Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The theme is investment in women and girls in science for inclusive green growth.
“Science is a critical foundation for MfE’s work. It helps us understand where we are now, why, and what we can do about it. It provides possibilities of new solutions, as well as risks to be understood and managed”, says MfE Chief Executive Vicky Robertson.
This year’s focus on green growth is relevant to MfE as we work to ensure economic growth and development is not at the expense of our environment.
To celebrate some amazing women in science and encourage others to think about it as a career, we asked nine female scientists the following questions:
- what do you love about science?
- when did you fall in love with science?
- what motivates you to work in science?
Dr Alison Collins, Departmental Chief Science Advisor / Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua, Ministry for the Environment
When it came to choosing options in high school I found myself as one of two girls in my year group (of about 90) that picked physics. There were so many myths about science and more specifically physics – ‘it’s hard, the teacher is strict, it’s boring’. In our first lesson we dropped tennis balls from different heights including out of the second storey window of the new block to see whether they bounced differently. I can’t recall the purpose of the experiment (something to do with gravity and acceleration) nor the outcome; only that it was a moment of joy. Joy at finding a place and space to explore ‘why’. In this moment I realised science is just a way of thinking, helping me turn my curiosity into something useful.
Years later and my science journey has focused on understanding the universe beneath our feet: the soil. Along with a fair bit of myth-busting it has been truly joyful adventure into the ‘why’. It is all too easy to get caught up in the myth and not see the moments of joy so on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I have asked a few of my science friends to tell us about what they love about science, their moments of joy and how others might battle some of those myths and find their own pathway into science.
Melanie Mark-Shadbolt, Chief Advisor Maori, Ministry for the Environment
When you think of a typical scientist you probably think of an old man, in a white lab coat doing stuff in a lab. But scientists come in many forms and not all study things in labs, and not all work with chemicals. As a social scientist I enjoy learning and thinking about people and how they relate to each other, but more importantly for me how indigenous people, Māori, relate to and interact with the environment. So I didn’t study chemistry or biology or physics at university, instead I studied things like Māori and indigenous studies, race and ethnicity, political science, and classics. What I love about my work is that I get to work with people and understand what makes them behave the way they do, and I get a chance to see the world through their eyes – what do they see when they look at the land, sea, lakes, forests. I feel in love with science when I discovered the power it had to change peoples views and behaviours. Evidence gathered in a systematic way that makes change and helps empower, protect and restore our people and their environments.
Dr Fiona Carswell, Chief Scientist, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research
I love the way that science makes you “look twice at the world”. It challenges us to look beyond what we first notice and to ask questions as to why?, what are the patterns?, can my observations be predicted? I love that things are always changing because of new discoveries and new technologies. The more I understand about the natural world, the more my wonder grows with respect to its patterns and functions. I work in science because I think we can truly make the environment of Aotearoa better through new discoveries and new ways of piecing different information sources together.
My advice to girls interested in science is to follow their interests, do more reading and exploring of the things they really love – whether this is in their own gardens or museums, books, the natural world, under a microscope or in the stars. Don’t think about what job you might do because your kind of job probably hasn’t been invented yet but your own curiosity and drive to find out more will take you to that job!
Professor Juliet Gerrard, Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor / Kaitohutohu Mātanga Pūtaiao Matua ki te Pirimia
What do you most love about science? The way it allows you to test ideas. If you have a hunch about how something works, science gives you a way to test the hunch to see if it is right.
What motivates you to work in science? Learning new things, fathoming out how the world works and figuring out how to explain that to myself and others. Then using that knowledge to make a difference and try and make the world a better place for everyone.
What advice would you give to an eight year girl about studying and enjoying science? Think of the world around you as a giant puzzle and find the parts of it that are most exciting to learn about. Remember that science offers some solutions to the biggest challenges the world faces today and you never know which puzzle pieces might hold the key to the really difficult ones. Follow your dreams and your passion and have fun!
Dr Libby Harrison, General Manager Environment and Health, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR)
My moment: It was cold, freezing cold. I was so glad that I had remembered my woolly hat and gloves and an extra sweater. It was mid-winter and I was standing in a small wood, holding my dad’s hand. He had told us to be completely quiet, it was hard because I was so excited and I wanted to jump up and down to keep warm. Dad had found a badgers’ sett in the wood, and we were there to see the badgers come out to eat. Badgers are large nocturnal mammals with a black and white striped head. They are several times the size of an adult possum, weighing up to 18kg and almost 1m in length. They live underground in large family groups creating a complex of tunnels called a sett. In the UK they are much loved but rarely seen.
