Interview with a Science Communicator: Gillian McKay

By Peter Dearden 07/12/2010


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This week I have an interview with Gillian MacKay — the lovely Genetics Teaching Fellow at the University of Otago. Gillian has been with Genetics now for about 5 years, and does a job which is both highly varied and high in student contact. She is Scottish (retains the accent to prove it) and attended Edinburgh University for both her honours and her PhD degrees. Gillian’s honours project was on a topic close to my own heart — that of Drosophila development and the role of a particular gene on mRNA localization and axis specification.

Gillian on a horse
Gillian riding Edie to competition


For her PhD Gillian moved from the beautiful fruit fly, to Mouse Development and worked with Dr John West from the Centre for Reproductive Biology in the Biomedical Science Building (University of Edinburgh). She was investigating transgenic mouse lines and their use in preimplantation chimera studies. During her PhD studies Gillian had experience both supervising students in the laboratory and with demonstrating practical classes.

Upon completion of her PhD, Gillian worked for a couple of months in the same lab whilst considering her options, and then the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service as a clinical research assistant. She won a Royal Society Travelling Fellowship to New Zealand and came here to begin work with Assoc. Prof. Mike Legge and Prof. Mike Eccles on using vital dyes to label mouse preimplantation embryos. The fellowship was for 12 months, after which Gillian went on to apply for the position of Genetics Teaching Fellow.

In her current job Gillian is responsible for the smooth running of all Genetics papers, updating and production of all course manuals, online teaching resources, supervising data entry and distribution of exam scripts to markers, training and managing the lab demonstrators (including me!), organising class reps, the Genetics module and small projects for Hands on Science — the Otago science summer camp for high school kids, and finally being the first point of contact, support and scientific help for all enrolled Genetics students — and the occasional stray.

Gillian in a labcoat
Gillian at work in the lab with a class of students


The Genetics Teaching Program is a bit of a special case, and with it the purview of Gillian’s job. Because it is a program and not a department we have 6 actual departments which contribute to its teaching and scientific content. We have lecturers from the Departments of Biochemistry, Botany, Microbiology and Immunology (which has a completely beautiful home page btw), Women’s and Children’s Health, Pathology and Zoology. This makes it both brilliant — and a bit more difficult to understand.

PC or Mac?

Mac, silly question! Although I have a pc at home!

What made you want to study science right at the beginning?

I always enjoyed science and was lucky enough to have a fantastic Biology teacher at school. From around 14yrs old I wanted to do Biology. Also my sister is a chemical engineer, my mum a nurse and my dad was a medical doctor so I have always been surrounded by science in one form or another.

Why did you want to stay in science — but not research?

I did quite a bit of demonstrating during my PhD and I really enjoyed it — I was keen to get into the teaching side of University, but didn’t want to constantly worry about what I was going to be doing every few years — as it is if you stay in research. Funding by grants and so on means you have no job security until you get tenured, which involves a lot of work — and just as much luck.

What’s the best thing about your current job?

I enjoy interacting with people and I think this job has a good balance of teaching to administration work, and every day is different! It is exciting seeing students progress through from 2nd year to post doctoral studies or entry into industry. We had a student who came on our Science Summer camp (Hands On Science, ~15-17 year olds) graduate with a Bachelors last year and has gone on to study Dentistry.

Do you think teaching fellows have an important role in the university?

Yes I think we have a really important role in teaching. We are the first point of contact for the students and are more approachable for problems than the senior lecturers and professors. We bridge that gap between the academics — and the students. I think the Teaching Fellow roles differ between departments and programs, I am quite lucky in that I have multiple papers and teaching blocks under my purview, I have a bit more freedom to take my role how I want it to go and as a result I have more contact with more people — I get to know students from multiple papers and year groups, academics from various departments and demonstrators from varied subjects. Teaching Fellows also free up time for academic staff to carry out their own research, time for which is always in short supply.

What is your opinion of the quality of teaching at Universities in general?

Our graduates are certainly leaving our lecture halls competitive, and we remain in contact with as many of our old students as possible — they inform us that the skills and knowledge they amassed while studying Genetics here at Otago has set them up for both science and industry employment.

Have you considered any other jobs in science — other than research, what and why?

I wanted to teach, and as I really didn’t want to continue in research the only other job I considered for myself was secondary teaching. I decided upon Tertiary teaching over secondary because in this environment you are able to teach students (by 200 level) who want to be here and you are able to teach them at a slightly more challenging level — you can still use the knowledge you gained during your own post grad studies.

Despite my own choices, however, there are lots of exciting opportunities for graduates, for example we have previous Genetics students doing PhDs or working as post docs, research assistants or technicians (at Universities or research institutes). We also have embryologists, people working for companies like Pfizer Animal Genetics. We have a number of students who have studied law and genetics, and we have even had students go on to become a filmmaker and policewoman.

Do you think you will ever return to research?

No I don’t think so, although sometimes I miss lab work. I miss the current edge, the exploration — even the simple pottering around in a lab. Research, however, can be quite lonely – and you can be quite isolated. I am much more of a ‘people person’.

Why did you choose New Zealand? Otago Uni?

I came here because my supervisor collaborated with Mike Legge and I was fortunate enough to receive a Royal Society Travelling Fellowship. (see above)

Are you pleased you did?

Yes — very. I really like Dunedin as a city, I couldn’t have this lifestyle anywhere else. People here don’t know how good they have it!

What do you think of the level of science communication to the public here in NZ?

I don’t know, that’s a really hard question to answer! One of the important aspects of my role is to coordinate the Hands on Science Summer Camp Genetics program which is showing the younger students what it is like to study science at a tertiary and higher level. I am also involved in the University of Otago Advanced Schools Science Academy which is an initiative targeting lower decile schools — to give them a chance to learn skills and use equipment they would otherwise have no access to. I do like that the television interview programs (eg Campbell Live) make an effort to have a scientist’s opinion and explanation on relevant subjects, it is hard to do this and it is good that they try.

