Carla is a scientist who leads a team of researchers investigating how to solve problems, such as tooth decay, using nanoscale (millionths of a millimetre) materials.
What do you do on an average work day?
Something different than the day before, as no two days are ever alike - and I love it that way! My job involves a variety of different activities such as teaching undergraduate students through giving lectures and supervising their laboratory courses, leading postgraduate students in a variety of research projects, applying for research grants to fund our work, publishing our research findings in scientific journals, and meeting with colleagues and collaborators to plan future scientific projects.
We recently formed a spin-out company, which operates out of my lab, so at least once a week I can now be found ‘playing’ in the lab trying to make new types of interesting materials for dental applications. Working in the lab with my research team is one of my favourite parts of my job.
So, depending on the time of year, or the day of the week, my day could involve preparing new lectures, marking exams or lab reports, reading scientific literature, meeting with my postgraduate students to discuss their results or challenges they are facing in the lab, attending meetings, analysing data, writing reports or manuscripts, or attending scientific conferences.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
I went to school in the United States where I studied math, science, English, Spanish, social studies and arts.
After high school, I went to Penn State University in the United States where I majored in chemistry. Although, during my 4-year degree, I had the chance to take a pretty wide variety of non-science classes as well, which included Italian, American sign language, the history of Mesopotamian Civilization and even downhill skiing!
Once I graduated from Penn State, I thought my university studies were over. I went to work as a Research Associate in the Blood Research Department of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), located in Silver Spring, MD, USA. The goal of the department was to try and develop better ways to transport blood and blood products onto the battlefield under extreme conditions. I worked with a small team within the department known as the Membrane Chemistry group, and we investigated changes in blood cell membranes upon freezing and thawing, with and without cryoprotectants [chemicals that prevent freezing] being added.
It was during this time that I realised how much I enjoyed scientific research and exploring how chemistry could be used to solve real world problems. So in order to pursue a career in chemistry that involved directing my own research someday, I decided to return to university studies after all.
I carried out my postgraduate studies at Dublin City University in Ireland, and got my PhD in 2009. Much of my work during this time involved preparing a range of different types of magnetic nanoparticles and evaluating their properties for potential use as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) contrast agents [to help show finer detail in the body scans used in hospitals].
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Very much so! Although the type of research that I do now, while still in the area of colloid chemistry and nanoscience, has moved in some very new and unexpected directions over the past few years.
I enjoy taking advantage of opportunities that challenge me to try something new, and I never quite know where that work or project may take me, or what it might lead to, which I find really exciting. This also allows me to learn something new every day, so that I am continually building on the knowledge I originally obtained from my studies.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
There is no single “right way” to proceed toward a particular career, and many different paths can lead to you to succeed in what you want to do. So follow your interests and passions, and consider being open to new opportunities that may become available along the way.
Talk to people who work in the career areas that interest you. Ask questions about what their job is really like on a daily basis, and what advice they might give to someone just starting out and why they would give that advice.
It’s OK to change your mind if you realise a particular job, opportunity or course of study is not for you; this is not failing, but an opportunity to try something new.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Being selected to receive the 2017 Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize has certainly been a major highlight!
Other highlights include starting a spin-out company in 2017 based on new technologies that we developed in our research lab, and jointly winning the 2016 Norman F. B. Barry Foundation Emerging Innovator Award at the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards.
It's also incredibily fulfilling watching students graduate after years of hard work, as is having a new discovery in the lab – that excited feeling never gets old!
Traveling to new countries to share my group’s work and to make connections with excellent scientists from all around the world is also a stand-out part of my job.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
There’s no doubt that STEM fields offer significant promise for the creation and discovery of achievable and sustainable solutions to a wide variety of problems facing New Zealanders and people around the world, such as increasing health care costs, climate change and the global energy crisis.
Working in STEM fields offers the potential to help improve the quality of life for everyone and have a positive economic impact. But regardless of career choice, engaging with STEM subjects at school or through self-education enables us to develop strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which are incredibly important life skills and will be helpful in any future career.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Diversity in every industry is so important. People with different backgrounds and experiences offer new ideas and different and creative ways of thinking that serves to enhance problem solving and decision making. When women are underrepresented in STEM, we all stand to lose out as a result of the absence of their valuable contribution.
Carla is a scientist in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Otago where she leads a research team specialising in nanoscale materials.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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