Meet Arwen Nugteren, Chemistry student, lab assistant and passionate science communicator!

I have always been innately curious, forever asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ everything works the way it does, so really, science is the obvious career choice!

My Journey in Science

It began as a 7-year-old who walked around with a magnifying glass, examining insects and making notes in a tiny notebook titled ‘My discoveries with magnifying glass’. My parents noticed, and I was an extremely excited young girl to unwrap my very own microscope on my 8th birthday. I used it ALL the time, examining everything … leaves, insects, fruit, paper, fabric, blood, cells, fungi and always making little notes in the notebook now titled ‘My discoveries with magnifying glass and microscope’.

It was the cheapest, absolute lowest quality microscope that you can imagine, claiming that for its grand $20 price tag it could reach a magnification of x1000, while in reality it managed a highly grainy x400, but at the time it was incredible. Later, as a 10 year-old doing a science fair project on identifying microscopic moulds with the help of an ex-university microscope, it served as an excellent scientific exercise in determining equipment error and exposing me to the capabilities of a fairly high-quality microscope. Needless to say, I was certainly loathe to return it at the end of my project!

However, what fascinated me most about these adventures in microscopy were cells. I continually prepared slides to look at tiny round or squarish objects, straining in the hopes to identify the organelles I’d read about in science books, or the different microscopic structures in leaves. (In the end, it took until my second-year Biology course to actually observe and identify stomata, but the moral is clear- never give up!). I knew that cells made up organisms and so that meant that to understand how a plant or an animal worked, you’d have to understand how the cells worked and I hoped to “discover” some of this with my own microscope. So from the age of 8, I wanted to be either a cell biologist or a microbiologist.

To cut a long story shorter, I was exposed to biochemistry while taking some extension university courses in high school and this fascinated me even more. Cells might make up an organism, but cells rely on biochemical reactions to function, so to really understand how macroscopic life functions, I could look at these fundamental reactions, proteins and enzymes. What fun! At the same time, I also had an incredible high school Chemistry teacher for a year who truly inspired my love of Chemistry through her own enthusiasm and love for the subject. During one class, I distinctly remember thinking “what if I actually pursued Chemistry instead?” and immediately thinking that was a stupid idea because I’d been planning to do some form of Biology for half my life at that point, and I couldn’t betray myself like that! But my love for Chemistry only increased as I continued to ask more and more difficult questions of my teachers. I wouldn’t “just accept” what I was taught in class. No! Quite the opposite, I had to know exactly how it worked and why it worked that way. After asking one of my teachers what happened to photons that were not within an element’s absorption spectrum that hit electrons in atoms (as I entirely disbelieve that there is no interaction) and he couldn’t answer, and neither could the university professor he passed the question on to, he simply suggested I think about pursuing Quantum Chemistry research since it fascinated me so much.

I had been thinking on similar lines myself, having recently read an excellent book on Quantum Biology and many articles on Quantum Biochemistry/Chemistry. It seemed interesting, and so I set myself an ongoing goal to learn more about Quantum Physics in order to better understand these other fields. By the end of high school, I could link some of these quantum mechanical concepts to understanding some chemistry concepts which just heightened my interest in Chemistry. It fascinated me that quantum physics, dealing with even more fundamental particles than biochemistry, could also impact macroscopic Chemistry and Biochemistry and so for an individual who wants to understand the most fundamental level of function, it’s amazing (truly, just read about it! You won’t regret it).

So that’s set me on my current path, an undergraduate degree in Chemistry with a minor in Quantum Physics and then on to postgraduate study afterwards. And then hopefully a career in research to answer even more of those fundamental ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions!

Science Communication

And where does scicomm come into this story?

I realised that I enjoyed science, loved writing and explaining scientific concepts to people and clearing up commonly held scientific misconceptions. And a science blog was born! I decided right from the outset to post weekly across as diverse a range of topics as possible and also do daily science facts on a Facebook page and try to build an active Twitter community. It’s worked brilliantly and I’m loving it.

I’ve also done a few other scicomm projects, including most notably a technology event during high school where myself and a friend applied some of the theory we’d learned in Chemistry to design a hydrogen battery for storing solar energy and that was awesome!

Presenting our idea and prototype of a hydrogen battery for solar power – Personal photo

I hope to continue in science communication in the long term as I progress through my undergraduate and postgraduate studies and on into a research career.






Right now

I’m currently working as a lab assistant at an animal genetics testing laboratory while on a break from uni. My typical day involves a 6am start at the lab, preparing different samples: hair, semen, tissue, etc… by placing them in wells on a 96-well plate and then extracting the DNA from them so that the more qualified people can test for different genetic defects. While it is sometimes a little repetitive, there are always surprises (generally when the lab machines decide not to work) and I love it. It’s also great to be able to talk to others in the lab who have been working in science for a long time and who can help guide and discuss things with me as I begin my own journey in science.

Being a Woman in Science

And as this is a magazine dedicated to women in science, I should probably mention something about how I’ve found that. In short, it didn’t bother me that I was the only girl in the high school robotics class. Or on the maths team. Or one of a few at the science competitions, events and classes. Growing up with brothers probably helped my nonchalance in regards to pursuing a career as a female scientist. But regardless, I would love to quote the opinion of a scientist who is an inspiration to me, professor Michelle Simmons:

“Focus on the research and the outcomes, that’s what I encourage students, male and female, to do.”

I really appreciate her down-to-Earth approach to women in science and see her as an obvious example of a highly successful female scientist who has managed to overcome gender bias and would rather come up with a solution to fix the problem without getting too worked up about it.

I’ve experienced very little gender prejudice at this point, so I can’t say too much about my experiences, except that everyone I’ve meet has been supportive of me following my passion, regardless of being a woman. That means I don’t have much to write about here, and that’s a good thing!

However, one particularly interesting moment sticks in my head. After clarifying a scientific concept for someone on Twitter, they replied “thank you, sir”, I cracked up laughing, still undecided about whether having my gender mistaken was a compliment of my response or not!


So that’s me. A science student, science blogger and lab assistant whose life goal is to understand ‘why’ and ‘how’ things work, probably just a few very small things in a highly specific research field that most people haven’t heard of, but understand them nonetheless!

And seeing as you read this far, perhaps you like my writing and would like to read more at my blog, Scientia Potentia Est, or follow me on Twitter (@ArwenNugteren) or my Facebook page!