Published 11 August 2022 by Ulrike Böhm
Women in Research #LINO22: Nicole Rianne Foster
Nicole from Australia is a postdoctoral researcher at Flinders University, South Australia.
Her research develops new approaches to analyse DNA contained within environmental samples such as soil and dust. This DNA provides information on bacterial, fungal, plant and animal communities contained within environmental samples. This can then be applied to detect invasive species, document biodiversity, and examine changes in ecological communities through time.
Nicole participated in the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.
Enjoy the interview with Nicole and get inspired:
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
I was privileged and fortunate enough to have parents that encouraged the pursuit of a University degree from an early age. Knowing that I would always go to University was one thing, but deciding what to study was difficult. I always had an interest in the environment and enjoyed being at the beach or swimming in the ocean. I loved going for walks and being outside and wanted to pursue a degree where I could help maintain our environment for generations to come. I started with an Advanced Science degree, hoping that I would figure out where my interests lie. I really enjoyed chemistry and particularly biochemistry. However, after watching a story about Dr. Pia Wernberg, owner of phycohealth, and seeing her work on seaweed and how to harvest this as a food source, it inspired me to work within the ocean realm, and particularly I wanted to work on marine algae. I soon discovered, however, that there are whole underwater gardens formed by seagrasses, the only underwater flowering plants that exist. This led me to the door of Professor Michelle Waycott, who has been my teacher, mentor, and friend and fostered my fascination, love, and enthusiasm for seagrass. Thus, my career in science began and led me to the field of environmental DNA, combining my enjoyment for chemistry to help our ocean environments.
Who are your role models?
I have several role models for different facets of my science career. First and foremost, my main role model is Sylvia Earle. Sylvia is a pioneer for women in marine science, and her dedication to working in the ocean realm and creating awareness for ocean conservation is unparalleled. She is such an inspiration to me; she followed her passion and has achieved so much in her career, and continues to fight for ocean awareness and conservation. My other role models are my friends and peers in science, in particular Andi Greene. Her enthusiasm and passion for science and her courage to stand up for minority groups have inspired me and made me want to be a better scientist. My other role models are my parents; they have sacrificed and given so much to ensure I had the best start in life; they inspire me, encourage me, and have taught me so much.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I am a first-generation university student. I started with a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) degree at the University of Adelaide, majoring in Ecology and Botany. During my final year of this degree, I worked as a research assistant conducting experiments and genetic analysis on seagrass communities in South Australia. I then pursued a marine science honors degree where I spent two months in New Zealand conducting ocean acidification experiments on volcanic vents off White Island. After completing this year-long project, I spent a few months working full-time as a research assistant, continuing the work I started during my third year of my bachelor’s. I then undertook my Ph.D. in Sciences using environmental DNA analysis of sediment samples and combining this with geochemical analyses to assess long-term change in coastal plant communities. During this time, I also worked as a demonstrator for undergraduate university courses and spent a year working in an all-girls high school as their first Scientist in Residence. I found this one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire Ph.D. and had no idea I would enjoy teaching school students so much.
Completing my Ph.D. during the global pandemic was challenging to say the least. It was a scary time for everyone, and the absence of in-person meetings and scientific discussions made finalising a Ph.D. more difficult than usual. In saying this, I was extremely fortunate to have a fantastic support network of peers who banded together during the completion of our Ph.D.s and saw each other through.
I currently work as a postdoctoral researcher leveraging my knowledge of environmental DNA, and I have worked to develop a method that combines DNA and geochemistry to trace the origin of dust samples, i.e., provenance determination. This work has potential within the field of forensic science and intelligence. Using dust particles on a person’s item or clothing can determine where that person has traveled based on the bacterial and fungal signatures obtained through environmental DNA. This is a change from my previous work – applying environmental DNA to coastal plants – but I think this is a great part of science; it can be very interdisciplinary.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I feel that most of my projects are very cool, but I am certainly biased. One project that does stand out was my honors research, where I looked at the predicted future impacts of ocean acidification. To undertake this work, I SCUBA dived at volcanic vents off the coast of White Island, New Zealand. This was an amazing experience and one that I will never forget. My other favorite projects are those where I have worked with my peers, such as a trip to Arkaroola, South Australia, to search for a highly endangered plant species and sample it for genetic analysis. I think that environmental DNA is super cool, and both my Ph.D. and postdoctoral projects have leveraged this tool, and I have found some exciting results in the process.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
One of the moments I felt the most pride in myself, and my work was during my time working as a scientist in residence at an all-girls school. After working with girls in grades 3 and 4, one of the students informed me that her 9th birthday party was going to be “science-themed” and that she wanted to have science experiments performed at her party. The reason why I felt immense pride is that this made me feel like I had made a difference, that I had successfully instilled in this student the courage to pursue science and to find joy in it.
What is a “day in the life” of Nicole like?
My day-to-day life varies greatly, and that is the fantastic thing about science. Lately, I have been working remotely, analysing data, and writing reports/papers. Otherwise, some days I will be conducting field work; other days, I will be in the lab extracting and analyzing DNA. Sometimes days consist of meetings, but these have mainly been online in recent years. I like to make sure if I have a lot of analytical or laboratory work that, I break it up with a walk or run, so that is certainly a normal part of my day.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I want to inspire the next generation of young women to pursue scientific careers. I want to be collaborative, not competitive, in my research and foster this among my peers and work colleagues. I would love to continue working to raise awareness of the importance of coastal/marine plant communities and particularly continue working to safeguard seagrass habitats for the future, but I am not sure what format this will take. I think, ultimately, I want to get to the end of my career and be proud of what I have achieved and feel that I have made a difference, so this is what I am seeking to accomplish.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
When I am not doing research, I work with my friends on the non-profit organisation we developed called “Climate Aware” (Climate Aware – Science. Outreach. Equity). The objectives of this organisation are to fund research that is entirely driven by the researchers for the betterment of our marine coastal environments and to provide research scholarships so that minority groups can have equal opportunities to grow their career. Aside from this, when I am not researching, I like to read, surf, snorkel, hike, camp, and do anything to do with the outdoors. I also have gotten into trail running lately.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
My advice would be to reach out, as I would love to get to know you! I have found so many great women in science already and am excited to meet more in my discipline and beyond. I would also say that you should never be afraid to apply for things, even when that imposter syndrome says that you aren’t qualified … don’t listen to that voice and just apply! You never know what doors can open. For instance, I was never going to apply to attend LINO70 because I didn’t think I would get selected; I am so glad that I did apply.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
In my discipline, or rather in the broader field of environmental DNA, I think the next big breakthrough will be real time PCR machines that you can take into the field and that will analyse your environmental samples right there in the field. More than that, I think soon you will be able to generate data in the field as well. This would be important for detecting invasive species and could really speed up the laboratory and analytical processes of using environmental DNA.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I think generally targeting girls at a young age and fostering scientific curiosity and interests is important. However, I believe this needs to be maintained throughout school and tertiary education, especially to increase the number of female professors. Women need to feel empowered during their university experience and instilled with the belief that they can go on to an academic career and professorship. Increasing the number of female role models promoted to the professor level will encourage other women to follow in their footsteps.