Alex is Clinical Director of Hepatitis Foundation NZ, where she monitors the health of thousands of people with hepatitis B, and a gasteroenterologist at Tauranga Hospital.
What do you do on an average work day?
As a Gastroenterologist at Tauranga Hospital, most days are a mixture of endoscopy procedures, patient reviews in clinic, paperwork and meetings. It is fairly busy with work often following me home in the evenings. Since becoming a consultant, though, I have managed to get out of the building for a proper coffee occasionally so I know I’ve moved up in the world from my registrar training days when proper lunch breaks were a rarity.
As well as my hospital job I also work for the Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand. In this role I’m working more like a public health physician as we monitor the health of about 25,000 people around New Zealand who have hepatitis B. I really enjoy this different role - the ability to make a difference at a more macro level in terms of policy, advocacy and education is both daunting and empowering.
It is World Hepatitis Day on the 28th of July and over the last few years there has been great progress in the management of both hepatitis B and C - yet there are so many people in our community who may be suffering from these conditions and not even know they have them. To be able to reach out to these people and make a difference for them is fantastic.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I loved the sciences from an early age and did all of them. Across high school I did geography, horticulture, biology, chemistry, maths (stats) and physics. I was the odd one out of my siblings and did do English in 7th form (equivalent to year 13 now) when it was not compulsory. It was notably my weakest subject though.
I mentioned wanting to do Medicine in 6th form, but my father wasn’t keen as it wasn’t a career conducive of family life. I was deciding between Food Technology at Massey or Physiotherapy in Dunedin, but the opportunity to leave home and experience a university city made the decision for me and so I headed south to do Physiotherapy.
After completing Physiotherapy and working here and in Australia, the idea of Medicine came back and the second time round I pursued it. I love my job, but Dad was right to a degree - medicine as a profession certainly isn’t 9-5.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes it is. I did physiotherapy as an undergraduate degree and then went on to do Medicine as a post-grad course in Australia.
Although science and physiotherapy are common as undergraduate degrees before medicine, I was impressed by my fellow students there who had done arts degrees first and managed - with a lot of hard graft - through the physiology and pathophysiology years of the medical degree.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
While I was always science-focused I was never keen on research. That all changed when I took time out from my advanced training to do a research year at the New Zealand Liver Transplant Unit.
Having a year of no shift work and a nice calm day job gave me the opportunity to do my Masters in Medical Science - and run 2 half marathons! Being able to do the postgrad papers and the designing, doing, and writing up of my project (palliative care in end stage liver disease) was a massive achievement and something I am truly proud of. It may not be a PhD, but it was huge for me. Through it all I somehow learned to write properly. I don’t think my high school English teacher would have recognised my essays!
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Think about what interests and intrigues you. Don’t be put off by research or academia. When I was at high school I failed a project because I never really got it started and never handed anything in. I’ve always carried that with me and felt that I would not be any good at research or project work. But once you’re in a field that you are passionate about - as clichéd as it sounds - you will have the drive and motivation to do the project.
Do reach out to friends and colleagues. And work smart - if something has been done before then don’t reinvent the wheel.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
Because they are all around us. Everything we do in our lives is affected by STEM.
The diverse and dramatic New Zealand landscape can be understood with geography; the amazing fresh food we eat can be studied in biology and horticulture; engineering and technology are fields so diverse many interests and hobbies are encompassed within them. Everything from motor racing, to robotics, to milking sheds and eco-friendly, sustainable high rise buildings. Science is life!
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Females may have a different style which can bring a new perspective, creativity and innovation to previously masculine roles. Our brains are as equally capable at STEM as men, so there is no reason why we shouldn’t be equally present in this field of work.
In medicine, there is research that shows female physicians have lower readmission and death rates than their male counterparts. We may simply be better than men in this field.
Alex is a Gastroenterologist at Tauranga Hospital and Clinical Director of the Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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