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Kathy Sircombe explains how a genetics MSc at Otago is setting her up for a great career.

Kathy Sircombe pipetting in the labSome years ago, a weather balloon unexpectedly floated into the small farming town of Dargaville, followed not long after by a recovery team from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research. To the school children of a town most famous for mighty Kauri trees and kumara, it was all very exciting and space-age, and became the earliest ‘science’ memory of Kathy Sircombe, now a Genetics Masters student at the University of Otago.

‘It was a different kind of upbringing,’ Kathy says of life in the small farming community, but as it turned out, a great one for science - especially with the availability of farm animals for dissection and study at school. Fast forward a few years and you will now find Kathy expertly slicing DNA with a high-tech ‘slicey-thing’ – officially known as a microtome.

Having enrolled in the University of Otago’s Health Sciences programme because of its wide scientific coverage, in her first year Kathy quickly found she liked genetics for its similarly wide ranging scope. It covered microbiology, anatomy, and biochemistry, all of which fuelled her interest in how people develop. ‘I’ve always been interested in what makes us, us.’

Now enrolled in a two year Masters degree in Genetics at Otago, Kathy sees the programme as an essential step in building her career.

‘If you want to work in science, you need a postgraduate qualification. A Masters gives you a good step into workforce,’ says Kathy about her choice of a Masters in genetics. 

Kathy was happy to land a Masters research project ‘right up her alley': finding the cause of scoliosis - a crippling curvature of the spine that develops during the adolescence of those with the disease. Although this disease affects between 1 and 3 percent of the population, the genetics of the disease remain unknown. Kathy is contributing to the search by determining how expression of the gene Lbx1 is regulated when mice develop their spinal cords.

Learning to piece together puzzles with a wide range of skills is how Kathy describes her Masters work. Like many geneticists, she cites ‘learning how to learn’ as one of the most important qualities she has picked up.

‘Science is changing so much that you need a decent skillset that can take you anywhere. We need to prepare for the time when technology takes over the skills we have today.’

The other quality a Masters gives you, adds Kathy, is determination. Fine-tuning and repeating experiments, problem solving and perseverance are all part of a day’s work. Otago’s Genetics Masters programme allows you to build up these research skills step by step, says Kathy. ‘The first year combines papers with research, giving you enough time to learn and then have a decent go at full time research in the next year.’