Cate is exploring how drought affects our native kauri forests, as part of her work at the University of Auckland. She also likes to bake brownies, swim in the ocean and spend time with her family.
What do you do on an average work day?
As a academic, my job includes research, teaching, service and administration. I am lucky to have a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship so I spend lots of time doing research.
I am interested in the influence of environmental conditions on processes of plant water use and carbon uptake. As the climate changes, this changes the water and carbon cycling in terrestrial ecosystems. I am currently focusing on exploring drought impacts on kauri forest ecosystem processes together with my group of PhD and MSc students.
This week we are on a field trip at the University of Auckland’s Huapai Scientific Reserve. We have a drought simulation in the forest and we will be climbing the trees to measure leaf gas exchange throughout the day. This tells us about how fast the trees are taking up carbon and losing water. It’s a team effort including students, volunteers and professional climbers. It’s hard work but lots of fun.
Last week I was helping one of my students complete her thesis, reviewing some papers and preparing for teaching. Next week I hope to have some time at my computer to get some writing done. Like many scientists, I don’t really have an average day. There is always a new challenge around the corner and the variety keeps my job interesting.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
In my final year of high school I studied Biology, Chemistry, Maths, English and Modern History.
Growing up, I enjoyed spending time in wilderness areas and I really enjoyed Biology so I went on to do a Bachelor of Environmental Biology at the University of Technology Sydney. I did well at uni so I went on to do Honours and a PhD in Botany, also in Sydney.
I also studied Indonesian and French in earlier years of high school and now I wish I had continued with those because languages, humanities and social sciences give our science context. We now have a pretty good understanding of the science of climate change but changing the human activities that cause climate change requires real social change.
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
Yes, I’m lucky in that I was pretty sure I knew what I wanted to do. That said, I did work on seagrasses for my PhD and now I work on trees - but they’re all plants!
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Science can be very rewarding but also very challenging. I encourage young women to seek out role models and mentors. Role models can be people we don’t know well but they are often highly visible and they are often very inspiring. Mentors are people we know personally who offer advice and encouragement.
Everyone needs at least one mentor to help with career progression, navigating the workplace and developing a healthy work-life balance. If you don’t have a mentor, don’t be afraid to approach someone you admire and ask for advice. Many senior scientists would be happy to help and if they are too busy, they may be able to suggest a colleague.
Peer-to-peer mentoring can also be a huge support and I would encourage young women consider non-female scientists as potential mentors too. Twitter is a great place to find a virtual support group of diverse people from around the world. I’ve learnt so much from the Tweeps I follow.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I was thrilled to receive a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship in 2015. There are only ten of these awarded each year across all fields of research across the country, so they are pretty prestigious.
More importantly, getting the fellowship meant I could settle on academia as a career. After spending 13 years in fixed-term [not permanent] positions, getting ongoing employment at the University of Auckland has made a huge difference for my mental health and it has improved stability for our family.
Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?
The ecology of Aotearoa is globally unique. We have a high proportion of endemic species that occur nowhere else in the world. We also have very challenging environmental problems like invasive species, degraded freshwaters and a changing climate.
We need good science to address these issues but we also need to look outside science to overcome our most difficult challenges. It’s important that we have the best and brightest minds working on these issues but it’s also essential that scientists engage with other researchers, Māori communities and the wider population.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
All types of diversity are essential for a healthy science system and healthy communities. Different types of diversity bring different ways of thinking, so diversity is important for overcoming our most challenging problems.
Diverse teams are more effective and more productive, but the current merit-based system is biased towards certain types of achievement. We need to find ways to value different types of contributions to improve diversity in STEM.
Cate is Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland and President of the New Zealand Ecological Society. She is currently researching drought impacts on kauri forest ecosystem processes together with her group of PhD and MSc students. When she is not hanging out with plants, Cate likes to bake brownies, swim in the ocean and spend time with her family. Cate tweets as @LoraxCate.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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