Unexpected Scientific Jobs – part 2

There’s no such thing as an average scientific career. Today, a STEM education opens doors into the most incredible fields. How about becoming a forensic soil scientist? Or a security princess? In the second part of Unexpected Scientific jobs, DiscovHER highlights some atypical careers – and the women scientists who hold them.

Forensic soil scientist

Just a spot of mud on a spade can ultimately bring detectives to an undiscovered body. A trace of dirt on a shoe can link or exclude a suspect from a crime scene. The forensic soil scientist uses the traces in soil to solve crimes - since soil in different places has its own unique biogeochemical makeup.

Lorna Dawson is principal soil scientist at the UK’s James Hutton Institute, a leading research institute for land, crops, water and the environment. She has identified soil traces in more than 70 forensic cases in the UK and pioneered a soil database using software-based comparisons and geographical information to trace samples more quickly. She’s become the go-to forensic soil adviser on crime drama series including ‘Vera’ and 'Silent Witness.”

So how do you become a forensic soil expert? Following a Bachelor’s degree in Geography, Dawson gained her PhD in Soil Science.

Follow her at https://twitter.com/soilfit

Security Princess

Yes, this job title actually exists. It was invented by its owner as an alternative to “information security engineer.” It could also be professional hacker. Parisa Tabriz manages Google’s Information Security Team – where she’s worked for almost a decade. Her team continuously develops and reviews the search engine’s security, identifying vulnerabilities. For Tabriz, software security is like human health – the life of the internet depends on the web browser, just as human life depends on the body. Like the body, which undergoes regularly attacks by pathogens, so the browser is exposed to hackers. Like human health, Tabriz sees software security as a non-constant science. Bugs will always be present. To that end, Google’s Chrome is developed in what she terms a “defence in depth” way so the complexity of its very structure means the impact of any single bug is limited.

Tabriz is one of the few women in Silicon Valley’s top-level security positions. Her path to hired hacker? She gained a Master of Science in Computer Science from the University of Illinois. As she recently tweeted: “You too can be a security princess.”

Follow her: https://twitter.com/laparisa

State ornithologist

If you’re living in Connecticut and you hear twittering in your chimney, then your state ornithologist wants to hear from you. As part of wildlife management, a number of U.S. states designate official bird scientists. The ornithologist’s mission is to coordinate state-wide strategies regarding bird habitats in addition to monitoring bird populations.

Margaret Rubega is Connecticut’s State Ornithologist, a role that sees her tracking species from hummingbirds to Monk Parakeets. She’s particularly focused on what birds eat and the impact of degrading habitats on their welfare.

So how do you become an ornithologist for the state? Rubega gained a BS in Biology at Southern Connecticut State University and earned her PhD from the University of California, Irvine. The role itself is a titular position paired with her principal career as associate professor and curator of ornithology at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Follow her: https://twitter.com/profrubega

Dream researcher

Imagine collecting people’s nightmares as part of your daily job. Or devoting a research lab to video gaming.

Jayne Gackenbach, a dream researcher at Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada, specializes in video game play and its’ effects on dreams. Her work suggests there are few differences between the “sense of being there while playing a video game and being there in a dream.”

Through her research, she’s developed the Nightmare Protection Hypothesis. The theory is that playing video games may actually protect some gamers from nightmares. Gamers take on the superhuman characters of their video games to inevitably win over the bad guys of their nightmares. Is it a question of simply becoming immune to violence? Interestingly the nightmare protection hypothesis doesn’t work with female gamers. Gackenbach also investigates the effect of social media on dreams, concluding a possible link between big users of Facebook and the classic nightmare of being chased.

Gackenbach’s route into dream research started with a major in Mathematics at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and concluded with a Ph.D in general experimental psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Read more about Gackenbach’s research here: http://academic.macewan.ca/gackenbachj/

Dog behaviourist

What makes dogs tick? That’s the question posed by a dog behaviourist, who, like any animal behaviourist, studies animals in relation to behavioural problems and training.

Julie Hecht, self-proclaimed dog spy, manages Alexandra Horowitz’s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in New York City where their current research focus is dog-human play. Hecht is the founder of dog spies, a website devoted to the science behind dogs. As Hecht explains: 

Scientific inquiry into dogs has grown exponentially since the 1950s. This research is vast and incorporates animal behaviour (ethology), psychology, zoology, archaeology and genetics, among other fields.

What that entails is investigating anything from whether a dog is really feeling guilty when he adopts a hang head ‘guilty look’ to what our words actually mean to dogs. Answer – it depends on the dog – some of the brightest have been shown to understand more than 1000 words.

While there are many routes to becoming an animal behaviourist, Hecht’s was academic. She gained a Masters in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare from the University of Edinburgh and is an Animal Behavior and Comparative Psychology Ph.D. student at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Do you know some unexpected scientific jobs too? Let us know at @4womeninscience ! 

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