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Case Study: Rachel

Personal details
Degree:PhD Statistics Profile picture
School(s): School of Mathematics and Statistics
Year of Graduation:Mar-1999
National of: United Kingdom
Employment details
Organisation: University of Auckland, New Zealand
Job title: Associate Professor - Department of Statistics
Occupational Sector: Academia
What has been your route to getting your current position?

I started at the University of Auckland as a postdoctoral fellow, straight after finishing my PhD at St Andrews. The postdoc position lasted 2 years. I then applied for a permanent position as a lecturer.

What does your job involve ?

A mixture of teaching and research. I spend nearly all my time from July to November teaching lecture courses, then I spend the rest of the year doing research. I teach two undergraduate courses a year, as well as supervising graduate students and PhD research students.

My research is in statistical ecology, applying methods from statistics, maths, and population genetics to problems in ecology, conservation, and animal behaviour. Some examples include:

  • How many are there? How many whales in the ocean, or penguins in the Antarctic, or dolphins in the Canadian fiords? Knowing how many there are is essential to conservation management, for example studying the effects of climate change or fishing regimes.
  • How do homing pigeons get home? Animal navigation is a fascinating subject, and like all other field sciences it needs statisticians to make sense of the data and untangle whether animals really are navigating by the earth’s magnetic field, or simply following the motorway home.
  • Where do invaders come from? Invasive mammals such as rats are a major threat to native New Zealand birds, which evolved in the absence of mammal predators. Conservation efforts are focused on sanctuary islands that can be kept free of rats and stoats. But what happens when a rat suddenly appears on a sanctuary island? Rats are good swimmers, and they can also hitch-hike by boat. We use population genetics to identify where unexpected rats came from, so we can target efforts to reduce future risk of reinvasion.
What are the best bits of your job ?

As a statistician, I can work on a much broader range of fascinating studies than most scientists, who need to spend time collecting their own data! I like to work on a spectrum of projects, from applied to theoretical. The rat study above was very applied: I was involved in everything from the fieldwork to the conclusions, and I can look out of my kitchen window and see the sanctuary islands our work is helping to protect. On the theoretical side, I might be able to contribute some new methodology that could eventually be useful for thousands of studies. Basic principles of statistics are common to all empirical sciences, whether it be ecology or medicine or astrophysics, so a research statistician has opportunities to work in any scientific field they choose. This makes it a fascinating job. I like the variety, from people-based teaching work to the individual creativity that goes into research. Most importantly, the job is always stimulating and never boring or mundane.

Why were you successful?

I got my postdoc as a direct result of networking at a conference. I was keen to spend some time in Australia or New Zealand, so I took the opportunity to go to a regional Australasian conference – thanks to my St Andrews supervisor for funding this! It was a strange choice of international conference to attend from Scotland, but a perfect way of meeting people from the region I wanted to work in. Starting off with a two-year postdoc was a good way of sampling a different country without making the long-term commitment of a permanent appointment, and it put me in a good position to get a permanent job when I decided to stay in New Zealand.

What skills/ knowledge from your degree have you found particularly helpful in this role?
Research is about finding creative solutions to problems, so everything you ever encounter is useful. Often the breakthrough comes by seeing how an idea from a completely different subject area can be useful for the problem at hand. Doing a PhD can be hard at times: the pace of progress is painfully slow compared with undergraduate studies, and seminars can seem like endless hours of incomprehensible tedium. The good news is that nothing is ever wasted, if you continue to a research career: the more ideas you can assemble from seminars and academic papers, the bigger the net you have to draw on when you have your own problem to solve.
What advice would you give to students wishing to follow the same path?
Academic networking is important. You need to become known to some well-known people in your field, so that they see you as a potential collaborator and can act as referees for you when you need them. The best way to become known is through the quality of your work, so focus on that. Accepting journal refereeing requests (and doing a good job of them) is a good way to start, and going to conferences is very important. Most fields of study are quite small, and it’s surprising how quickly you can become known internationally.

Read widely and indiscriminately! Reading academic papers can be hard work, especially at first. Find a way of enjoying it – over coffee in your favourite café, by the sea, or in your preferred log-cabin retreat – and do as much of it as you can. Once you learn to enjoy it, you start to reap the rewards. Your own papers will benefit and you will have a much wider range of ideas to draw on for your research.