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#STEMStories: Ainara, Molecular Archaeologist, Denmark

#STEMStories: Ainara, Molecular Archaeologist, Denmark

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

My name is Ainara Sistiaga and I am a molecular geoarchaeologist. I study the lipids (fats) that survive in ancient rocks and artifacts to better understand past climate and human history. I work as a researcher in the University of Copenhagen and MIT.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

I always liked history and human evolution, the mysteries of our history were my passion as a kid, but also liked a lot nature and Earth history. In college I decided to study history, with a major in Prehistory. From my freshman year I joined a archaeological excavation on Neanderthals. There I discovered you can actually combine history and geology by studying the past climate through the analysis of archaeological sediments. In those sediments I discovered the presence of molecular markers of Neanderthal diet, and this finding actually defined my path towards the molecular study of archaeological sediments and feces.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

I think there is always a part of your job that you don’t like, in my case is data analysis. I love field work and I really enjoy the lab work, but data analysis is quite boring. However, this eureka moment when you realise you have found something very cool is what makes me jump of the bed every morning. The creativity part of this job is what I really enjoy.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

I love to swim and exercise, I think keeping a healthy life and mental health is essential to survive this academic environment. When things get complicated I breathe and go for a swim. Learn how to deal with rejection is very important in this field, when you get a manuscript rejected, a fellowship or a grant, it is quite devastating because there is a lot of work and hope invested in it, but sometimes better opportunities come after, it is not the end of the world even if it feels like it. Experiments often don’t work but we learn from that and do better next time. Being resilient is a big skill in Science.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

I guess all the women that have been crucial at every step of my life are role models for me, especially my mother and grandmother. Professionally I really admire the work and strength of Lynn Margulis and Mary Leakey.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

I think I will advise myself to do not fret that much about the major of field I chose when I went to college. I did history and then liked organic chemistry and molecular biology so I decided to transition towards those fields. Everything you learn is enriching you and there is always time and opportunities to change fields. The change might not be easy but it is not impossible, just enjoy the journey.

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

Be curious, good colleague and don’t let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do.

8. How do you measure your success?

I guess in academia we measure success with publications, but actually getting invitations to inspire young girls it feels pretty much like success :)

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

If you google Ainara Sistiaga you can find some of the media coverage of my work and most of my published work can be found in google scholar or researchgate.

10. Are you social? Will you share your Twitter handle, or LinkedIn profile, or Facebook so that young women can connect with you?

I am less active in social media than I would like to be, but I have a professional twitter account @AinaraSistiaga, and I am also in Linkedin, although I use it less than twitter.