10 Jun 2021

The winding paths of science

From Our Changing World, 5:00 am on 10 June 2021

Our Changing Careers

Meet Dr Sarah Kessans. As an undergraduate she started off in plant biology. For her PhD she trialled an HIV vaccine at Arizona State University. Now she's at the University of Canterbury teaching product design and developing space craft. 

Tomorrow's challenge? Who knows!

Our world is changing and, with it, our careers. And science jobs will be among the first to evolve.

Katy Gosset visited a University of Canterbury Careers Fair for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students to find out what the future might hold.

Sarah Kessans from the University of Canterbury stands in front of a University building.

Sarah Kessans from the University of Canterbury Photo: RNZ

For Kessans, much of the appeal of her diverse career lay in the opportunity to explore new concepts and translate them to business models. "Getting to work with people from all sorts of different disciplines and to develop things that are not things yet, to design entirely new sectors of industries. It's just incredible," she said.

Kessans urged her students to seize every opportunity by attending public lectures and meeting academics from different fields. She believed it was those interactions that would help create new industries.

"You never know where that next innovation is going to come from so a lot of this innovation is sort of the serendipity of new connections. So the more our students can develop new connections across different industries, the more opportunities they're going to have for both their education and then their future careers." 

Finding your niche

Jeff Doherty moved from Canada to New Zealand to follow his interest in how parasites manipulate their hosts. He is at the end stage of his PhD studying hairworm parasites. Like other parasites they have a complex life cycle, in fact more interesting than most, as it involves the parasite moving from a water-based insect host, to a land-based insect, which somehow is fooled into going to the water to allow the hairworm to complete its lifecycle.

Jeff Doherty sits at a lab bench. In front of him there are two microscopes and a computer monitor. There are small plastic tubes, glass slides and a notebook on the lab bench beside the microscopes.

Jeff Doherty checking for parasite cysts Photo: RNZ

For terrestrial insects, going to the water like this is abnormal behaviour. Jeff would like to figure out whether this is because the parasite manipulates them through biochemical or neural pathways to head directly to the water, or whether an increase in erratic movement coupled with a lack of inhibitions means they simply end up there by accident.

'There are so many weird life cycles, and they all have their little uniqueness to them. They are all highly specialised to their environment and their environment just happens to be another animal.'

Just as the parasites have found their own niche, Jeff has discovered his particular research interest. While he is currently busy finishing up his lab work in the Parasitology lab in the Zoology Department of the University of Otago, he’s already looking to the future, and hopes he can continue to uncover more secrets about how parasites manipulate their hosts' behaviour.

To find out more you can visit the Evolutionary and Ecological Parasitology research group webpage, or have a look at Jeff's webpage here.

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