Jane Allison is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University's Auckland Campus and a researcher who uses computer simulations to explore the behaviour of molecules.
What do you do on an average work day?
Too much sitting! I am a computational researcher, so between that and all the email and admin, I spend a lot of time sitting at my computer. I’ll usually also spend 1-2 hours meeting with my PhD students, either one-on-one or in a group if we’re all working on something similar, going over results and figuring out what to do next (or attempting to solve problems).
I might be drafting a research paper or grant application, setting up or analysing some computer simulations, writing code, or staring at molecular structures or movies trying to figure out what the molecules are up to.
If I'm teaching, I could also be preparing lecture slides, giving the lecture, or preparing or marking tests or exams. I also spend time meeting with nationwide groups or collaborators, either in person or by video link.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
At school I did science, maths and English, but also Japanese, art and music. I liked science, but was thinking of becoming an architect. At university I wanted to do all the sciences, but they clashed, so I ended up focusing on biochemistry and molecular biology/genetics, with a bit of maths and psychology and a tiny bit of physics on the side.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
If you’re still studying, don’t stress too much about where things will lead you, do what you enjoy. And don’t try to plan out your career – the best things happen by chance, and you don’t know what the world will look like in a few years.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
Being awarded a Woolf Fisher scholarship that allowed me to study towards my PhD at Cambridge University – it was such an amazing and stimulating environment, not to mention a beautiful town, and I met so many people who continue to influence my life now.
Getting a faculty position at Massey University – permanent positions are rare, but it’s given me the chance to build an independent research career without stressing about what my next job or funding source will be.
Getting a Marsden FastStart (2013) and a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship (2015) – these awards have given me the funding to be able to hire PhD students to work with me, and so explore lots of different ideas. You can visit my research group website to follow the work we're doing. There’s so much I’d like to investigate, and not enough time! I also appreciate being able to take the students to conferences or to meet with collaborators. There’s nothing quite like talking or hearing about science face to face, and there aren’t many people working in our field in New Zealand.
Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
New Zealand’s economy is so reliant on primary industries and tourism – i.e. exploiting our (limited) natural resources, and in ways that increasingly conflict with one another. If we want to improve the quality (and sustainability) of life in New Zealand, we need to diversify our economy into high tech and IT industries, and this will require people with skills and knowledge in STEM. Being knowledgeable about science – not just the results, but how science works – is also incredibly important for understanding what is going on in the world, e.g. climate change, and being able to put forward possible solutions and evaluate them in an evidence-based manner.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
At the moment there is a real drop-off in the number of women who study STEM subjects at school and even at university through to those who remain working in related areas. It’s important to have a diverse workforce (i.e. not just women vs men) so that different perspectives and ways of thinking about and dealing with situations are present. There’s a lot of research showing that more diverse teams produce better outcomes. Hopefully, as more and more women (and other groups that are currently under-represented) work in STEM, more of those coming through will be encouraged to keep working in the area too.
Jane Allison is a Senior Lecturer at Massey University (Auckland) and a researcher who uses computer simulations to explore the behaviour of molecules. You can follow Jane on Twitter at @AllisonGroup and also @MasseyUni.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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