Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) with the goal of inspiring the next generation of budding women scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians.
Here are five female Fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand reflecting on their role models and what got them excited about STEM. (See bottom of post to learn more about Ada Lovelace and what it means to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.)
Professor Alison Downard FRSNZ
Alison Downard is a Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Canterbury. Her research covers the fields of electrochemistry, materials chemistry and surface science. Her discoveries involving the chemical modification of surfaces at the nanoscale have led to new electrodes with applications in energy storage and conversion.
What got you interested in research?
“Great teachers at high school were the biggest influence on my decision to focus on science. These chemistry, physics and maths teachers were enthusiastic, knowledgeable and also very skilled in the classroom. As a teenager, life was often pretty complicated and confusing, and so the seeming orderliness and immutability of science and maths really appealed to me. In my 4th year at university, my Honours project supervisors were particularly encouraging and supportive, and by that time, of course, I’d realised how much was unknown in all areas of chemistry. The excitement of delving into the unknown persuaded me to continue with a research career. Looking back, I was lucky that at home and throughout school and university I never encountered negative attitudes about studying physical sciences. Rather than role-models or mentors, inspirational and supportive people have been the key for me.”
Professor Juliet Gerrard FRSNZ
Professor Juliet Gerrard is a Callaghan Innovation Industry and Outreach Fellow and Professor in the School of Biological Sciences and School of Chemical Sciences at the University of Auckland. Her research seeks to understand how proteins work and how they assemble. This knowledge opens up a range of exciting applications in wide ranging fields, including medicine, nanotechnology and food science. Professor Gerrard is also Chair of the council of the Marsden Fund, New Zealand’s prestigious investigator-led ‘blue skies’ research fund administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand. View a photo gallery celebrating women involved with the Marsden Fund.
“Who was your role model?”
“Dame Professor Carol Robinson FRS. She was a postdoc in Oxford when I was doing my PhD, and the first person I had ever interacted with who was juggling science and small children. She has gone on to amazing career heights, pioneering techniques for studying the three-dimensional structure of biological molecules such as proteins, and remains a source of inspiration to women around the globe. She left school at 16 initially but later went back. She also took an eight-year career break to have three kids.”
Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith FRSNZ
Lisa Matisoo-Smith is a Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Otago and her primary area of interest is in looking at the biological evidence for the human settlement of the Pacific, using both ancient and modern DNA techniques to reconstruct migration. She is one of 13 Principal Investigators in the National Geographic’s Genographic Project that works with indigenous communities to understand where humans originated and how we came to populate the Earth.
Who have been your role models?
“I guess the most important female role-model I had was my mum. She was always studying something when I was growing up – from computer programming to Japanese. When I was a teenager she was writing her Masters’ thesis in Social Anthropology – and in doing that she “helped me” in ways that most mothers of teenage girls would understand…I was determined to do ANYTHING but what my mother did. In my first year at Berkeley, I took a Physical Anthropology course, as I could convince myself that it wasn’t Social Anthropology. I fell in love – I had found a field that combined my love of history and social science with biological science. I could obtain REAL data! I have since had two main mentors – Professor Roger Green FRSNZ, who introduced me to Pacific prehistory and truly encouraged multi-disciplinary approaches, and Professor David Lambert FRSNZ, who introduced me to the lab and molecular evolution. Note: Unfortunately (or not), history repeats itself – my daughter is studying art history – ANYTHING but science!”
Professor Martha Savage FRSNZ
Professor Martha Savage is a Professor in the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research interest is seismology – and how it relates to tectonics and volcanic hazards. Studying the structures within the mantle led to new hypotheses about how plate tectonics works, and the structures in the crust and their changes with time may lead to new methods of forecasting volcanic eruptions.
Did you have any female role models or mentors?
“I had several female role models that inspired me, but no real female mentors. My female role model when I was in high school was Marie Curie, especially because she had both achieved great prominence herself but also through her children. My mother was also a female role model in that she started out as a high school teacher and then housewife and mother, but went back to get her MSc degree in mathematics after I started primary school. She later became a computer programmer and she helped me to learn how to write good computer code. My father was a physicist and so he was also both a role model and a mentor. He gave me good advice about my career. Both my parents encouraged me to be my best, but didn’t push science too much.
My main mentor other than my parents was Paul Silver, at Carnegie Institute of Washington. My PhD advisor arranged for us students to spend some time at Carnegie one summer and working with him and others there I built up collaborations which lasted for quite a few years. Paul was very interested in helping his postdocs and younger collaborators to do their best and he really taught me to put my work in context and to explain why it was important.”
Professor Susan Schenk FRSNZ
Susan Schenk is Professor at the School of Psycholody and Associate Dean Research, Faculty of Science at Victoria University of Wellington. She is a behavioural neuroscientist specialising in drug addiction. She examines the consequences of exposure to drugs, including MDMA (“ecstasy”) and methamphetamine (“P”) on cognitive processing, learning, and neurochemistry. Ultimately, her goal is to develop therapeutic interventions that will restore functioning following problematic drug use.
Who were your mentors?
“When I think back, there were a lot of people who mentored me in one way or another. Of course, family were the first significant mentors. They taught me to be strong and to follow my gut. They also taught me that I could be anything that I wanted to be and that I should never let anything stop me from trying. There were school teachers, like Ms Dobson, who taught me year 9 English and encouraged me to write from the heart as well as from the head.
The person who really set me on the path to science and was my first really significant mentor was Peter Milner, at McGill University where I was an undergraduate studying Psychology. Peter’s class on advanced Physiological Psychology (as it was then called) piqued my curiosity. He talked in a language that most of my peers didn’t understand but somehow I got where he was coming from. He let me pick his substantial brain and never let on how naive some of my questions were. He offered me a tech position once I graduated and I worked in his lab for a year. He taught me to not be afraid of thinking outside of the box. He taught me to be critical. He taught me to ask a lot of questions. Mostly, he listened to my queries and encouraged me to find answers to the many questions I had about how the brain was wired, how that circuitry could be changed by environmental circumstances and how that impacted behaviour. He was an amazing inspiration and the reason that I continued on to postgraduate work.
The other person who mentored me to a significant extent was Alice Young. She was an academic generation ahead of me and when I started my first real job at Texas A&M University in 1987, she took it upon herself to make sure that I did well. She mentored me about the politics of science and made sure that I understood a bit of the game. She coached me about how to apply for grants, and how to have the best chance of success. She told me which conferences to attend that would expose my work to the most influential groups. She taught me the things that had taken her years to learn the hard way, and she shared that selflessly.”
Who was Ada Lovelace?
Ada Lovelace (aka Augusta Ada King (nee Byron) or Countess of Lovelace) was an English mathematician and writer widely believed to have been the first computer programmer. She is chiefly known for her work with Charles Babbage to invent the first computer. Her father was poet Lord Byron and her mathematician mother, Anne Isabella Byron (nee Milbanke, Noel) encouraged her daughter to pursue her interest in maths.
What is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand?
Fellowship of the Royal Society of New Zealand (FRSNZ) is an honour conferred for distinction in research or the advancement of science, technology or the humanities in New Zealand. There are currently 398 Fellows and most years a dozen or so are elected. Collectively, the Fellows comprise the Academy of the Royal Society of New Zealand. See a list of current Fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
These interviews are supported by the Royal Society of New Zealand, which promotes, invests in and celebrates excellence in people and ideas, for the benefit of all New Zealanders.