Amanda is a freshwater scientist at NIWA looking at plastic pollution in rivers. She is passionate about making science accessible to everyone.
What do you do on an average work day? He aha tō mahi ia rā, ia rā?
I am working on a big project at the moment looking at plastic pollution in rivers. The project is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) Endeavour Fund and it is the first project I have ever been a project lead on.
I spend a good portion of my week outside collecting plastic and other rubbish from different sites along my study river. It still surprises me what ends up dumped in our rivers; tooth brushes, televisions, clothes, plastic bottles to no end!
I collect all this rubbish and bring it back to the lab where I identify it to try to get an idea of where it came from, weigh it, and enter all that information into a database. I am also interested in the really tiny plastics we don’t see (microplastics) and how they might be getting into our freshwater environments.
I also spend a lot of time in the community; attending meetings, running workshops, and talking to volunteers involved in restoration activities about what environmental issues are important to them. I love when I get the chance to get into the water with members of the public and show them some of the tools they can use to help understand how healthy their local stream or river is.
What did you study at school? And after high school? I ako koe i te aha i te kura? I aha koe whai muri i te kura tuarua?
In high school, I dreamed of working in a zoo and being involved in the conservation of animals. In my final year I took a course with an engaging teacher who taught me about critical thinking and the importance of curiosity in science. I went to university to study ecology with no plan on what I would end up doing, just that I wanted to learn more about the world.
In my last year of university, I took an independent project on lake water quality. I fell in love with all the bugs that could be found swimming under the water’s surface. I decided that, no matter what career path I took, I wanted to spend as much time near water and exploring this fascinating world.
Was your study directly related to what you do now? He ōrite tāu mahi i taua wā ki tāu mahi o ināianei?
Yes and no. I studied freshwater ecology for both my MSc and PhD degree, but I was much more interested in aquatic invertebrates (tiny animals that don’t have a backbone and live in the water).
I never expected to end up working more with people rather than animals. Science communication and outreach is a big part of what I do yet is something I was never trained in. But I am learning how to be a better communicator every day and recognising how important it is to be a good listener first.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now? He aha āu kupu hei āwhina i ngā rangatahi wahine e whakaaro ana ki tā rātou mahi mō te wā kei mua i te aroaro?
For me, reading a lot exposed me to career choices I didn’t even know were possible. As a child, I didn’t know any scientists and so I decided I wanted to work in a zoo because of a TV show I used to watch. Now it is much easier to find information on different career paths; books, podcasts, speakers, documentaries. By listening to these stories you can open your mind up to options you may not have considered.
I also highly recommend volunteering. Volunteering is a great way to get exposure to new opportunities and responsibilities and try out your passions and give back to the community.
But most importantly, don’t be too stressed that you will choose the “wrong path”. Even if you change careers later on in life, many skills are transferable. Be kind, to yourself and others.
Photo credit: Dave Allen, NIWA.
What are some of your career highlights so far? He aha ngā painga o te umanga e whāia ana e koe?
My first highlight was going back to university at 30 to start a PhD which included me moving across the globe from Canada to New Zealand. It was a huge change in my life, leaving behind friends and family to live in a country I have never been to before. But I wanted to take that risk so I could pursue the type of career I wanted which was to design and lead my own research.
My second highlight was receiving my first big grant to understand how the plastic we discard on the land makes it way to the ocean and look at ways in which we can prevent this plastic from polluting our planet. I get to work with and learn from a team of researchers from across the country. My team is made up of strong, supportive women who are helping mentor me through managing my first research project as project lead.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand? He aha a STEM (pūtaiao, hangarau, pūkaha, pāngarau) e whai take ana ki Aotearoa?
I strongly believe that everybody should have access to scientific information and the ability to learn about the world we share. This ensures that more people can participate in society and be informed about decisions that impact their lives and the lives of future generations.
The decision about what types of scientific research that gets carried out shouldn’t be made by only a few people but the community as a whole should be given a voice too.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM? He aha te take me whai wāhi ngā wāhine ki STEM?
Many aspects of scientific and technological research, from medical research to engineering to the design of cities, have traditionally focussed on men. We now realise that excluding half the population from research questions has had serious consequences for health outcomes and for our collective safety and well-being.
We have come to understand that a greater diversity in STEM is important because fresh perspectives are where innovation comes from. Innovative technologies allow us to do things we’ve never done before, and we need to include more voices to shape the direction of innovation.
Amanda is a freshwater scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA). She is passionate about making science accessible to everyone. Follow Amanda on Twitter
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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