How to build a superhero in 5 easy steps

I was honoured to give my second TEDx talk at TEDx Wanaka this year and decided to combine the principles of nanotechnology, engineering and lessons from life.

My 5 steps are:

  • Step 1 – Believe in your Dreams (and surround yourself with others who believe in you too)
  • Step 2 – If you believe in something, stick with it!
  • Step 3 – Protect yourself from danger while still be open to risk
  • Step 4- Being invisible can create a space to think, reflect and confirm your direction.
  • Step 5 – Make knowledge your most powerful weapon.

The slides for the talk can be found here and the video below:

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Science, sexism and the media.

So lets start at the beginning, I’m an engineer and a scientist and I’m passionate about communicating science and trying to get others to be passionate about it too.

I think that understanding science is really important, no matter who you are or what your education level is.  Each one of us needs to make scientific decisions every day:

  • Should you vaccinate your children?
  • Should you go to your doctor about that lump you’ve found and if so what should you ask?
  • Should you use paper or plastic bags to take home your shopping?
  • Should you be worried about climate change?
  • Does what you eat affect your health?

Scientists can be scary and sometimes intimidating, with their endless qualifications and constant use of long words.  I have been working tirelessly on learning the skill of talking about science without all of those scary words so that the conversation can be had by all, not just the elite few.

I’ve been trying to change the perception of scientists by working really hard on a voluntary basis, all in my spare time to take this challenge on.

Why?

  • Because I feel passionately about providing our daughters with a positive role model for an educated female who is successful in a very male dominated field.
  • Because I think that we as a Nation need to address some big questions about the future of our country including how we are tackling pollution, investment in education and the fight against obesity.
  • Because our TV shows are filled with reality TV of cooking races and house building races and following people around who seem to be famous for no other reason that just being rich.

I do this in several ways:

  • I blog – you know this because you are reading it right now.
  • I visit schools and community centers to show children that there are many different aspect to science and some of it is quite fun.
  • I give public lectures, some of which are available online.
  • I go onto TV shows (Firstline and The Paul Henry Show) to talk about science news topics.
  • I am regularly on the radio talking about science both in my field and in other science news.
  • I create my own video’s which try to showcase my sense of humour and personality as well as talking about science.


I do all of the above for free!  Actually it costs me money to do this, my own hard earned money.  I choose to donate 20% of my salary to this cause, so that children have fun experiments to run, so that I can drive to a remote school that doesn’t have a well equipped lab and so that the public can access a scientist to answer the questions that they have.  I have people around me who volunteer and do this for free too, media production companies, owners of venues, parents of children. I am not paid to be on TV or on the radio and that may come as a surprise to you but this is me devoting my life to a cause that I feel strongly about.

Because we do not have dedicated science TV shows on our national channels, it’s quite difficult to get any airtime for the subject.  TV3 has actually been great at offering a weekly 5 minute science slot at 8:15am on Firstline, Wednesday mornings purely for science and The Paul Henry show, although doesn’t commit a regular slot, has been open to having scientists on to chat for 5 minutes about science.

So I’m grateful to the Paul Henry show for allowing me to have some airtime to discuss new discoveries in science.  I also like Paul’s off screen persona and he has been nothing but courteous and respectful to me during the handful of times that I have met him.

Yes, I’m not naive to the reputation that Paul has and I go on to his show prepared for a question that may be slightly off topic or controversial, but I’m an intelligent female who works in a very male dominated field, and I’m used to inappropriate and sexist comments and questions, it goes with the territory of being a female engineer!  Perhaps my past experience of being the only woman in a meeting (and asked to make the tea), or being told that if I want to be taken seriously I need to wear shoes with less of a heel as they could distract the men in the room has made me a little immune to sexism and a little more tolerant of comments that I should be offended by.

The picture I tweeted from my Twitter account

The picture I tweeted from my Twitter account

So two weeks ago, I happened to be on Necker Island with Richard Branson and a group of other incredible people talking about science, innovation, entrepreneurship, and business successes.  You may know this because a prominent New Zealand newspaper ran the story, without my permission by taking this photo from my twitter account.
I understand that anything I put out on twitter is public property, and although I was posting it to share my excitement with friends and colleagues, I didn’t think that a whole news story would be created without any input from me.

