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Kate Beer

Kate is an ornithologist (bird scientist) who has worked with many endangered birds. She is also studying towards a Masters of Science in Society and working for Sustainability Trust.

Kate releasing an Amur falconWhat do you do on an average work day?

After several years working overseas as a field biologist, I have recently returned to New Zealand and settled in Wellington.

I’m currently studying in the Science in Society programme at Victoria University, and working at Sustainability Trust. Right now at work I’m busy organising one of the Sustainability Trust twice-yearly market days.

I’m also a residential ‘camp mother’ for Conservation Volunteers New Zealand. I have a lot going on at the moment, but I am enjoying being back in Aotearoa, reconnecting with old friends, and the environment here.

It’s true what they say, sometimes you need to step away from something in order to appreciate what you had all along.

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

I had very broad interests at school, and still do. I was in the International Baccalaureate program for year 12 and 13 so I studied biology, geography, psychology, English, maths and Spanish.

I then took a gap year which was a great life experience and helped clarify my direction. I initially thought I would study for a Physical Education degree but during that year I decided I would focus on science instead.

I went to the University of Otago where I completed a BSc in Zoology (with supporting papers in ecology, English, ecotourism, psychology and biostatistics) followed by a postgraduate diploma in Wildlife Management. I also have a postgraduate certificate in Antarctic Studies from Canterbury University.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?

My training in zoology and wildlife management definitely helped me land all of the field biology jobs I have worked in recent years. I’m also finding that my science background and work experience is very useful in my current graduate studies, too.

In terms of my work at Sustainability Trust, the daily skills I use are quite different, but I think the bigger-picture understanding of environmental change, and the principles of sustainability, are something that I have a deeper appreciation for because of my background in ecological science.

So the link is maybe not as direct but it is absolutely still there.

Kate watching eagles in Arizona

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

My first piece of advice is to slow down and not be overwhelmed by the possibilities. Young women today have so many options available to them – options that their mothers and grandmothers could only have dreamed about. And just because you choose one thing now, that doesn’t mean that’s it, forever! Our working lives are much longer than they used to be – you will likely have many job titles in your future.

Second, don’t rush into university just because your family or friends expect it of you. It’s a big financial commitment to make if you’re not feeling reasonably certain about which subjects you want to study. Consider taking a year out to try different things and really think about what you might like to do.

Third, having a natural interest and some aptitude for the subject is pretty important at the tertiary level. Don’t get pushed into choosing a subject simply because it’s trendy or someone tells you “that’s where the jobs are”. It’s more important that you develop your interpersonal skills, leadership, creativity, and critical thinking – because these are the things that will be transferable in a rapidly evolving workplace. You may develop these skills through studying STEM, but it’s not the only way. Choose a subject or pathway that inspires you!

Kate holding an African Crowned EagleWhat are some of your career highlights so far?

I’ve been lucky to work in some absolutely stunning locations both in New Zealand and overseas, on some fascinating and challenging projects. That in itself has been a highlight because I love to travel and explore new places.

One project I am especially proud of was working for Colorado State University on the tropical island of Saipan in the western Pacific. We were radio-tracking birds there to gain insights into their foraging behaviour and daily movements. There's hope that in the future some of these species could be reintroduced to nearby Guam, where they became extinct after the accidental introduction of predatory brown tree snakes.

It was an honour to be involved with such interesting work that may one day inform high-level conservation management decisions. And at a personal level, I was being paid to run around the forest, catching and tracking birds on a beautiful tropical island. It was a childhood dream come true!

Similarly, working on the ‘alalā (Hawaiian crow) reintroduction in Hawai‘i was just as amazing. These incredible birds were extinct in the wild for 15 years and I was part of the team that paved the way for them to be released back into their forest home. Working with raptors in South Africa and penguins in the sub-Antarctic were significant highlights too.

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

These subjects provide a very useful lens with which to view the world.

Even though my present-day work has taken me out of the field for now, my scientific training still informs how I see the world. It gives you the critical thinking skills to better understand some of the big issues facing society today – like population growth, climate change, food security, biodiversity loss, and our increasing reliance on technology.

In the New Zealand context, we are already facing huge challenges around resource management, biosecurity, and species extinctions. STEM can provide some of the answers we need to tackle these issues. I say ‘some’, because I think scientists can be guilty of having an elitist attitude that belittles other ways of knowing – Indigenous knowledge, for example. That’s not intended as a generalisation of all scientists, but it is an attitude that is out there.

I hope that the STEM of the future is more equitable, accessible, and socially-driven. We need to be thinking about solutions-focused, socially-aware STEM that will actually include participation from non-scientists too.

Kate with her mum in Hawai‘i

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

A few years ago my mum commented that she wished she had been able to pursue the type of work that I have. She said no-one encouraged her to think about a career in science. It really made me think.

My mum grew up in a conservative part of the United States where expectations and gender roles for women were very traditional. In the late 1960s, she was one of the first young women to take part in Outward Bound (before then, only men could go) and that was seen as terribly un-ladylike. When I think about how she has since raised a daughter who has worked as a field biologist, gone camping, driven 4x4s, climbed trees and studied birds in remote forests for weeks on end, I think it's pretty amazing really!

So we’ve made progress in the past few decades, but we still have a long way to go. I can’t speak for the entire breadth of STEM subjects, but in my experience, conservation and wildlife biology are still male-dominated fields, especially at the management levels. The “old boys club” is really a thing. There have been times where I felt like it was hard to have my opinion heard and respected because I was younger and female – even in situations where I was well-qualified to speak up.

In short, visibility and diversity do matter. The more women we have working in STEM, the safer the space becomes; not only for women but for other marginalised groups too. It can be an uncomfortable conversation to have, but it’s important that we do.

I am blessed with three sassy, smart little nieces and I hope for their sake (and my nephew too), that more women, and more colour, gender, ability and sexuality-diverse people are welcomed into STEM, and that their contributions are respected and valued. Diverse voices in STEM can only make STEM stronger.

Kate with her nieces

Kate is a part-time graduate student in the new Masters of Science in Society programme at Victoria University, and also works for Sustainability Trust, a social enterprise creating warmer, drier and healthier homes across the Wellington region. She has spent almost ten years as an itinerant ornithologist, studying and working with endangered bird species across New Zealand and the world. You can see photos from these adventures on Instagram.

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

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