Chiasma WGTN – the backstory

By Elf Eldridge 03/04/2012


There’s a cool wee story behind the development of Chiasma WGTN that deserves telling – if nothing else but to showcase the effect of motivated, talented science communicators such as the late Sir Paul Callaghan.

It begins in June 2011 with myself and fellow MacDiarmid PhD student, Ben Mallet, attending a typical university careers fair. We followed the accepted technique for students* and chatted to many of the stall-holders (all from large science employers, the likes of MAF, NIWA etc) asking about potential future employment for physics graduates. Receiving mostly blank looks (along with our fellow chemistry graduates) we began to wonder what opportunities there were for us at the completion of our studies. Being the second class honours student of the group, I remember an uncomfortable sensation settling in my stomach as I realised that, without the prospect of an academic career, I really had no idea where I could find employment at the completion of my PhD.

Conveniently, earlier that year, Ben and myself had become committee members of MacDiarmid Institute Emerging Scientists programme (MESA), and thanks to the guidance of the new director, Kate McGrath, and the MESA chair, Dr. Natalie Plank, Ben and I began to hatch a plan. Our idea was simple, to get students to meet and work with businesses during the course of their studies. So, being the delightfully naive students we are, we immediately started out by visiting any local company that would take the time to chat to us, with the words of Sir Paul Callaghan ringing in our ears:

“…make NZ a place talent want to live.”

We began by chatting to our soon-to-be close allies in this madcap endeavour, Industrial Research Limited, who kindly suggested several receptive local companies fort us to visit – the likes of Pertronics, ACMA and Resene. We were stunned by the warm reception we received at all of these companies, but immediately one thing became clear: that students were sorely under-prepared for what awaited them in the real world outside academia. On the other side of the fence, we found industry often clamouring for skilled employees, yet when we broached the subject of hiring students – many were reserved and the general consensus appeared to be that students were more time and cost than they’re worth. They were perceived as a risky investment and a probable flight risk as so many want to go overseas, or change jobs after only a year or two.

With a few of our childish illusions shattered, (up until this point we had both laboured under the idea that science graduates NEVER had trouble finding employment anywhere.**) Ben and I kept visiting companies and talking to people like the Wellington and Hutt City Councils, GrowWGTN and the local Chambers of Commerce. Increasingly we came to appreciate that we were less like bright lighthouses of knowledge and more like Hansel and Gretel, lost in a vast dark forest of ignorance, with no idea where to even begin to find our way out.  It was at this point we discovered our ray of hope from within the Auckland bioscience community: Chiasma, a student-led, industry engagement programme that has been sucessfully bringing together businesses and students for the last 8 years. We met with their CEO and COO, and as luck would have it they were looking to expand to other centres and sciences, so Ben and I offered to front their WGTN operations, acting as CEO and COO respectively.
So now, it’s April 2012. We have just had our Chiasma WGTN launch, bringing together almost 200 people from various high-tech industries across Wellington and introducing both them and students to our plans for the year. Amongst our student ranks are scientists, designers, engineers and entrepreneurs – all eager to learn about and work with New Zealand’s high-tech companies. From industry we have support from nanotechnologists, bioengineers, digital design companies, teaching recruiters, medical research companies, startup-incubators and many many more. Finally we have a team, who is doing exactly what we dreamt of 6 months ago and I, for one, can’t wait to see where this takes us!

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* which, according to custom, can be summarised as “visit as many stalls and get as much free stuff as you can”

** we’re not alone on this BTW and for good reason. For instance, it’s fairly common practice at foreign universities for large accounting companies to snap up as many physics PhD graduates as they can get their hands on, due to their honed skill-set, attention to detail, and complete lack of social skills. 🙂