Do you think scientists should talk about their work with the public more?

That’s a difficult question as it goes into ethical issues of intellectual property. Media bandwagons make things difficult too — the need to put a positive or influential spin on things to make them interesting for the public, report on things cutting edge and so on. Not all science falls into these sensationalist categories.

What about making more of an effort to have it understood when they do so?

Possibly, I think we are all guilty of forgetting that the general public doesn’t understand how we speak. The scientific jargon becomes second nature very quickly, and it is easy to forget other people haven’t understood the meaning of such words since, what feels like, birth.

Do our undergrads come to uni with more or less of an understanding of science than undergrads in the UK?

Don’t know, there are differences within the UK too! I do not see that same level of students though — I think the first year of University is filtering out a lot of that, our Genetics students have to pass both CELS and first year Chem also.

Do you think universities and secondary schools in NZ have any relationship? Should have?

I only know the relationships that I deal directly with, which is Hands on Science, which I think is a fantastic opportunity for school kids interested in Science. We forget that schools don’t have the facilities that we have here. It’s amazing how excited they are when they get to do things that we take for granted -like pippetting and loading gels. We have held school visits in the past and this is an area we are looking into expanding; the Genetics Teaching Program and Genetics Otago in concert. Throughout the year we have very successful open days and have had students tell me they studied Genetics because they were introduced to it at one of these open days — and were hooked.

Should communication skills be taught as part of science courses?

Yes. I don’t know about other majors but in Genetics we do introduce public speaking at 200 and 300 level and it is also a big part of 360 and 4th year. Because we (Gene) are so diverse our students have lots of practice with explaining their work and topics of interest to varying levels of audience.

What about ethics?

Yes, we introduce ethics at 200 and 300 level. Gene students can also take a bioethics paper in third year. Ethics is important — you have to be aware of it in your research and the restrictions and application processes that have to be carried out for it. Not like years ago when you could do anything in a lab without anyone knowing about it. It is important to be aware of societal impacts also and this is covered in depth in our 3rd year papers with issues such as pre-pregnancy genetic testing and identification of genetic disorders in large families. You also learn very quickly that there is always more than one opinion, and issues are never black and white. The students learn this respect for alternate opinions through lectures and extensive discussion.

If you could change one thing about how we teach our undergrads, what would you change?

In one of our third year papers students carry out project work in groups. This is a great opportunity as it teaches the students what it is like to carry out research in a real lab. I think at third year Genetics could incorporate full day labs rather than 4hr sessions as it would give us the opportunity to allow the students to be more independent and become more responsible for their own lab work. This is something we are working on — there is always something to be improved or enhanced in tertiary teaching!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I would be happy and would like to still be in this job over the next 5 — 10yrs. I think it has lots of opportunities and I am really lucky as Genetics is really diverse and my teaching is not restricted to one paper.

What is your general opinion of Otago Uni, and Dunedin in general?

I think Otago is a great Uni and of course we have a lot of strength in Genetics. The Genetics teaching program at Otago is unique as we incorporate lecturers from lots of different departments. There are researchers all across the university involved in Genetics and we are able to take advantage of that. As it is such a diverse multidisciplinary subject it isn’t something that one particular department can take ownership of. We therefore are really fortunate to have the most appropriate people teaching in our papers.

We have also benefited from the formation of ’Genetics Otago’ as this has strengthened the Genetics community across the University and incorporated a wider group of Genetics researchers including people from the law faculty. Our students have benefited from summer scholarships opportunities and I am sure we will soon be seeing the benefits of their public outreach efforts.

I really like Dunedin as it only takes me 5 minutes to drive to work (compared to at least 40 mins in Edinburgh). I am also able to keep a horse on the Taieri, which is only a 10 min drive away. There’s no way I could have that luxury in other places with a University like Otago.

Finally — what is your idea of a perfect day in Dunedin?

I find that I have a really busy social life in Dunedin. I have also just bought a new horse called ’Eddie’ and am really enjoying training him and we are starting to compete at level 2 Dressage. So at the moment I am trying to fit in keeping my horse in full time work for competition, keeping me in full time work and catching up with all my friends.

I love the bridging aspect to Gillian’s job — she gets to be entrenched in the brill University environment but still spend most of her time teaching, and not having to worry about managing a lab and scraping around for research money.

The role of teaching fellows in NZ universities is different to that of equivalent positions in other countries. In some states in the US, for example, recent graduates are employed to fill this role with the emphasis on teaching, tutoring, encouraging and dreaming up new ways to teach the subjects and inspire the students. Admin is left to administrators and the relationship with lecturers is completely different.

That said however, the position of Teaching Fellow in NZ is an important one, and not always the easiest. Universities here are so focused on the students-in-seats way of thinking, but still the pressure for researchers is on outputs and publications rather than teaching (and the quality thereof) – the teaching fellows’ job is essential to keep the two connected smoothly.

The quality of education must remain just as essential as research publications, though the relationship seems to be in a constant see-saw with regards to importance in the eyes of the government and funding bodies. This difficult situation is highlighted in the example of the first year health sciences course papers — now filmed and live-streamed to multiple theatres just to get to all the students, and to save the time of the academic. You may be attending uni and not even in the same room as a lecturer these days. Having teaching fellows on hand to answer questions and deal with problems is, in this case, essential.

I shall refrain, with great difficulty, from either condemning or condoning the current practice of teaching, in the current setting, but shall leave you with, hopefully, a new respect for the jobs of teaching fellows throughout the Universities in this country.