This caused a lot of media attention and upon my return to New Zealand I chose to give a Campbell live interview to set the record straight and talk about the scientific and technical conversations I had on the trip. Later that week I gave the keynote talk at the Entrepreneurs Challenge in Auckland and at the social part of the event after my talk, a lady came up to me and asked me if I had slept with Richard Branson while on the island.  I’ll admit I was a little taken back by the question, and slightly offended at the implication that I would be the type of woman who would sleep with a married man when I was a smart woman who was there for science.  I immediately said that I did not sleep with him and she shrugged and said “well you know its the question that everybody wants to know”.

I don’t know who “everybody” is, but as the week went on, more and more strangers (both men and women) in the street who recognised me from the media articles asked me the same question.  It made me think about sexism in science and the conversations that I’ve had with many female colleagues about how difficult it can be to gain respect as a female scientist and how we seem to have to jump through many different hoops including how our appearance and personality affects our profile much more it would a male scientists.

When the Paul Henry show asked me if I would come on to talk about science topics last Wednesday, and more importantly for me, about my new 100 days project which I’ve created to address the issues with have with encouraging our children to engage with science I said yes.

Let me tell you that going on live TV is incredibly nerve wracking (I’m not a professional, I’m a scientist), and while I was in the make-up room before going live, I was frantically trying to memorise the facts and figures that I would need to remember about the science topics I was about to discuss.  Paul popped his head in to say hi, and we quickly chatted about the 3 science topics that we would discuss, as he left I said “phew, and here was I thinking that you would be asking me questions about Richard”.

Paul turned and gave me that cheeky look that he has, and I knew that he was up to mischief.  I don’t remember the exact words that were exchanged (because my brain was panicking about remembering the science statistics for the show), nor did I know that the show had planned to show the photo of Richard and I from my twitter account, but Paul implied that he was going to get cheeky with a Richard question and I knew the exact question that had been on everybody’s lips as I’d been asked it so many times already that week.  The producers of the show had no idea Paul was going to go into cheeky mode, I think one of the reasons why he has a late night show is because Paul can be a little unpredictable and very unPC sometimes.

The show went live and I got to discuss the science topics, and then as the slot was wrapping up, Paul asked me in his typical cheeky manner, if I had done the deed with Richard, to which I replied (as I had done many times before) that I hadn’t.  I thought it was funny, I wasn’t outraged and it was the jokey type of question I would expect from Paul on a late night show that had strippers on right after me.

The next day Mike Kilpatrick wrote an article about the incident which set off a media roll and allowed me to read comments from the public about how offended I should have been.

It got me thinking, perhaps I should have been more offended? Perhaps it was sexist? Perhaps I’m not a good role model? Perhaps I should stop making my life hard and just go back to being a boring, non-communicating scientist?

Then I see the e-mails and letters that I get from children who are inspired by what I do and want to do more science, by adults who went to the doctor to discuss a scary lump because I explained the symptoms of a serious disease in easy language on TV, by young girls who now want to be a scientist rather than a Kim Kardashian lookalike.

I realised, that only I can make the decisions on whose show I choose to go on and my reasons for doing that.  Until we can get funding for a prime time dedicated science program accessible to all, scientists like me will keep having to throw in our 5 minutes wherever we can because we feel its important to talk about science.  I know that my comments will mean that others will write negative things about me and my lack of self respect and lack of feminism values and that’s OK, because I’m doing the best that I can with zero budget and nothing but a passion for positive change to drive me.

So that’s my story, and if you are interested in the things that I do that I would like to make news, then yesterday I gave a speech about why I think the New Zealand government should invest more in sustainable R&D for our future economy and I’m also running 100 days of science where I’m encouraging children in New Zealand to have fun with science at home.