My journey: I was introduced to science by my Mum and Dad, their love of the natural world and interest in science helped me to understand the importance of looking after our environment and protecting nature. I have been lucky enough to work my whole career in environmental science and particularly the effects of people on the environment. I studied science at school and had wonderful teachers to help me understand the complexities of biology, chemistry and physics. After school I went to university and studied zoology; the study of the animal world. I specialised in ecology and eventually went on to use the tools I gained at school and university to investigate human effects on marine, freshwater and agricultural environments. Now I am a manager, managing scientists, and helping science organisations thrive.
Dr Naomi Parker, Manager Science Policy, Ministry for Primary Industries
What do you most love about science? The way it helps us understand our world and the extraordinary intricacies and beauty of how things work. I fell in love with the things I got to study and experience through science, the marine environment, Antarctica, algal blooms and how they operate and drive aquatic production, new ways of managing biosecurity risks, amazing conversations with wonderful people in beautiful places.
What motivates you to work in science? Science is so critical for understanding and addressing the key issues we face nationally and globally. For me it also opens windows on the world, helps us to see things differently. I’ve worked at the science/policy interface for a long time now and the ability to help support the use of science to make positive change is what keeps me doing what I do
What advice would you give to an eight year girl about studying and enjoying science? Just do it – science is awesome – and there are so many opportunities from studying science – not just being an academic scientist!
Dr Anne-Gaelle Ausseil, Research Priority Leader, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research
Why do you love science? I love science because it allows me to think outside the square. I’m an environmental scientist and have always loved anything to do with our natural environment, and how we can protect it. We tend to get caught in old solutions, but our world is evolving and we need to find new solutions if we want to adapt. Science gives me the privilege to ask the question “what if we could do things differently? How can we make them better with the knowledge we’ve got to date? Where do we need to focus our attention to fill our knowledge gaps?”
What motivates you to work in science? I have always been curious about how the world works, and how we can make it better. I also hate hearing fake stories from Dr Google and would rather turn towards science to make my own opinion. I think that as scientists we have a duty to fight against disinformation, keep close to the facts, to help inform the general public and policy makers on the effect of their actions in a constructive way.
What advice would you give to an eight year girl about studying and enjoying science? As a woman in science, I would embrace sharing knowledge and mentoring any kid interested in science, because this is one key leadership role. As such, I would give the same advice to any kid really, boy or girl: Get curious about the world, don’t hesitate to make mistakes as this can lead to the best discoveries! And enjoy learning, even if you wonder sometimes what it’s for, you’ll soon realise that maths, chemistry, biology, physics etc are all topics that are inter-related and key to do good science.
Dr Andrea Brandon, Senior Analyst and member of the MfE Science Council, Ministry for Environment.
What do you most love about science? After leaving school it took me a good ten years to work out what I really wanted to do with my life, and that was to work with plants. Over the years I’ve had opportunities to study and work in the most amazing places, in New Zealand and overseas. I’ve also met and worked with amazing people, who know so much more than I do, so I just keep learning, and I love that. I don’t think there was ever a single ‘moment’, when the penny dropped, and I suddenly realised I loved science. It was more of a slow burn romance.
What advice would you give to an eight year girl about studying and enjoying science? My advice to anyone about studying anything is to be open to learning, find what you enjoy doing and then go for it, and take your time if you’re not sure!
Dr Alison McDairmid, Regional Manager, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)
What do you most love about science? I love the task of observing nature and then based on those observations figuring out how the system works. Both bits are fun but in different ways. For me the observation bit was lots of hard work but exciting and satisfying as my research focus for almost 40 years has been on spiny lobsters (crayfish) which are nocturnal which meant lots of underwater dives, many at night, to track where they were moving. The data analysis part was less exciting but immensely satisfying as this included some real ‘eureka’ moments when the data suddenly made sense and I got some new insights into why lobsters do what they do.
What was the ‘moment’ that made you fall in love with science? At school when I was about 8 years old when I suddenly figured out for myself why plants grow towards the sun.
What motivates you to work in science? The fun of always being on the edge of something new.
What advice would you give to an eight year girl about studying and enjoying science? If you love science now, for sure it gets even better.