Dr Jodie Johnston is a Research Fellow at Auckland University.
What do you do on an average work day?
My toddler and I start the day early and catch the bus/train from where we live into work/daycare. That takes about an hour or so. After we have said our goodbyes for the morning I head to my work.
Sometimes I head for the laboratory where I might head into the “wet lab” and set up for the days experimental work – the sort of work I do involves large a range of molecular biology and biochemistry techniques that I use to study the way molecules called proteins look (their 3D structure) or behave. Proteins are quite interesting and important, we have them inside us and they are inside all living things actually. Many proteins affect human health and wellbeing. The ones my team and I study are mostly from bacteria including the bacteria that causes the disease tuberculosis.
If I am not heading into the “wet lab” I might head into our computer rooms where I will be analysing the 3D structures for the protein molecules we work on or head instead into the large shared office space where I will deal with work emails, planning experiments for myself or my students or be writing up some of our work for publications or talks. If I am not doing that I might be writing a grant application instead. Applying for funding for new research ideas to pay for research costs, student stipends or for myself or other researcher’s time. My current job does not involve a lot of lecturing but sometimes I do teach and so I might also be preparing teaching materials or lectures. I also have meetings. These could be with my students or my technician to talk about their results and plan what to do next or troubleshoot when experiments are tricky. Alternatively they could be with people I collaborate with on projects. Science is team oriented – we need a lot of people with different skills to help answer the big questions we want to tackle. I feel very lucky to work with a number of wonderful scientists!
At the end of the day I head back to the daycare and get my smallest child and we head home. After bedtime for the kids I often pick up working again to finish off whatever is most pressing.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
Because my Mum moved around a lot I ended up going to 17 schools, including 3 high schools. Some of the subjects I studied at one school were not offered at others so I had to change a bit. I think this taught me a lot about being adaptable and also that my core interests could fit into a lot of areas. I think at school my most favourite subjects were Biology and History but I studied quite a range and I often found it hard to choose when we needed to as I liked them all. At University I went to do a major in Biology but discovered I had a huge interest in Chemistry too (and liked the way it was taught) so I ended up with a double major, followed by a Masters degree in Chemistry then heading across to Biology again for my PhD. If time ever permits there are HEAPS more things I’d love to learn more about too.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Believe in yourself first and foremost and follow your passions (even hobbies count!). Don’t let others opinions or expectations of you limit you. I came from a low income family who moved around a lot, I think you need to know you CAN do what you want to do – don’t talk yourself out of following those dreams and interests even if they seem a little different. As a mother though I understand wanting your children to be able to have a secure future (and I still don’t have a permanent job myself!). Sometimes what you are passionate about might not seem to be the most secure or well-paid career but I have been surprised sometimes those passions lead to unexpected (and wonderful) places. Be adaptable and open to opportunities everything you do gives you skills you can transfer to other aspects of life/work.
What are some of your career highlights so far?
The science is the biggest highlight. I love to be able study biology at the level of atoms and molecules - to understand the chemistry at work behind the biology. No matter how many times we study a new protein and find a new 3D structure or other result it is still feels like an amazing privilege. Our most recent work stands out here, we managed to capture several steps in a protein catalytic cycle normally too fast to be seen. We published the work this year in the journal Structure with our protein on the cover of the whole issue.
Other highlights would be being awarded a Foundation of Research Science and Technology, Top Achiever doctoral scholarship to do my PhD at the University of Auckland with Professor Ted Baker (a preeminent structural biologist) and more recently in 2016 being awarded a Marsden Grant.
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?
Science affects so much of our everyday lives and will play a big part in shaping our future. Science also teaches analytical and critical-thinking skills. Being science literate can help people to navigate our information-rich world and make informed decisions about things issues that affect them and ones that will affect their children and their children’s children.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
Science can be very competitive there are few permanent jobs in some areas (mine included) and it can involve long hours. We have a lot of women study science but a significant attrition at the more senior levels. Yet it is at those levels where a lot of big decisions are made and I think it is important we have a good diversity of genders, backgrounds life experiences and cultures represented. One of the things I have really appreciated working in teams is the value and perspective brought to it by each member – different ways of thinking are often needed to successfully tackle the problem at hand. Another comment I hear is often the attrition of women coincides with motherhood. In any career having children can be a juggle and it does get tricky but I also feel having children can be a huge time of growth and can influence a scientific career for the positive, changing and broadening your perspective and giving you skills useful in a professional capacity. Also there is nothing more motivating that knowing what you are doing might impact the lives of your children.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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