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Gabby O’Connor

Gabby is an artist, educator, science communicator, Antarctic researcher and PhD candidate. She is interested in how water in all its forms moves and changes across the land and ocean.

Gabby in front of her latest exhibition

What do you do on an average work day?

I sit at a desk for much of my day responding to emails, reading, writing proposals, communicating with collaborators, and designing and preparing art times science times education projects. In other words, not much art making! 

I say "art times science" because there are a lot of definitions that suggest that SciArt is not fine art, as that term is more often used to describe beautiful science imagery, scientific illustrations and so on. My work occupies a weird space between contemporary art and science, and I feel like the equation of saying "times" multiplies the value of both practices in combination, rather than just being an addition!

I also run workshops in schools where sometimes I am teaching a drawing or sculpture workshop, or could be running an art times science workshop, or preparing materials depending on the day.

Over the past few weeks, I have prepared an exhibition on my dining table in the evenings, written and presented two conference presentations, and installed a solo art times science project at Otago Museum.

What did you study at school? And after high school?

At high school I studied maths - I love maths! - along with chemistry, art, design, history and English. My careers advisor recommended chemistry as I had an interest in photography and to widen my options for study, chemistry was a prerequisite for a scientific photography course at RMIT in Melbourne.

Instead, I ended up going to RMIT TAFE (polytech) and studying a broad art and design course. In Melbourne where I am from (I moved to New Zealand in 2001) you specialise in an artistic discipline from the first year and I didn’t think that I had enough experience in other disciplines to make a good decision, so I studied painting, printmaking, sculpture, design and art theory and technique.

Eventually I made the decision to focus and apply to study sculpture at the Victorian College of the Arts – Melbourne University. I then did a research Master’s at the College of Fine Arts UNSW in Sydney and in between I studied textile design at RMIT.

I have always been interested in science though – I was reading New Scientist as an art student instead of the art magazines! Also, my grandfather and dad were medical photographers and we had a darkroom at home and lots of random old science books on the bookshelf.

I have just begun a trans disciplinary PhD between art, science, and education / engagement / community at Auckland University supported by the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge and I am based at NIWA Wellington.

For this I will be working on a community art and science project with up to 1500 school children from 15 schools in the Nelson-Tasman area. I will be partnering with scientists from the Sustainable Seas Challenge and delivering high quality art times science workshops that result in a public artwork in Nelson next year.

Gabby in front of her outdoor exhibition

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

Absolutely – it is all connected and now it all leads back to my final year high school studies and considering scientific photography as a career path.

In 2015 and 2016 I worked in Antarctica as an artist embedded in an oceanographic research team tasked with documenting research in action. I also collected data about sea-ice platelets using photography, drawing, video and painting - effectively scientific photography - and have contributed data to a few research papers.

I have worked as a university lecturer and tutor in art, design and research processes as well as a workshop facilitator of art for primary and intermediate students.

I'm now in a sweet spot where all of my interests have intersected and become integral to my practice – art, science and education.

Outdoor exhibition at night

What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?

Resilience, flexibility and persistent passion are important in whatever career you pursue. I would highlight passion as you need to have this in order to sustain research or work in a single area as there is often a lot of repetition. I also think resilience and flexibility are key qualities, as who knows what the future employment landscape will be, and you'll need to collaborate and adapt to change

Seek out or make contact with researchers who reflect your areas of interest and mirror you. It is difficult to know all of the possible fields of research or jobs out there when you are still at high school. Sometimes what you start studying won’t be the endpoint, but will be a stepping stone. And if there is no one out there like you, pave the way!
What are some of your career highlights so far?

I think the last six years in particular illustrate my formal cross-over into art times science or art as a form of science communication.  

In 2011, I had a major solo exhibition at the City Gallery Wellington, called What Lies Beneath. This work was a 12m x 4m x 1.5m underside of an iceberg made from dyed and lacquered tissue paper and a geometric shape system. The research around this project centred on icebergs calving in Antarctica, with me trying to understand the life cycle of ice in Antarctica.

What Lies Beneath

It was toward the end of this project that I met Dr Craig Stevens who is an oceanographer working in Antarctica. He acted as a translator for the science that I was trying to understand and, as a result, he participated in my artist talk - adding scientific insight and real life Antarctic narrative to the public program. This was recorded and broadcast by RNZ's Our Changing World programme.

Since then Craig and I have developed our art times science collaboration on a number of projects and in a number of ways. We have probably worked with over 2000 kids on Antarctic related projects and have seen the power first hand of how you can activate young learners within the workshop and resulting exhibition and beyond the classroom experience.

In 2015, Craig invited me to participate in the science that we were talking about - in Antarctica. The results, which we had no idea of at the time, meant that my methods of questioning and making sense of the world, had some impact on the way he was thinking about the same problem. I also collected data, and worked on 5 subsequent art and education projects. And in 2016 I was invited to return to Antarctica with Dr Natalie Robinson to continue the research and collect even more data!

Why do you believe engaging in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is important to New Zealand?

Our world is a complex place and we are dealing with new and complex issues – in particular with Climate Change. In order to make better decisions, we need to be able to use analysis and scientific reasoning to make sense of the complexity of the issue.

My argument is that more primary school aged children need to be introduced to high quality science, scientific concepts and scientists early. Waiting until high school and standardised education is too late and also alienates many students from science.

The seed needs to be planted early in order to have the most benefit to the student and society. It is easier, and more cost effective to communicate science to school aged children now so that we have better decision makers in the future. Our future may depend on it.

Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?

We need all industries at all levels to reflect society and implement diversity policies. Everyone benefits from this shift and then we can ditch the "old white guy" model!

Otago Museum exhibition

Gabby O’Connor is an artist, educator, science communicator, Antarctic researcher and PhD candidate - and sometimes she does all of these things at the same time. View more of her art installations. Read her Antarctic Diaries. Portrait photo of Gabby: Mark Tantrum.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.

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