Day 4 of 100 days of science

Day 4 of 100 days of science, where I held a free science event for children in Auckland (look at all the girls)

 

So yes, I’ll likely go onto the Paul Henry show again, because it’s one of the few shows that includes science.  How about we use this momentum to address the issues we have with the content of the national TV shows that we fund in this country and push towards funding some more smart science ones?

 

 

The value of innovation and R&D for the sustainable future of New Zealand

Disclosure – I am not affiliated to any political party and do not officially endorse any political policy.  I am a New Zealand citizen who has a vote to cast in this upcoming election, my personal passions lie in education, innovation and sustainability.

Today the Green Party announced its economic priority for the election is to build a smarter greener more innovative economy with an additional $1 billion of government investment in research and development above current spend.

Photo courtesy of the Green Party

Photo courtesy of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand

As an academic, any announcements on investment in education, innovation, engineering and sustainability will catch my attention and this new document describing how innovation would be funded aligned with many of my opinions on how investment in the research field needs to be modified to produce a smarter economy.

I was asked by Dr Russel Norman if I would be willing to talk about my opinions on the value of innovation and R&D for the sustainable future of New Zealand.  The voice of an early career researcher is not heard very often by the public and many of us are concerned about where we fit into the new National Science Challenges, how the system will function with a lack of funding for postdoctoral researchers, and how little our government seems to understand our science and innovation system. The truth is, I have another 30 years of academic career ahead of me and I’m troubled by what I see in the current funding landscape and from what I’ve read in the National Statement of Science Investment, so I agreed to give the talk to share my visions of where I think New Zealand should concentrate its efforts to diversify its exports to include growing our patent and IP filing as well as nurturing our ICT sector.

My speech was recorded and can be viewed here (starting at minute 3:00)  and I’ve included my transcript below:

 

The value of innovation and R&D for the sustainable future of New Zealand

Do you remember when your phone wasn’t so smart?

When I say the word wireless do you think internet or radio?

How about the word text, would you look in a book or at your phone?

We are living in an age of fast paced technological revolution and its really exciting not only to be a person who uses this technology, but also as a nano-technologist and an engineer, because I get to be one of the people who helps to create and advance this technology.

In only a few years, my smart phone has become more powerful than yesterday’s supercomputers, last week in California I witnessed a car that was able to drive itself and today at home I have a printer which makes complicated three-dimensional parts.

Science fiction is actually becoming science fact and technologies we thought only existed in films and movies are now standard in the robotic controlled labs we have today.

The future of how New Zealand prospers in this field could dramatically improve if we develop high-tech initiatives by working collaboratively and doing what us Kiwi’s already do really well – innovate.

New Zealanders are known for their innovation skills, we are the nation that dares to dream and we often break the traditional rules to reach our destiny.

We get things done, and we get them done quickly, if we don’t know how to solve the problem, the chances are, we know somebody who does.

We all know the man or woman in our neighbourhood who has a garage full of tools and anytime you have a problem, they rush off to build you a home-made solution.

That’s the magic of New Zealand, we live in connected, networked communities and are good at fixing problems. That’s one of the most common things that I hear when I go overseas to work with other tech professionals, that they love how easy it is to just get things done in New Zealand.

Our speed, nimbleness and drive to solve problems is what makes us different from competing countries, and we don’t tend to have the big piles of bureaucratic paperwork and red tape that often slows down other nations.

And we work hard, you work hard and I work hard and the data shows that compared to most of the developed world New Zealanders actually work much harder and yet we earn a lot less.

So what if we changed this low value work trend and rather than work more hours we actually worked more productively?

What if we valued our time and created a way to work smarter, producing more GDP per hour worked?

Several other countries that also have strong agricultural export businesses and small populations have been able to do this by leading in high tech and medical device industries. They are able to manufacture and export this high value product through investing heavily in their internal Research & Development.

Sadly in New Zealand we only invest half of what most other developed countries do on R&D and it shows as OECD countries produce around four times as many patents as New Zealand.

That’s important as when it comes to making money from ideas, patents are like gold dust.

