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If you are undecided in exactly what career path you want to take, keep your options open in the first year of university, says Shannon Clarke.

“If there are two or three areas you are interested in, find out what subjects you will need to progress in each course of study, and try to do them all. Keep it broad.

“When I left high school I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do,” she says. “‘I’d thought about teaching but I decided I’d get a degree of some kind first.” She started out with subjects ranging from psychology to maths.

“The first couple of years were mostly rote learning, but things changed after that and became much more interesting.” By then Shannon had decided she wanted to study molecular and physiological plant biology (now plant biotechnology).

She graduated with first class honours, and then completed her PhD. She’d been investigating the basic principles of photosynthesis at a molecular level, and has had her work published in several journals.
“Photosynthesis has been going on for billions of years, but we still don’t really understand it. It’s exciting to be working with something that could have a practical application.”

During her PhD she had the opportunity to travel to Europe to further her research, learn new techniques and attend conferences. On completion of her PhD she decided to take up a post-doctoral position in the UK. “Being a scientist is a great way to see the world. The group I worked with in Wales had great facilities and I really had a lot of fun there”, she says.

Shannon continued with plant research returning to NZ on a FRST funded post-doctoral fellowship investigating how plants adapt to heat and other stresses. She has now changed tack and is a scientist with the Animal Genomics group at AgResearch in Dunedin. “Although I began my science career in plant biotechnology, the wide ranges of skills that you learn are applicable to all areas of science.”

And a final tip for new students – “start off with easier papers. There’ll be plenty of time to get serious in the later years of study.”