Emerging NZ Scientists – Dr. Justin Hodgkiss, NZAS conference organiser

By Elf Eldridge 06/04/2012

Of course it wouldn’t be fair to the conference to only showcase opinions of the attendees to the NZAS conference! With this in mind I tracked down one of the conference organisers, Dr. Justin Hodgkiss, to get his feedback on the event. Originally from Rotorua and an Otago graduate, Justin left New Zealand to do his PhD at MIT. After a postdoc in Cambridge, Justin returned to a chemistry lectureship at VUW in 2009. Justin’s research uses lasers to study plastic solar cells. He is currently a Rutherford Discovery fellow, a MacDiarmid Institute PI, and a co-organizer of the NZAS conference with Prof. Kate McGrath.

1. What IS an emerging scientist exactly?

I would regard an emerging scientist as anyone from graduate student level up to the immediate years beyond which are likely to be spent bouncing around on temporary contracts. In other words, an aspiring scientist without a permanent job and whose career is very much at the mercy of a turbulent environment.

2. Why did NZAS pick “Emerging Scientists” as the topic for their 2012 conference?

There is a growing recognition in New Zealand that science holds the key to our country’s future prosperity, yet the career pathways of the talented people that we need to contribute to that future are as vulnerable as ever. Many will either leave NZ or leave science. This is a huge concern to the scientific community that the NZAS represents. The strong response to issues like cutting postdoctoral fellowships and constant CRI restructuring highlights the depth of feeling. The large number of people registered (both emerging and emerged) confirms that we picked a pressing issue.

3. Why such a range of speakers? There many more than just pure and emerging scientists speaking at the conference – why have you chosen them?

We really wanted to provide a forum for a wide range of stake holders to exchange their views. Of course emerging scientists themselves are key, and we have invited speakers from different disciplines at different stages and heading in different directions to talk about their experiences. But ‘older’ scientists and many employers care deeply about this issue and are in a position to make a big difference, so we wanted to bring them in to the discussion. That is why we have invited speakers from university and CRI leadership, research mentors who have nurtured the careers of emerging scientists, speakers from MSI and the Royal Society to discuss how the funding landscape affects emerging scientists and the Ministry of Education to present data about what is actually happening to our PhD graduates. We have also invited speakers from industry to get a perspective from the major employers of science graduates. It is of course fantastic to have both the Minister and the leader of the opposition speaking at the conference. It shows that they take our concerns seriously and it is squarely on the agenda. All of the speakers we invited were passionate about the subject and jumped at the chance to be involved, so I’m really looking forward to hearing what they have to say!

4. What do you hope the conference will achieve? What sorts of questions are you hoping it will address?

First, we’re hoping to have a really good discussion. We’ve asked all of the speakers to leave plenty of time for questions, and we also have a panel discussion planned to conclude the conference, so there will be plenty of opportunity for vigorous dialogue! Second, it would be great to get some concrete points of action. There’s not likely to be a silver bullet, but understanding what shapes the career paths of our science graduates is the first step to figuring out what can be done to keep emerging scientists in science and in New Zealand (and happy!). There will be many people in the audience who are in a position to change the science environment in various ways. We especially want them to come away thinking about what they can do to support emerging scientists. There will also be many emerging scientists in the audience who are uncertain about their future careers. We want them to know that their careers are incredibly important to the rest of the NZ science community, and to perhaps come away with a better understanding of how they can manage their own career development in this environment.

5. Does the conference span across all science? Or is it chemistry and physics focussed?

It spans across all of science (physical, biological, social, earth sciences…) and the program and range of people signed up reflects that. Most of the issues on the table are not really specific to a given discipline within science.

6. Are other NZ science organisations (i.e. ScienceNZ, Royal society, MacDiarmid Inst.) involved in the conference at all?

The conference is organized by the NZAS, which is an independent organization. As major stakeholders, there will be several people from these organizations speaking at the conference, and other groups including emerging scientist groups (MESA, Stratus).

7. What’s your vision for the future of NZ science? Do you have one? What are the issues with making this happen?
I think Sir Paul Callaghan put it well – A place where talent wants to live. I would love for all of my students to find great science jobs in NZ and contribute to science-driven prosperity. To do this, we need more good jobs, we need to better connect the skills of science graduates with the needs of employers, and we really need to stop driving away our most talented emerging scientists.

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