobs need a PhD or a masters. And you also don't need to know right now what area of science that you want to research. You'll find that degree courses, and particularly the one at Dundee Uni, it starts off really broad and as you progress, you get the opportunity to study more and more of what you're finding interesting until you eventually find yourself kind of finding yourself specialised in a research area one day. In order to start a science based degree, most universities are going to need you to have four highers at A or B level, and those must include at least one science plus English and Maths. But what I would say is that having more than one science is really helpful because there's a lot of crossover in research. I think experience in coding, too, is really important because you use a lot of that in analyses. And another helpful skill is to have another language under your belt science is international. So you're going to work with people from all over the world and visit a lot of different places. For me, I think a science career gives incredible opportunities, is flexible and highly rewarding. Plus you get the opportunity to influence positive change. So for me, it's the perfect job.
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