Graduate Profile: Camilla Whittington

Camilla Whittington

Name: Camilla Whittington

What degree/s did you study (and year of completion)?
B. Science in Agriculture (Hons I and University Medal) (2006)
PhD (Veterinary Science) (2011)

Where do you currently work (sector/organisation) and what is your position title?
Academic research. I am a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich. I am working to understand more about the processes underlying the reproductive biology of seahorses and pipefish, which are characterised by the unusual feature of male pregnancy.

Describe a typical day/week in your role. What do you enjoy most about your work?
My weeks are generally split between working with the animals, in the laboratory, and conducting data analysis on the computer. In our facility, we have captive populations of seahorses and pipefish; a lot of my time is spent setting up mating trials, collecting samples, and conducting behavioural studies of these animals. In the lab, I’m carrying out genetic and genomic analyses, which often requires long days at the bench. At my desk, I’m conducting computational analyses of genetic data, reading journal papers, and writing up my own research. Mixed in with this is time spent doing field work at our field site in Italy, and teaching courses for Bachelors and Masters students.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your current role?
Like most researchers I know, I find that there aren’t always enough hours in the day to finish everything, and working with animals brings with it extra challenges; ensuring their health and welfare is paramount, and things like waiting for them to reproduce or examining their behaviour takes up quite a lot of time. Adding lab work, staying abreast of current research, and teaching duties into the mix makes for quite a juggling act!

Can you give a summary of your career journey so far? How did you get started in your career? What recruitment processes did you go through? What has been the highlight of your career to date?
I’ve always been interested in science and during my Honours year was fortunate to work on a very exciting research project looking at platypus venom. This area of research was so full of potential that I wasn’t satisfied to finish at the end of one year, with so much more to discover, and so decided to continue on to do a PhD on the same topic. During my PhD I was very fortunate to be awarded a Fulbright fellowship, which allowed me to travel to the Washington University School of Medicine in the US to continue my research, where I used cutting edge technologies not available in Australia at the time. After a year in the US, I returned home to Australia to write up my thesis and start hunting for postdoctoral positions in evolutionary biology. For me, the recruitment process was quite remote- I was applying at overseas universities and so before I arrived in Switzerland I had only met my current boss through a Skype interview.

The highlight of my career so far has been being able to live and work overseas on exciting aspects of evolutionary biology with unique animals and fantastic colleagues. Research careers can mean international mobility, and I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with amazing scientists from all over the world, which is very inspiring.

Which skills are highly valued by employers in your field? In your experience, what are the qualities of successful candidates eg relevant work experience, specific degree or industry qualification, specific skills, networks, extracurricular involvement?
In my field, it’s really important to be able to demonstrate your ability to carry out all aspects of research. This means not only data collection and analysis, but also writing up your results for publication, and applying for grants to fund the research. It’s hard to get away from the fact that publications are very often cited as a measure of success, and I think having a solid publication record gave me an edge in the job hunt. I think that the ability to work well independently as well as part of a team and network is also highly valued. Some of the best research comes out of collaborative approaches melding the expertise of different team members.

What are your top three tips for university students wishing to enter your field of work? eg networking, postgraduate study
1. Passion and a burning interest in your field is the most important thing! Research is not always an easy ride, and loving what you are doing makes things like long days in the lab worthwhile. It’s a good thing to get up in the morning and feel excited about the new things you’re going to find out today.

2. Postgraduate study gives you a solid grounding in research skills and the chance to focus your efforts on one particular area.

3. It’s important to know the field and the people in it, not just by reading papers and attending conferences, but also by getting involved in your department.

How do you manage the balance in your life?
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is challenging in this field, as you are often expected to work long hours. It’s important to be as efficient and organised as possible on the job, in order to prevent wasted hours that eat into non-work time. The odd late night in the lab is unavoidable, but I try as must as possible to schedule my experiments to fit in with normal working times.

How do you keep current in your field? (eg professional development, membership of professional associations, conferences, networks)
Keeping current for me means regularly attending conferences and getting involved in professional networks. Above all it means making time to keep abreast of the research that’s constantly being published in my area. Taking an interest in what other people around me are doing (my department, university, city…) is very important: there are so many exciting and cutting edge research projects going on right on my doorstep.