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#STEMStories: Daisy, Comedian and Communicator, Switzerland

1. Say hi :) who are you what do you do?

Hi/Bonjour/Hallo! I am Daisy Hessenberger, a comedian and communicator who put herself through 4 years of researching evolutionary genetics to then leave academia and work at an entirely different scale - ecosystems! My current career is split between the office and what I do outside the office. For the first, at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, I work on helping nature to help humans. For the latter, I draw/write/joke about science.

2. How did you arrive at this career? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

Looking back it is easy to weave a narrative of how I was always meant to work in conservation; as a child I loved the environment, a Wobbegong shark was my favorite animal for a while, and I devoured books by Gerald Durrell (see my PLOS blog on how those formed who I am today). But the truth is, while I knew I loved conservation, it was not always something I knew I wanted to do.

When I was 21 I knew I wanted to study epigenetics (that which is inherited but not the DNA code); I knew this so passionately I embarked on a 4 year PhD on hybridisation in algae. At 25, I only knew that I was not convinced about academia; cue a 3 year stint in open access publishing during which I discovered scicomm through improv and art. At 27, I needed a break from office work so I quit my job, spent three months volunteering with a conservation NGO in the forests of Madagascar and realised this could be my next step. But it was when I started work at IUCN that I realized how much I loved this work; I realized that this is what I want to do for the next five years at least.

As for my work outside of work, while the drawing and blogging came as no surprise, getting up on stage monthly to do improv comedy inspired by science was something I never saw coming.

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

This question takes some thought as the honest answer is that I am not entirely sure. This job is challenging. Working outside of my expertise, there is so much I still need to learn and the workload is large to say the least. And yet everyday, between when I wake up and arrive at work, I smile because I love what I do (maybe not the moment I have to get out of bed but somewhere along my hour long commute and once I have imbibed caffeine). I smile because I love learning, because I believe in what I am doing, and because the team that I am working with is ace. We have a lot to do but we support one another - and have fun while doing so.

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

Getting some perspective. This could be by looking at the mountains on the other side of Lake Geneva and reminding myself how small I am in this world. Or by doing a breathing exercise (inspired by the Head Space app) to connect with my body. Or by talking to my allies. I only discovered my personal cures through the counselling I undertook during my PhD. Even if not in a time of crisis, counselling worked for me by equipping me with the tools to combat stress.

An unexpected form of support has been asking for feedback. During a time where I was questioning my leadership and teamwork skills, I took a test (courtesy of the Homeward Bound project, a leadership initiative for women in STEM - check it out) in which I had to ask six people I worked with to answer questions about me. I am pretty data driven so to see the results affirming that I am viewed as a great leader...well sometimes re-assurance is powerful and data-driven re-assurance even more so.

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

I do not have any one role model, instead I have many representing the different interests I have in life.

6. What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?

I would give her a lot. Although if I could only say one thing I would tell her that it works out ok. More specifically here are some things I would say:

  • Do not be scared of improv - just do it
  • Write something (anything) during your PhD and publish it
  • Being an explorer is a thing
  • Binge watching TV shows does not make you a terrible person
  • Never quiet your own voice even if others are shushing you

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

  1. Be picky. STEM is for you - do it on your own terms. You are the precious resource and do not have to take the first PhD offered to you.
  2. Find allies, any allies. I found mine in the team room working on the same algae in the same building and we supported one another.
  3. Publish something, anything (preferably open access). You do not need to be a researcher to publish in academic journals nor do you need to have completed a beautiful original piece of research tied up with a bow. Opinion pieces or Mini Reviews are short articles that are not so expensive - pitch the idea to a colleague and write it together.

 8. How do you measure your success?

The truth is that I compare myself to other people. I look at my friends and peers who are postdocs or consultants, own houses or aim to retire by the age of 40. My aim is for me to measure my success by the impact of my actions, what I have contributed to the world and how content I feel on average.

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

My lifes work: https://dhessenberger.wordpress.com/

My sciart work: https://pineapplesandwhales.wordpress.com/

My scicomedy work: http://catcave9.thecatalyst.ch/

My science work at IUCN: https://www.iucn.org/theme/ecosystem-management

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

Twitter: @DaisyScience

Instagram: @DaisyScience

LinkedIn: Daisy Hessenberger