Amy MacIntosh is an ecotoxicologist researching the impacts of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) from deep-sea oil and gas pipelines on Australian marine animals.
As a child, Amy was (as she describes) “that curious, odd little girl always catching insects and keeping them as pets.” She lived with all kinds of animals (from goldfish to rabbits to numerous cats to a giant St. Bernard), loved Sir David Attenborough’s documentaries, and was fascinated by the behaviour and anatomy of animals.
“From the age of 10 I knew I wanted to become a zoologist and was telling everyone I was going to study zoology and try my hardest to get to the Arctic to save the polar bears, my favourite animal at the time,” she says.
She did go on to study zoology and nabbed herself a Bachelor of Science in Zoology, Geography and Statistics from the University of Otago, Dunedin. Amy followed that up with more study and research projects, and is now a PhD environmental science student at Macquarie University, based at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).
Her current research is focused on investigating the impacts of naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) from deep-sea oil and gas pipelines on Australian marine animals. She incorporates the subjects of zoology, chemistry, toxicology and nuclear sciences to answer contamination issues from the closure of offshore oil and gas structures.
The goal of her PhD project? To generate a database of the accumulation (how much of the contaminants remain in the organs of an animal) of potentially toxic metals and NORM to different Australian marine animals and the key organs of concern (such as the muscle, liver, gut, shell) from the contaminants within oil and gas pipelines.
“Through this I hope to outline a new step-by-step screening tool to characterise the types of contaminants from closed oil and gas structures to inform the mineral industry on sustainable long-term methods and drive policy in the Australian government to consider the assessment of contaminants,” she explains.
Highlights of her ecotoxicologist journey
Amy says her passion and motivation towards trying to protect the terrestrial and marine environment from human activities and contamination has made every research project worthwhile.
“I think some of my highlights are looking at the interactions of different hormones on female New Zealand eels to start the production of oocytes (eggs), studying the impact of alcohol on the orientation of fruit flies (drunk flies), looking at metals in 100 individual Tasmanian pasture grasses from a rehabilitated mine site, capturing a live wombat and looking after baby prawns only to feed them contaminants…”
Hurdles along the way
Her STEM journey hasn’t always been smooth sailing. “There have been ongoing barriers when it comes to being a young, inexperienced, female, STEM scientist in nuclear sciences trying desperately to communicate the current and future issues of contamination to the government and the oil and gas industry,” she explains.
Diversity in STEM
We need more diversity in our STEM workforce as it increases our awareness and understanding of STEM from different perspectives and individuals, but also creates inclusion and a safe space for anyone and everyone, according to Amy.
“Not everyone has the same brain, thinking and problem-solving abilities,” she says. “It is crucial and fundamental if we are going to grow and adapt to the new modern society, we need to make amends to traditional theories and models and show kindness to everyone who wants to go into STEM.”
Looking to the future
Amy would eventually like to travel overseas and continue her specialised research as an environmental officer to help provide advice and recommendations to other countries that have large oil and gas industries – the United States, Mexico, Norway or the United Kingdom.
Top tips for pursuing a career in STEM
- “The journey is never a straight path, but is an adventure with never-ending forks in the middle of the road.”
- “Don’t be shy to talk or reach out to people in STEM, but also there is no right or wrong way to get into STEM.”
Amy’s STEM study and career path to becoming an ecotoxicologist
- Bachelor of Science in Zoology, Geography and Statistics (University of Otago, Dunedin)
- Research Assistant in Zoology (University of Otago)
- 6 month International Student Exchange to University of Exeter (Zoology)
- Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Ecology (Honours) (University of Tasmania)
- Master of Science in Environmental Sciences (Macquarie University, Sydney)
- President of Australasian Nuclear Early Career Researchers & Scientists (ANSTO)
- Macquarie University PACE Program Mentor (Macquarie University, Sydney)
Keen on a career working with and helping animals? Check out our five awesome jobs working with animals video.
Author: Louise Meers
Louise is the production editor for Careers with STEM. She has a journalism degree from the University of Technology, Sydney and has spent over a decade writing for youth. She is passionate about inspiring young people to achieve their biggest goals and build a better future.