Being a female marine scientist Down Under: Anastasija Zaiko

Meet Anastasija Zaiko, aquatic ecologist by training. She completed her undergraduate and postgraduate studies, followed up by PhD degree in Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Klaipeda University. Inspired by professor Sergej Olenin, she has got interest and started specializing in aquatic biological invasions – species translocated by humans (deliberately or unintentionally) to remote ecosystems. After defending her PhD thesis in 2009, she got researcher’s position and worked at KU for a few years, participating in national and international projects, supervising students and doing some lecturing. In 2015 she moved from Lithuania to New Zealand and currently works at the Cawthron Institute.

Anastasija Zaiko. Photo from personal archive

What were the circumstances that caused your move from Lithuania to New Zealand?

Being a “traditional” environmental scientist, for a long time, anything from the “molecular world” was a bit of sci-fi to me: difficult to understand, almost magical, and nearly impossible to learn. But at some point, I’ve got fascinated by the “magic” of molecular techniques, which coincided with their incredible development in the last decades. I’ve got extremely interested in those methods, and specifically their application for marine bioinvasion research. I did a big move from Lithuania to New Zealand to learn more about those methods and apply them in my daily work. Now, I work with amazing molecular team, doing cool research and enjoying beautiful nature of New Zealand.

What did inspire you to pursue a career in marine sciences/technologies?

I have loved the Sea, since I can remember myself – it’s beauty, romance, mysteries… But my true inspiration and fascination of marine life dates back to my teen-age, when I got astonished by Jacques-Yves Cousteau movies shown on TV at that time. I decided I wanted to learn more about this part of the planet that despite its scale and importance remains largely unknown (some say that it is still less known than the space objects, millions kilometers away from Earth).

What are the main things you enjoy about being a marine scientist?

Probably, the versatility of this profession. As a marine scientist, I have a unique privilege to spend part of my working time being in the field – onshore, at sea or even “under the sea”. I also do quite a bit of lab work, computing (data analyses), writing (scientific papers, reports, proposals), doing administrative tasks, and of course traveling and meeting amazing people. And literally, I enjoy every bit of these! Also, this vocation requires dedicated life-long learning and self-improvement, it keeps you moving forward with no chances of getting bored or feeling stagnant at work.

What are your main professional achievements? Any/what obstacles?

Difficult to judge – I think it is better if your achievements are acknowledged from aside, by colleagues or competitors 😊 I could probably reflect on the most enjoyable ones and achievements I’m personally proud of. These are: collaborations with the most outstanding scientists in the field, people whom I sincerely admire and who (in many cases) became more than just colleagues, they became good friends. I’m also proud that I managed to master the state-of-the-art molecular techniques (and associated big data analysis methods) a few years ago, and started actively applying them in my research. I’m also proud of successes of my students and young researchers I’ve mentored. It is the best reward – to see their professional achievements, papers published, scholarships and awards granted. And, of course, I still get excited every time a scientific paper I co-author is published. Although it might be unobvious, but each such publication results from months (sometimes years) of dedicated hard work, so it is super rewarding seeing that findings you were excited about resonated with you peers, get read and cited.

Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? If yes, how did you handle them?

Sometimes, mostly in my earlier career years. Maybe it is quite subjective, but it happened that I felt I needed to make an extra effort to prove my “eligibility” to be considered a scientist, professionally equal to my male colleagues. Especially, when you find yourself being the youngest (and sometimes the only) woman at a meeting or in a working team 😊 On the other hand, I think this helped me to develop a competitive spirit and be ready to go an extra mile to get the job done in the best way possible.

Do you think there is a need for special girls’ support to study marine sciences/technologies?

Overall, I think things have improved much over the last ten years or so. Marine science is not that heavily dominated by men, and I meet many bright young women doing the leading-edge research and being internationally recognized for their professional achievements. I don’t believe that any specific support is needed to encourage girls enrolling in marine studies, as this field has been always quite popular among female students (also when I was doing my undergraduate and post-graduate studies). The most difficult thing, I reckon, is to remain in this profession at the later stage. Doing marine research often means committing to work hard, both mentally and physically, often over-hours, sometimes in hazardous environments (lab or field), travel (sometimes for extended periods), etc. These conditions are often difficult to combine with the family responsibilities, pregnancy, maternity, etc. Therefore, I think it is more important to put an effort to integrate (and re-integrate) early-career women scientists into research projects, maybe allowing for some extra flexibility in their schedules where needed.

What advice would you give any women considering science as a career path?

If keeping it simple  – before choosing this path, make sure this is something you are truly passionate about and ready to commit to, as it will constitute a major part of your life… And if you do – accept the challenge and enjoy the journey! 😊

What are the most effective way for you to maintain balance of your professional and personal life?

Make your family interested in and passionate about your work, and be inclusive. For example, I took my husband and children to assist during the field trips and expeditions. They were helping me collecting material for practical lectures with students, or supported me at the public events (e.g. science fairs, conferences). The beauty of marine science that it can be combined with the family fun and allow spending quality time together. Of course, support and understanding of your beloved ones is very important and precious, making career in marine science wouldn’t be possible without that.