Emerging NZ Scientists – Dr Natalie Plank, Postdoctoral Fellow with the MacDiarmid Institute

By Elf Eldridge 02/04/2012

The second of my ‘Emerging Scientists interviews‘* features Dr Natalie Plank, currently a Post-Doc with the MacDiamid Institute of Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology and a previous MESA Chairperson. As Natalie completed her PhD at Edinburgh University and a Post-Doc at Cambridge, her experience is not only in leading emerging scientists but, as an ‘import’ to NZ shores, also in shining some light into some of the idiosyncrasies of the New Zealand emerging science system.

1. NZAS has picked emerging scientists as the topic of their yearly conference. What does that say about the current climate for emerging scientists in NZ?

I think the role of emerging scientists is gaining more ground/publicity in New Zealand largely due to the fact that we are in a dangerous climate for postdocs.  There are almost no postdoc jobs.  The loss of the FRST post-doc funding is not the main problem (and I do think the Rutherford Discovery Fellowships are a good scheme and good value for money). The problem in my mind is the fact that so few people get money on their grants for postdocs.  In the UK and the US they are the lifeblood of the research-driven units and make for a vibrant science scene.  Independent fellowships are rare and extremely difficult to get everywhere.  They should not be seen as the way for postdocs to get forward.  Science Deans, Universities, the TEC and the people who set the crazy overheads have to get their acts together.  It is also a responsibility of academics to make more noise, and not let the postdocs be pushed out.  They are pushed out.  It is a huge concern.  When I worked overseas as a postdoc I felt valued by my department.  The environment in NZ does not always make that happen

2. Do emerging scientists want a future in NZ? Why would they choose NZ instead of overseas?

I think they do.  MESA was a case in point of how quickly people got together to share their voice and opinions.  Why choose NZ over overseas?  To be honest I see no reason in the present climate to choose NZ above anywhere else.  Most people are here for personal reasons.  It is a good place if you have tenure.  If not, opportunities are limited, it’s very difficult to get funding (Marsden success less than 10%), MSI had no funds open for 2 years.  Science is not even in the name of the new ministry.  Need I go on?  NZ science is banking a lot on people’s loyalty.

3. What paths, realistically, are there for emerging scientists in NZ?

See above.  Very limited until people have more grant money for postdocs.  Industry options are limited here too.  And the CRI scene seems so changeable at present with name changes, movement of facilities.  Just huge, huge uncertainty. When I arrived and I needed a job I was very lucky to get something within a great group at VUW. To make the next step as an independent researcher I was extremely lucky to have the FRST option.

4. Is working/studying overseas an important part of being an emerging scientist?

Yes, due to the options, (or lack thereof listed above).  Also, it is always good to move around a bit early in the career for everyone to develop.  Even if you are in the place that is the world #1 in your field.  You would probably learn something from the other places in the top 10 of your field.  That is true of all science disciplines to broaden the mind and see other ways to do things.  It does make it hard to have stability, buy a house, etc.  So you do end up behind your peers who choose more traditional options for bright sparks such as law and medicine.  They will always out-earn us!!  You have to accept that.

5. Do you have a vision for NZ’s emerging scientists population? What problems do you see with this vision coming to fruition? Do you think the NZAS conference will address all or some of these?

I have a vision that tenured academics, industry and politicians will see the career gaps for scientists here and will try to make more meaningful opportunities available.  Paul Callaghan’s message was loud and clear.  I think we should be following his vision.  I think the fact this conference is happening is a great thing and a sign that the message and the need to solve the problem is well and truly out there.

* N.B. Not ALL these interviews will be with MacDiarmid associated scientists I promise! These wonderful people just replied first…. 🙂

To be honest I see no reason in the present climate to choose NZ above anywhere else