This makes us good at coming up with ideas, but not so great at taking those ideas from our heads and our office desks into a space where they can be sold and exported or used domestically to help improve our current technology.

To move forward and become a nation of successful commercial high tech exporters, I believe we need to significantly increase our investment to R&D from the current 1.3% of GDP which is way below the OECD average of 2.4%.

Our 1.3% investment is massively below Finland’s 3.1% who have shown this model works with their highly successful technology export economy and a comparable population of 5 million.

New Zealand’s economic growth has relied heavily on primary industries such as agriculture and forestry and I don’t deny that these have been the backbone for our economy, but the positive financial growth has resulted in a negative environmental impact both from CO2 emissions and runoff into our waterways and we need to be careful about putting all of our financial eggs in just one basket.

The question we need to be asking ourselves is not how do we farm more? It’s how do we apply home grown innovation and technology to farm smarter, to convert our agricultural waste products into valuable commodities and to create whole new industries in the IT and high tech sector that are not so land intensive.

If you look at some of New Zealand’s most successful new businesses they are totally independent of agriculture and farming. Orion Health, Fisher and Paykel Healthcare, Vend, and until very recently Lanzatech – the list goes on for great stories of New Zealand innovation.

Xero is a fantastic example of how we can grow an innovative, sustainable business in the ICT sector.

Their current value of $5 billion from only a handful of offices means they have a very small physical and carbon footprint compared to many of our primary industry export businesses. If we could build another 10 Xero’s over the next 5 years we could reduce our dependence on our land and grow our economy through more sustainable means.

So how do we do this? You can’t just create innovation, what you need to create is an educated community of passionate people who have the skills to build, design and create new ideas from concept to commercialisation.

New Zealand has a shortage of graduates in the STEM fields and the only way to improve that is to provide more funding into the education system. We need to encourage young people to study science at school so they can further their education at the tertiary level.

I’ve been an academic for 5 years teaching Engineering and in that time, no matter how hard I’ve worked, I’ve witnessed our countries universities International rankings drop each year.

And that doesn’t surprise me, as my class sizes keep going up and the research funding pool keeps getting harder to obtain, especially for funding crucial positions like postdoctoral researchers.

That really frustrates me, because I’m working as hard as I can, but in the last 5 years, I’ve seen my first year engineering class size increase by almost 40%. The ratio of students to staff now means that a student I once knew by name has now just become a number.

New Zealand’s universities operate with the lowest income and expenditure per student of any of the top universities in the world and to be fair we do amazingly well on the International scale when you look at our research, however imagine how much better we could do with targeted investment in R&D.

One thing I strongly believe in, having come from industry, is that it’s not just about teaching derivations to equations to pass an exam, but it’s about connecting industry to academia so our students are exposed to real life experiences as part of their education and become fluent in the processes of problem solving, communicating and industry practices.

Every week I have an excitable student, or a home garage inventor approach me with a great idea they’ve come up with. Many of which will help to address an issue of social need, such as purifying dirty water or measuring bacteria content on surfaces. But an idea is just an idea without the specialised knowledge and funding to protect the IP of that idea and to take that idea through to commercialisation.

In my time living overseas I’ve been exposed to several entrepreneurial and start up training enterprises which taught the processes required to take your idea from its concept to a final product – by teaching this as part of our science and engineering disciplines we can create a generation of innovative thinkers who have the knowledge to see when a new idea could solve a problem and then have the skills to create a business out of it.

We invest 3-4 years of teaching and research knowledge educating our undergraduate students so they can get degrees and I watch as a quarter of them leave to find jobs overseas.

If we are going to create a country full of talented, innovative people, we need to make New Zealand a place where talent wants to come to, wants to live in and wants to stay.

Our country is stunningly beautiful, it’s still clean and pure, and it’s a place I feel passionately about, a place I call home. It’s not just a country, it’s a community of like minded people who work together to build a place that we are proud to live in and we all want to see it grow.

I really believe that New Zealand can grow into a sustainable home for all of us and I believe it can happen with the help of strategic investment in smart research to turn our innovative kiwi ideas into international successes.