Living in paradise

Loren Atkins attended the NYSF in 2005, and was selected to attend the Stockholm International Youth Science Seminar.  She returned as a student staff member in 2006 and 2007, and was the Chief of Staff in 2009.

These days, her life is idyllic – and this is her story to date:

I am looking out over the reef and pondering the serenity from my hammock on the small tropical island of Yap, Micronesia.

This is my second year in this island paradise, where I work as the legal advisor for the environmental protection agency.  Yes, a lawyer is in the NYSF newsletter.  But before you cry treachery and close the tab, I beg that you hear me out.  I am a lawyer, but I am also a scientist, and bridging the link between science and policy is what I do.

In 2010 I graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Science (Geography and Environmental Science), and I had no idea of what my ideal career would be.

Loren Atkins Yap 4

But I had a law degree to my name and a job offer with large corporate law firm on the table, so in 2006 I suited up and moved to Melbourne.  This was an excellent and challenging opportunity for me, and the experience has significantly shaped how I practice today.  Yet after two years, I knew that corporate law was not my calling.

I secured a volunteering position through Australian Volunteers International and in January 2013, I condensed my entire life into 23 kilograms and boarded several planes to a little known island in the Pacific Ocean.  Besides trips around the region, this is where I have been ever since.

 Loren Atkins Yap 1 Loren Atkins Yap 3

I draft laws, regulations and policies on a really diverse range of environmental issues.  I get to spend my weekends diving with clients (read manta rays, sharks and reef fish) and my week-days writing laws to protect them.

NYSF gave me the confidence to know that I can thrive in foreign environments

I was nervous and uncertain about moving here, but thanks to the NYSF I had the confidence to do it.  The NYSF gave me the confidence to know that I can thrive in foreign environments; that I can lead groups of peers; that I can make a difference; that understanding and utilising science is essential for everyone, not just scientists; and that it is ok to have no idea what I want to do when I ‘grow up’, because what real life has in store is far more exciting than anything 18 year old me could have imagined.

“… by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science”

Seven years ago I was lucky enough to go to NYSF, Session B, 2006. What followed was a two week blur of science, chanting, laughter, confidence building, friendship and that inevitable final day when you realise you have to go back home.

I was in Rutherford, being a chemistry enthusiast at the time, and wore a postcard sized golden-yellow nametag around my neck. The name on my golden-yellow nametag was Nicholas Blackburn and funnily enough that still is the name on the tag around my neck right now, except that it’s an ID and access card attached to a red lanyard that indicates the research institute I study in. I’m a PhD student in Hobart, Tasmania at the Menzies Research Institute. My area is human genetics / bioinformatics and I work on a large blood cancer project where we conduct whole genome sequencing of related blood cancer cases.

Before NYSF, I had been pretty keen on studying music at university but by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science. Being in that NYSF environment with all these other young science enthusiasts really showed me how much fun science can be. 

 by the end of NYSF I was completely hooked on science 

So fast forward a few years, I graduated from UTAS with a Bachelor of Science in 2009 with a Biochemistry major and then completed an honours research year in 2010 in Neuroscience. In my undergraduate degree I worked with a research group at Menzies for the second and third years of my degree, which really exposed me to the world of medical research and drove my passion to work in that field. After the end of honours I began a PhD in Cancer Genetics in 2011. My PhD project started off in the lab at the bench but over the last few years it’s transformed into a more computationally based bioinformatics research project as I trawl my way through whole genome sequences to identify inherited mutations contributing to disease. I am working at the ‘cutting edge’ of research in a rapidly expanding genomics field. It’s damn exciting stuff, and a bit overwhelming at times.

Nick Blackburn NYSF 2006

So, seven years on from NYSF, what are the key influences I still draw on?

I was a bit of an introvert pre-NYSF. Admittedly I still am and I’m cool with that. But NYSF developed within me a level of comfort in my own skin that enabled me to step forward more, take more opportunities and speak up for myself. It took a number of months for me to grow into this new confidence but I use it every day now as a researcher, be it throwing my hand up to ask a question at a seminar (you’d be surprised at how many PhD students where I’m from don’t), talking for an hour in front of my group about my research, speaking off the cuff to community groups that tour our institute, as well as regularly visiting high schools and primary schools to get my science out there.

I think in many ways, my love of science communication also began at NYSF. Seeing people passionate about science has made me want to inspire that passion in others. And let me tell you, explaining your work to early primary school kids, at their level, and seeing them excited about science is a truly rewarding experience.

Also embedded within me from NYSF is this feeling of whatever I do and wherever I go in science I should be excited and passionate about what I am doing. If I don’t, it’s time to figure out why not and consider that I may need to move into a different area and re-spark my imagination. Thankfully, as a third year PhD student I still get excited about my project, it gets me up and going in the morning and keeps me up late at night.

A final piece of NYSF I still carry with me is the amazing network of fellow NYSFers we all possess. As well as keeping in touch by social media, occasionally you’ll see someone in a crowded room of scientists and think to yourself ‘wow, you look so familiar’ and then it’ll click and you’ll soon be reminiscing and catching up as if no time at all has passed. I look forward to the day when I bump into a fellow NYSFer in my field of research (any other geneticists / bioinformaticians out there?).

For me, right now, I’m past the half way mark of my PhD and heading towards the end of it. My work has recently taken me to San Antonio, Texas to work with colleagues for a month. Then I’ll be thrown into the midst of an American Society of Human Genetics’ conference in Boston alongside thousands of other researchers. After that, sometime next year I’ll finish this PhD and head off into the big wide research world as a postdoctoral researcher. Who knows, maybe I’ll bump into a few NYSFers along the way.