Sciblogger scoops $100,000 communication prize

By Peter Griffin 12/11/2013

Another year, another Sciblogger scoops the prestigious Prime Minister’s Science Media Communicator’s Prize!

She’s the scientist with the crazy hair and the hard-to-spell name. But she is far more than that. Dr Siouxsie Wiles, who blogs here about microbiology, infectious diseases and all manner of other topics is this year’s winner, and one of a group of scientists, teachers and students picking up a total of $1 million in prize money. Congratulations Siouxsie! I can’t think of any New Zealand scientist who deserves this honour more.

Communicator 1
Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Over the last few years Siouxsie has been instrumental in the science communication movement in New Zealand. From her work handling media queries to her public talks to the pioneering science animations she produces, Siouxsie, a research fellow at the University of Auckland, has shown what is possible when you treat science communication as an integral part of your research career.

She really cares about how science is understood and perceived. She’s a battler against pseudoscience and is brave enough to speak up when controversial science-related issues are making headlines. If we had more scientists as engaged in science communication as Siouxsie Wiles, science and the public would be much better off for it.

Siouxsie follows fellow Sciblogger Professor Shaun Hendy in picking up this prize, which is worth $100,000 – $50,000 for the scientist and $50,000 towards a science media project.

Here’s the official release on Siouxsie’s achievement.

An Auckland scientist,who makes bacteria glow in the dark so that we can better understand how to fight infectious diseases,has won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Science Media Communication Prize.

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the University of Auckland, is researching the uses of bioluminescence, or the production of light by living organisms, and receives the award for her communication of a wide range of scientific issues.

Dr Wiles is a media commentator and blogger who regularly gives public talks about science and was one of the faces of last year’s public engagement campaign for the National Science Challenges.

She has made a number of popular animations that introduce the public to glowing creatures such as fireflies and the Hawaiian Bobtail squid and how their light can be used in science.

Dr Wiles leads the University of Auckland’s Bioluminescence Superbugs Group, focusing on how glowing bacteria can help scientists better prevent and fight microbial infections such as food poisoning, tuberculosis and hospital superbugs.

Winning the prize sees Dr Wiles receive $50,000, with another $50,000 allocated for further developing her science media communication skills.

Dr Wiles does much of her science communication in her spare time and sees it as a fundamental part of being a scientist.

“I love to enthuse about science but I also believe our profession has a responsibility to be approachable and explain things to the public in a jargon-free way.

“It’s also important because many New Zealand researchers get taxpayer funding to carry out their research. If we want to continue being funded, it’s vital that we tell the public what we are doing and why it is important.”

Dr Wiles, also known for her distinctive pink hair, says being one of eight scientists to appear on television in The Great New Zealand Science Project has raised her profile, especially with young New Zealanders.

“When I meet children there is often a squeal of recognition, particularly from young girls, and that is really important to me because they are a group we need to keep interested in science.

“Research shows that if you intervene at a young age you can change perceptions and help raise a generation that doesn’t see being a scientist as boring or unattainable.”

Dr Wiles has a first class Honours degree in medical microbiology from the University of Edinburgh and completed her PhD at the Oxford Centre for Ecology and Hydrology where she made glowing bacteria to monitor industrial pollution.

She went on to apply this knowledge to health research, initially studying strains of food poisoning in London and, later, ways of screening for compounds and vaccines to combat tuberculosis (TB).

For the last four years, she has been working at the University of Auckland where she has helped develop a new TB Lab.

Dr Wiles plans to devote some of the prize money to writing a children’s book on bioluminescence, a project she will carry out with her seven year old daughter.

She is also producing an animation about the anglerfish, made famous by the movie Finding Nemo, and will create a website called GlowHub to house her films and a series of short documentaries on the work of cutting-edge Kiwi scientists.

Other initiatives she plans include running workshops in which she and other leading science communicators will teach scientists how to craft their stories into two-minutescience animations and setting up a fund to work with artists on works inspired by bioluminescence and microbiology.

This builds on the ‘Living Light’ science-art installation she created with artist Rebecca Klee,harnessing the light-making properties of Vibrio fisheri, a kind of bioluminescent bacteria usually found in the sea, which featured in Auckland’s Art in the Dark Festival last week.

Dr Wiles says in addition to the honour of winning a Prime Minister’s Science Prize, she is excited about the doors it opens for her. “I love the process of discovery and intend to continue as a practicing scientist but this also makes it possible for me to pursue my dual passion of communicating the fun and excitement of science.”

In 2012, Dr Wiles was the recipient of the New Zealand Association of Scientists Science Communicators Award.

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