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Forensic experiment in schools. (Courtesy of Michelle Neil)

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What Would I Be if I Wasn’t a Scientist?

Tell me something that ISN’T science — go on, I dare you!

Tell me something that has nothing to do with science, scientific theory or the scientific method….

Think about it.

It's quite hard to do. I ask this question to every school class I visit. I have had some interesting answers…. but only one student has ever given me a valid answer.

When I was a little girl I wanted to help animals. I decided I was going to be a veterinarian. I was 3. At 13 my mum asked me if I could euthanize an animal. All of a sudden I didn’t want to be a veterinarian anymore as I didn’t want to hurt the animals. But sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind, right?

I have always been drawn to the sciences, particularly those medical in nature. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do as in my day job as an analytical chemist. I’m the person others ask to find out what is in their sample! I explore and quantitate the unknown. That’s cool!

But what if I never went that route?

When I was choosing my subjects for school in grades 7, 8 and 10 I knew that these choices would dictate, at least partially, how my life would go. Where I would work, how much I would earn, where I would live, what sort of car I would drive and even what I would wear. I looked at teaching, journalism, law, music and the arts plus other sciences such as archeology and geology.

Pretty heavy stuff for a 13-year-old, right?

I tried Civil Engineering for a while at university. I hated it. Too many rules that had exceptions. The left-hand rule, right-hand rule, except……except…. except…. Argh! Give me something that works every time, please!

That’s how I went into my 2nd university choice:

Acid + base = salt + water.




But what if at that point in time I did something else? My 3rd choice was a teaching degree …. perhaps teaching science? I have had more than one teacher over the years tell me I would make a great teacher. Perhaps if going the teaching route I would probably be earning more money than I am now?

Something I have learned about science and scientists is that we don’t do science for the money! I don’t think had a suitably large sample size when they did this report for scientists in Australia. Unless you are a tenured professor or in some level of management most scientists I know don’t have a full-time job OR a permanent position OR earn $80k+ per year!

So perhaps I would have been a teacher. Or a journalist? I like to write. I love to explain to others about science. My favorite shows growing up were about science such as Beyond 2000. Perhaps I would have gone into the science journalism role? Although I have found, since meeting lots of journalists for previous roles that most of them have little to no understanding of science. So perhaps there needs to be a different role? That of science communicator where you are a scientist first and a communicator second? A #scicomm, if you will.

Well here we are “Beyond 2000” and I’m looking around me wondering what’s next? I had actually hit all my life goals by the time I was 35. Degree? Check. Working in a chosen profession? Check. Married? House? Kids? Check, check, check.

So what’s next?

Perhaps I’ll move into #scicomm?



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Michelle Neil

From Redland City, Queensland, Australia, Michelle “Shell” Neil graduated from the Queensland University of Technology with a Bachelor of Applied Science in Chemistry/ Forensic Science. She is now a forensic analyst in Queensland, performing screening and quantitation of biological samples for drugs. Outside of science, Shell plays the saxophone in a 20-piece big band, has a regular guest spot on local podcast RadioRED, volunteers her time with local schools as part of CSIRO STEM Professionals in Schools, is a keen science communicator and is the volunteer Social Media Moderator and Secretary of Australian Citizen Science Association.

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