Scientific Research Career Paths Are Not Always Direct, Researchers Share At Vienna Girls' Day

During a region-wide event on April 27, GMI welcomed a cohort of female secondary school students from Vienna to learn about career paths for professions in the natural sciences.

Wiener Töchtertag brings girls into one of about 200 companies in Vienna for a closer look at the company's activities. This year, GMI welcomed a group of female students between the ages of 14 and 16 years, who were interested to learn about career paths in the life sciences. They toured the Swarts lab, which investigates the biological basis of climate adaptation in conifers by using quantitative, computational, and population genetic approaches in forests across Europe. In practice, the group tries to understand the consequences for climate change for forest systems using Norway spruce as a model. 

Over the course of the morning, the students came to learn the ways in which individual trees in a forest respond to different environments. Researchers Kelly Swarts and Alexis Arizpe led students through a series of lab spaces with a focus on core sampling and analysis techniques used by scientists. To date, the Swarts group has sampled about 9,000 cores from about 4,500 trees. With the aid of microscopes, students examined tree cores and rings to correlate tree growing seasons and make predictions about trends in reduced moisture. Each ring can be correlated to the year and matched with weather data. In reality, data does not come cheap. Each run of a microscope produces 300GB - more data than can be stored on most iPhones.

Many students were surprised to learn that there is no direct path into scientific research. Kelly highlighted the potential benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to scientific research: "In scientific research, it is possible to pull one's experiences and knowledge from different areas together into something that is integrative and meaningful." She explained that she started her work in archaeology before opening her lab at the GMI. Alexis studied human geography and was hired in a student position at the Tree-Ring Lab at the University of Arizona. He switched to Natural Resources for his master’s degree to continue working with tree rings.

The makeup of the Girls’ Day program, which combined science research with small group settings, led to some unexpected conversations that offered a more realistic expectation of pathways into life science research and insights into how science is actually practiced. In light of this experience, students might be able to continue to gain early laboratory exposure during their school years, by reaching out to research establishments and university laboratories in their communities as part of their coursework.

Töchter Tag is open to all girls aged between 11 and 16 years who go to school in Vienna, Lower Austria or Burgenland. Boys attend school as usual on Girls’ Day and have their own event - Boys' Day - in autumn. For more information about Wiener Töchtertag, please visit https://www.toechtertag.at.